Back in the early 2000s, my good friend had a chance to study abroad in West Africa.
I remember us both swooning with how much she would learn about the continent outside of a television show. She would be able to see what girls like us, who were barely out of their teens, did for fun. How did they wear their hair? What music was cool? What did they like to wear? To say we were excited would be an understatement.
The last thing I remember saying to her when she left was to please bring me back some cloth. At the time, I knew that I would never, ever have the chance to go to Africa. Maybe that was my way of having something authentic from a place where I have ancestors, but would never be able to touch.
Several months later, my friend brought me back some cloth from Kenya. It’s the most beautiful fabric that I’ve ever laid eyes on, and I promised myself that I would never let it go.
Fast forward to 2014, where I started watching the insanely popular web series, An African City. If you’ve never seen it, it’s Ghana’s answer to Sex and the City. From the moment I laid eyes on the fierce five, Ngozi, Zainab, Nana Yaa, Sade, and Makena, I knew that they were everything that I aspired to be. They’re beautiful, educated, and their lives are so amazing to watch, even if their tales are fictional.
Every week, I would watch the show and hold my cloth. Although I knew that the cloth came from a completely different country than where these women come from, it’s the closes to Africa, besides this show, that I’ll ever get.
As African Americans talk more about cultural appropriation, and being sensitive of stealing from other cultures, it makes me cautious of wanting to support African designers who bring the costumes to life on the show. I’m a huge fan of the show, and I don’t want to walk around wearing an outfit Makena wore (in my size, of course) if it means that I’m going to bring any negative attention to a culture that I wish I could meet face-to-face.
The truth is that I’ll probably never know exactly where my family originated from in Africa. What’s even more sad is that I’ll probably never be able to take my son to that place, to tell him that this is where your blood started.
So I’m bowing out gracefully. I can’t support African designers, artists, or cultural trend setters outside of a like or follow. Mostly out of fear – I know what cultural appropriation feels like as an African American woman, and I don’t want anyone to do the same to me.
Plus, I’ll admit that I have no clue how to not teeter the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. I don’t even know how to tell others how to do it.
So I’ll just hold my cloth, and silently appreciate. It’s all I can do until I understand more.
(This was my response to the article Can Black Americans Appropriate African Cultures? )