Credit: Medium/Omar Victor Diop

Credit: Medium/Omar Victor Diop

It´s been no big secret that there have long been underlying tensions within the African-American and African immigrant community, even these labels can be a topic of dispute as to which is appropriate for whom. Yet whether we had been blind to the subtle rifts or chose to look past them, many deepseeded sentiments of dissent were brought to the forefront recently in a viral article that attempted to call out Black Americans for äppropriating¨African culture.

Much of the article has already been debunked not only for failing to present a critical and comprehensive argument outside of ¨being petty¨ but also because we later learned that the whole premise for the piece seemed to be sparked by a photo from this year´s Afro-Punk festival of actual African artists (whom writer Zipporah Gene assumed were Black Americans) dressed in traditional garbs and fabrics.

Yet still many took offense that the Gene would generally consider Black Americans seeking to connect to or celebrate their African roots as ‘appropriating’, and felt the tone of the piece was improperly distancing and distinguishing the identities in a way that shuns Black Americans as inauthentic. Others spoke out in agreement, expressing that many of us wear the garbs without a clue as to what they signify. By definition, the charge of appropriation is way off, as Black Americans wearing African garb is in no way disenfranchising, erasing, or ´coloumbusing´ the cultures or people of the continent. Jamal from around the way wearing a dashiki and greeting folks with ¨Habari Gani¨ to show pride in his roots is hardly the same as Iggy Azalea penning mediocre rhymes and rocking braids only to be praised and credited as trailblazing. And of course, as it’s been pointed out repeatedly, though we have been distanced against consent, Black Americans still hold cultural ties to our Motherland.

With that said, though I strongly disagreed and took issue with the article, overall I see the backlash and controversy it’s created as a teachable moment for us all.

Growing up, I was blessed to have somewhat of a glimpse into both worlds. My older sister and I have different fathers. Her father immigrated from Ghana during his college years, while our mother and my father are both Black Americans. Like most of us who trace our family-tree through the complex results of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, I could only say that my grandparents were from the South while my sister could discuss the land, language, and customs of her father´s family. Luckily the majority of our families embraced one another in a way that I could feel a respectful connection to Ghana as well through her paternal ties.

Although unique in some ways due to our Islamic rearing, our upbringing was steeped in many of the cultural traditions that link Black Americans. We socialized at cookouts, electric slided at birthday parties, and brought bean pie to school for lunch. When my sister she spent time with her other side she would share much of her experiences with me. I learned how greet people in Twi, the meaning the Kente cloth she was gifted as a child, and when I questioned her about why there were so many Amma´s, Kwebana´s, Kweku´s among her cousins she explained to me how each person was given a day name. When she had the opportunity to visit Ghana as a child, I was thrilled to share the photos she brought back. I challenged everyone who ever joked about ¨African booty scratchers” or my peers who had been programmed with the impression that Africa was some desolate place full of jungles, to look at the beautiful sites and images she brought back of Accra. On the flip side, I also saw my sister experience discrimination in her father´s homeland during her study abroad experience in college, being called Öbrani (an offensive term for outsiders) or White because of her light brown skin, which taught us both that there is ignorance and disregard on both sides.

As a child of the diaspora born in America, with no direct connection to my African ancestry I don´t have the privilege to identify with a particular nation or culture from there. So though I recognize and am very proud to be a descendent, but I also recognize that my socializing and most direct familial ties have been in this country. This is part of the reason I´ve never wholly embraced the title African American nor have I been gung-ho about attaching myself to customs and traditions that I don’t fully grasp. I find that often as Black Americans when we think of African culture it’s Kente cloth and Egyptian ankhs, which is reductive to the vase diversity of the continent. Though it is far from appropriation, I do think there are those who attempt to to celebrate our roots in a way that can come across haughtily out-of-touch.

The truth is that many of us have a fictionalized and romanticized perception of Africa that leads us to be expected embraced with open arms. We delight in learning of the historical highlights of the continent and long to place ourselves in the picture while unfortunately overlooking the reality that during our sojourn in the States, Africa was subsequently going through centuries of colonization and social changes. And just as we aren’t taught the full scope of slavery or much about our ancestor´s prior to, many of the African nations involved in the slave trade do not incorporate sufficient education on the subject as well; leaving even more space for disconnect, misunderstanding, apathy, or ignorance.

In our attempts to find common ground, brotherhood/sisterhood and unity, we have to be informed and aware of realities that may challenge our long-held perceptions. When we attempt to connect with our African roots as Black Americans, I believe we should also be open to being educated and corrected. At the same time, those of us who have immigrated or come from an immigrant family should look to educate in a way that is not demeaning to the fact Black Americans share a connection and lineage to Africa.

While the socially instilled ignorance of some of our people to the diversity and modern-day lifestyles throughout Africa can offend our brothers and sisters from abroad, the sense of longing for a connection to Africa only to be seen and treated as ¨other¨ causes hurt and resentment among Black Americans. Adding to this complexity are the images of Black Americans that stream around the world painting us in a negative light, and causing our African family to arrive with preconceived judgements, generalizations, and apprehensions.

It´s a tangled web of inaccurate perceptions and finger pointing. Yet I believe the beauty of our bonds comes by linking with like minds and build and educate from there. I´m sure all of us can recall negative experience from either side, but if we were to reduce every community to the ignorance we encounter with a few individuals, we would have to isolate ourselves from the world. While I fault the Zepporah Gene for what I consider a very poorly written piece, I´m happy it’s brought this much needed discourse to light. Overall, both groups carry a responsibilities to one another – to share with and enlighten each other in a way that is respectful to the uniqueness of our historical experiences.

Shahida Muhammad was raised in Philadelphia and is currently based abroad in Colombia. Her writing tends to lie within the spaces of Black culture, identity, and womanhood. For more, follow @ShahidaMuhammad on Twitter.

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  • Queen Ekuba

    Ghanaian here. To the writer: Obroni or Obruni has never been a derogatory term in Ghana. Rather, sadly, thanks to the effects of colonialism, it`s actually a term of endearment. It means white person & it is used for light skinned or mixed race Ghanaians too- they were traditionally treated better by the colonialists & put on a higher pedestal than dark skinned natives (historians have documented this). Overtime, Ghanaians internalized this racism and colorism to the point where obroni evolved from just meaning a white person or mixed person & it was used to refer to a beautiful, lovely woman as a term of endearment. There are so many songs in Ghana where a man calls a Ghanaian and black woman his obroni . It`s sad but all blacks around the world have learnt to covertly or overtly price whiteness. it`s why rappers talk endearingly about redbone women & wavy hair is said to be good hair. On that note, my sister`s African American friends from college who came to Ghana were broken hearted when people called them obroni because understandably, they came to the continent hoping to discover their origins and to find a home. What they didn`t realize is that their lighter skin & American accents marked them out to most people as somehow having a higher class & the obroni they were called wasn`t meant as an insult & that they actually end up receiving certain privileges because people associate them with whiteness. Again it`s sad but true just being real here.

    • AfroCapricornette

      Lol. You are so right on the “obruni” term. I knew the girls misinterpreted the meaning…not their fault. It’s similar to the Nigerian term “oyinbo” which means white/foreigner regardless of colour. Heck, because I’ve lived abroad so long, anytime I visit, I’m referred to as “oyinbo” as I live abroad and bitch about malaria and load-shedding aka light issues. You Ghanaians call it dumsor lol.

    • Queen Ekuba

      LOL so true my Sister, NEPA wahala isn’t a joke.And yes oyibo and obruni is the same thing & I have been called that several times as well despite my dark skin!

    • AAglobetrotter

      Obruni may not be intended as a derogatory term but I assure you Blacks from America who visit Ghana and understand the meaning see it as such. Being called white/ foreigner is not a compliment given the history of Blacks in the America’s.

    • Queen Ekuba

      It is misleading to interpret “obruni” as “an offensive term for a foreigner”. There is a native Akan word for foreigner & it’s not obruni. In Akan etimology, Obruni means white person- that’s it. And the unfortunate effects of colonialism is that obruni is a compliment in the Ghanaian setting. I have heard people describe a ladylike Ghanaian woman as obruni. When I’m called obruni cos I live in North America, I don’t view it as someone intentionally insulting me. I rather become sad cos I understand that the person isn’t conscious enough to know the full import of what they’re saying. I don’t expect foreign born Ghanaians or African Americans to view it as a compliment. I’m just saying that a Ghanaian who calls you obruni isn’t doing it with the same intention as an AA who calls me a booty scratcher.

      I have also heard from foreign born Ghanaians & AAs & Caribbeans who were hurt because when they came to Africa, they were viewed as foreigners. Africans have always identified according to ethnic group & you can only be a part of this group through your mom (in matrilineal areas) or dad (in patrilineal areas). I come from a matrilineal group & when I go to my dad’s hometown, I’m considered a foreigner and visitor.

      People from other ethnic groups are called “foreigner” in my ethnic group. The Akan name for some ethnic groups in Ghana translates as “foreigner” & most Ghanaians consider mixed race persons as white. This is not surprising when you consider the fact that the concept of Africa & all Africans being one, is also a product of colonialism. Pre colonial Africans didn’t identify as “African”.

      With this background, why assume that someone who calls you obruni is trying to insult/ offend you? I can totally understand an AA being hurt by being called obruni but what I’m saying is that in the Ghanaian society, it’s not the equivalent of a slur like booty scratcher otherwise why would men use it in songs to describe their lovers?

  • Queen Ekuba

    I also wanted to say that I don`t believe that a person of African descent living anywhere can appropriate the culture of another African group elsewhere. The way I understand appropriation, there is an element of power associated with it & thus, since due to colonialism & slavery, white people have come to have so much power & privilege, their borrowing from the culture of other races as they please (the same races whom they, as a collective, have traumatized in the past) amounts to appropriation. That doesn`t apply to black persons as we don`t have this history. African Americans wearing kente is not appropriation & Africans rapping or doing Caribbean dancehall isn`t appropriation either. What I think though is that we can `misuse` and abuse each other`s cultures when we don`t take the time to learn about it & use it respectfully. & This is not just between AAs & Africans either- Africans can do it to each other. As a Ghanaian Fante, if I take cloth worn by Nigerian Yoruba royalty & do not research its importance or how it`s used & use it as a carpet, I am misusing or abusing it & a Nigerian who sees it has ever right to be hurt by that. Moreover, if I treat a certain group of my black brothers and sisters horribly & yet I want to use items from their culture, that`s questionable. The conclusion, I think is for all of us to learn more about each other so that we can use each other`s cultures respectfully.

  • Nononsense73

    I am US-born, Nigeria/US-bred. Just wanted to say that this is one of the most cogent and well-written articles I have seen in a while here on Clutch. Bravo.

  • Lelani

    Great article. So many great points that there is no reason to take a stance for or against, because the author encourages us to see the perspective of both sides, which sadly, most people cannot do because they can only see their own perspective. There has been tension between African immigrants and AA because there has been slurs and ignorance on both sides. It is long overdue for reconciliation.

  • Zorino

    Sounds good to me as long as it’s embraced in a respectful manner. After all Black Americans are descendants of African slaves.

    Though I’m Continental African I actually learned more about the Motherland through Hip-Hop culture. Ain’t that something! Before immersing myself into Hip-Hop I never wore an Africa Medallion or African clothing. So, it’s a win-win.

    • AfroCapricornette

      Huh! I always thought you were AA. Hip-hop has never been my thing but I grew up wearing (and still do) traditional clothing and jewellery. Still wear them here in the States. Never have and don’t think will wear those giant African continent-shaped medallions. Too cheesy lol

    • Zorino

      Loool. No, I’m not, sista. I was born in the Motherland.

    • AfroCapricornette

      Aaahhh! Mon frere! Comment vas-tu? Lol. Francophone West Africa, I presume? Of course, everyone learns something from us Naijans, and vice versa too lol

    • Zorino

      Je vais bien. Merci. Hope you’re doing well yourself. I’m from Central Africa.