I tend to grasp my thoughts slowly on certain topics. Admittedly this would go under the “name your weakness” section of my life’s story. So after Amandla Stenburg wrote her open letter about cultural appropriation I had to sit in it for a moment and decide how I felt about her perspective. Today browsing the blog roll I came across a post from Black Girl Long Hair (BGLH) about the Herero tribe in South Africa.
Curse my own ignorance, I didn’t know anything about the Herero tribe. I’m sure it was part of some brushed over history lesson I sat through in school. However I’m not sure what is more fascinating about this breathtakingly unique people – their chilling history or the fact that they both honor and mock it in the most creative way.
Human Appropriation vs. Cultural Appropriation
The Herero people are a farming and herding tribe in the South African region of modern-day Namibia. In the mid-1890’s they were colonized by the Germans under an unlawful treaty. After German occupation the Herero and neighboring Nama tribes underwent banishment, rape, starvation, slavery and human experimentation. It is estimated that around 100,000 were strategically exterminated in a three-year period. The similarities between the Herero and Nama Genocide and the Jewish Holocaust (including the tribes being forced into concentration camps) is why many consider it to be the precursor for Nazi Germany.
So why does this feel like familiar territory? Let’s take a quick social climate read… What Amandla Stenburg was so eloquently explaining in her blog rant is that Black popular culture (our hair, music and even our social dialect) is being hijacked by Hollywood, spit-shined clean and packaged as a trend for anyone looking to rustle up some “edge”. She referenced Kylie Jenner sporting corn-row braids, Caitlin Pierce’s wink and nod at baby hair and Miley Cyrus exploiting black women in her music videos and stage performances.
Sister makes a valid point. While black celebrities like Zendaya are being referenced as un-bathed drug users for wearing faux-locs, their white counterparts are gaining followers and likes. Similar to the land and livestock of the Herero and Nama tribes being good enough to commandeer, but the people themselves weren’t fit to be treated like human beings. The loudest complaint of black cultural appropriation is that these same celebrity imitators are steadfastly remaining silent to the #blacklivesmatter movement. But the severity of genocide is nowhere close to that of popular culture. Right?
The Devil is in the Detail
When you take a closer look at the Herero and Nama Genocide you realize the important element is “appropriation”. This is a dangerously slippery slope no matter what it’s targeting. The ultimate goal is simple – to acquire something that is not yours. I can’t think of a time in modern history when melanated people were not fighting against acquisition and domination. What’s worse than physical slaughter believe it or not is mental slaughter. It’s so subtle it hardly leaves a taste in your mouth, but you’re reminded in thousands of ways each day that you are not the shit. Subliminal messages seem a little foo-foo? Consider the fact that a Super Bowl 50 broadcast advertisement slot will sell for $10 million per minute. Why? Because advertisers know that subliminal messages work. If they blaze a brand name into your subconscious your eye will automatically catch said brand on the store shelf. If I show you this thing enough times your brain will systematically accept it as fact regardless of its validity.
Cornrows vs. Humanity
I give zero f-words about who’s rocking Bantu knots, what white rapper is slaying record sales, or that ancestral hair techniques are being deemed “a new urban trend” by ill-informed fashion blogs. These things don’t matter if the main point is being missed. We’re kind of complaining about a flat tire on a burning car.
They killed Sandra Bland. Not because she was breaking the law. Not because they were in fear of their life. Not because she was a threat to society. They killed her because she didn’t abide by the cardinal rule – in the presence of the power that be it’s wise to bow down. Don’t take up too much space in a room, don’t act ungrateful, lower your voice, turn down your music, comb your nappy hair, be glad you have a job, stop bringing up your history, no one can pronounce your name, step out of your vehicle.
Drink the Storm
Here’s my favorite thing about the Herero tribe. The sun-blessed descendants of the surviving peoples wear Victorian inspired clothing as a way of remembering their history. The catch is that these floor length hems, high collars and prairie sleeves are ironically served up in bright tribal colors and patterns and they top it off with a horn-like hat to symbolize their cattle-herding culture. Although historically their people were forced to wear the clothing of their oppressors, they basically took something that was appropriated from them and appropriated it right back. Now that’s liberation.
So how does that apply to Black Americans? No one can appropriate your consciousness if you don’t buy into the sales pitch. No one can rent your beauty if you understand that your true beauty isn’t even visible. Don’t be so distracted by the blame game, stop pulling the minority card because nothing about us is minor. Black people rise above. THAT is our culture.