Cultural Theft Is Violence

What It Really Means To Appropriate African American Art And Culture

This is a love letter to Black Americans (African Americans) and our allies who haven’t found the words to express what appropriation of African American art and culture really means and what it feels like. These words are inspired by Sarah Elizabeth Christman, a white woman from Indiana attending the University of Alaska-Anchorage, who despite being taught about the ills of plagiarism, recently decided to plagiarizenearly word for wordfrom Wilbert Cordel Kizer Moore, a Black creative who wrote a loving post meant to encourage Black people. Five hours after Wilbert made his post, Sarah copied his post nearly word for word but instead of directing it to Black people, Sarah directed it to all people. In short, she stole then All Lives Mattered Wilbert’s post.

When Wilbert’s friends found out what happened, they asked Sarah to take down her post or to credit Wilbert. When she refused, they reported her to Facebook. Sarah Christman has since turned off comments on her Facebook page and has either deleted her post or changed its privacy settings so that it is only able to be seen by the unfortunate people who call her friend.

Predictably, instead of removing Sarah’s post, Facebook blocked Wilbert’s account for thirty days and removed his post, claiming it violates Facebook Community Standardsbecause white women are always innocent, and white womanhood must be protected at any cost. Most egregiously, Facebook apparently thinks that Wilbert’s words of support to black people who are transgender, poor, sex workers, and otherwise marginalized somehow violates its Community Standards. But plagiarism, which is theft of intellectual property, doesn’t. Don’t be fooled by the success of Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg or the token hire of Global Head of Diversity, Maxine Williamswho despite being hired in 2013 has done little to change Facebook’s white-male oriented culture. Don’t even be fooled by the fact that Mark Zuckerberg married an Asian woman, who although she grew up working class, became a doctor after graduating from Harvard University thereby conforming to the myth of the model minority. The bottom line is Facebook remains a mighty white organization with mighty white policies that adversely affect its end user majority, who are ironically people of color.

But let’s shift the focus back to us westernized Africans surviving in America. Beloveds, please explain to your non-AA friends and allies that the “soul” in African American arts (music, writing, dance, visual art, film, etc.) and culture stem from a place of deep psychic pain and trauma that began with the transatlantic slave trade, to the Reconstruction era, to the Jim Crow era, to the Civil Rights era, which continues today when unarmed Black adults, teenagers, and even children are being slaughtered by “fearful” rogue police officers and being blamed for their own murders.

Our trauma was passed down from ancestors who were sometimes betrayed by other Africans who sold them out to the Europeans. The Europeans learned the lucrative slave trade from Arabs who have been enslaving Africans for millennia, even to this day. Our ancestors were stolen from their homelands, forced to march for miles, whipped and chained in the dank cargo hold of a filthy slave ship where they lay chained in excrement and piss and menstrual blood for months. They were starved, unable to bathe as was their custom, unable to breathe fresh air or feel the warmth of the sun except on the odd occasion when they were allowed on the upper deck, where some of them deliberately jumped to their deaths in shark-infested waters or died attempting mutiny, unwilling to discover what fresh hell awaited them wherever they were being taken.

Historians disagree on the number of Africans enslaved in the triangle trade. Estimates range from 10 million to 100 million, which includes both those who died during the Middle Passage and those who made it to the New World. Of those who survived the atrocities of the Middle Passage, approximately 90 percent of enslaved Africans were taken to Brazil, other parts of South America or to the Caribbean. The remaining were taken to North America or Europe. For our ancestors who were forcibly taken to the United States, when they arrived in this strange land, with its cold climate, unknown flora and fauna, surrounded by odd looking, pale-skinned, brutal people who smelled strange, spoke a strange tongue, ate strange foods, and prayed to an unknown god, they were violently acculturated of their native languages, religions, arts, foods, and dress. Savagely beaten, raped and forced to work as sex slaves, they did breaking work without pay, 14 hours a day, six days per week. Only on Sundays were they allowed to congregate, sing, dance and play music. But only in church where they must worship a foreign, white god whose holy book permitted their enslavement and damned their traditional religions and queer identities.

From these and so many more tragedies they created African American culture. From the scraps and entrails of the slave master’s food they created soul food. Our foremothers—forbidden to braid, cornrow, or adorn their hair in traditional styles and forced to cover their heads in shamecreated creative and colorful headwraps. We created entire genres of music from ragtime, jazz, blues, country, rock, gospel, funk, R&B, and hip hop. We created our own language, African American vernacular English (a.k.a. AAVE not ebonicsa derogatory misnomer). AAVE is an authentic dialect with grammatical rules, that is co-opted by corporations, celebrities, public figures, and every day people wanting to distill some of the ineffable essence of Black coolness.

Today, because of ongoing structural inequality in every facet of American society, most African Americans face poverty, unemployment or underemployment, poor schools, under nourishment, lack of access to healthcare, mass incarceration, and lack of opportunities for upward mobility. Additionally, we face our own internalized anti-Blackness and colorism (an after effect of slavery) as well as anti-Blackness from other immigrants (learned from colonization and the pressure to assimilate), other Americans of color, as well as white Americans.

To paraphrase the great Erykah Badu, we are artists, and we are sensitive about our shit. So understand what it means historically when you operate in anti-Blackness by appropriating our culturewhile telling us we don’t have a cultureand steal our intellectual labor, as was done to our ancestorsfor which we, their descendants, have never been recompensed or even received an apology. It’s dehumanizing, demoralizing, and feels like bloody hell.

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