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Columbus Fortune was the name given to my great-great grandmother’s grandfather. I only know this because my Nana is a stickler for attempting to compose family trees. I say “attempting” because, with the exception of what has been told to us, it is difficult to recount an undocumented lineage.
My grandfather was an enslaved African. He was 18 when slavery was abolished in the United States and I don’t know if he knew his mother, his father, his brothers, his sisters or his grandparents. I do not know if he knew what tribe he hailed from.
For black Americans, tracing our lineages back to their African origins is almost impossible (unless we use DNA testing). African enslavement left us devoid of a way to define ourselves. It severed familial ties and deprived us of any viable opportunity to reclaim them. When we go looking for our ancestors and their culture, we’re chasing shadows.
This is why it hurts when native Africans criticize black American attempts to regain a lost portion of ourselves. Writer Zipporah Gene, who identifies as both British and Nigerian, wrote a post earlier this month claiming that black Americans can appropriate African culture — since we are American — by wearing tribal garb to be “trendy.” Backlash to her piece led her to write an equally obtuse follow-up declaring that, based on her own experiences, it is unnecessary for black people to showcase their Africanness…
It is understandable why an African woman might look at a picture of Afropunk’s New York festival attendees, recoil and believe her culture is being used as a costume (though The Root pointed out that, because of New York’s diversity, whether or not the people in the photo are African-American or African immigrants cannot be determined). But cultural appropriation requires a degree of economic and political privilege black Americans simply do not have. We cannot oppress Africans, shame their cultures, claim it for ourselves and then decide it’s trendy. Even if we could, that’s certainly not what’s happening here, by any stretch of the imagination…
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