Wednesday, September 22, 2010

THE NAIJA ESSAY: Rhapsodizing on Black Americans’ Cultural Appropriation of Nigerian & African Cultures

{photo credit An Xiao}

I’m not Black. Black is not my ethnicity. In fact, Black isn’t an ethnicity, it’s a race. And race isn’t real. Race, Blackness, whiteness, these categories were created by white people in order to define who they were oppressing and who was doing the oppressing. Check your history y’all. Despite this, Black is something I identify with politically and socially given that I’ve spent so much of my life in the States and I do see myself as part of a global Black community of people—some of whom are/were immigrants to Europe, the States and other parts of the world and others who are descendants of the Africans kidnapped from Africa in order to be enslaved in the States, South America, the Caribbean and so on. Blackness is not a monolithic identify. It’s an umbrella term like Queer. I’m a dyke but identify with a Queer community politically and socially. Countless times, people, Blacks in America mostly, tell me I’m American. “Oh well you were born here so you’re American.” #labelfail. No I’m not. I’m a Nigerian who happened to have been born here and I will be Nigerian until the day I die and in my next lifetime too. It’s that serious.

I’m not Black. I am Nigerian. Period. I am not Nigerian American. I am Nigerian. To be specific, I am an Ijaw and Urhobo Nigerian. (DELTA STAND UP!!!) <-- had to do it. I didn’t even know what soul food was till college. I fetched water as a child. I have a long ass Nigerian name with mad vowels up in it. On the census, I wrote in Nigerian. (We have an African prez and the Census can’t be more inclusive? #sideeye.) After being baptized as a baby, I didn’t go to an American church until college. I’ve learned to be a part of Black American culture and given that I live in the States and contribute to the evolution of Black art forms with the art I create, yes, I claim hip hop, soul music, Black American dance styles and the performance arts. I’m still a Nigerian within all that. Whenever anyone asks me where I’m from, I say Nigeria. Because na so. When I answer in this way, I sometimes get confused looks from people because they want to place me into a category that makes sense for them. They want to either tell me I’m someone else than who I just said or let me know they know who I am. I’ve heard more nonsensical facts about people’s relationship to Nigeria than I can list here. It is okay—to not know. Just admit it. Don’t try to create a familial bond with me and/or my culture where there is none by spewing random facts about Nigeria. You ain’t know about Nigerian heat or suya or NEPA (now PHCN) or pyoowatah or the go-slow or red soil or roasted groundnut.

During a twitter tag team rant session with Zara Emezi, I wrote:

what the fuck i look like meeting a Chinese person & telling them how much i enjoy wonton soup? you think they give a fifth of a fuck?

(Wednesday, September 08, 2010 10:36:07 PM)

people tell me all their random thoughts & experiences re: Nigeria when they meet me. i'm serious--eg: i like Nigerian food. #uhokay

(Wednesday, September 08, 2010 10:35:24 PM)

what the fuck i care you gave your son a Nigerian name? there are over 150 million Africans with Nigerian names. #perspective

(Wednesday, September 08, 2010 10:34:29 PM)

These conversations are tiring. From the woman who, upon finding out I’m Nigerian, takes pride in informing me that she works to set up schools in 3rd world countries, of which Nigeria is one. Do you want a cookie? Fuck you and your NGO. If you really cared, you’d find NIGERIANS doing good work (there are millions), give them that first world loot (which by the way is built on third world backs) and LEAVE. That’s revolution. That’s being an ally.

So many Black people challenge my Africanness. Black people who, by the way, claim the African identity they attempt to deny me. So many Africans challenge my Africanness. All around, my authenticity as an African gets questioned, judged and minimized. It’s not my life’s work to make the world see me as I see me. It’s my life’s work to be me as I see me and let the world do what the world will do.

Me: "I'm Nigerian." Her: "You speak really good English." Me: "We were colonized by the British." Can't make this stuff up.

(Thursday, August 12, 2010 6:56:40 PM)

Every moment is an opportunity to decolonize our spirits and I seize these moments. Part of that decolonization is to never allow my identity to be defined for me by anyone. There are times when ironically, Africans place me in the same category as Blacks in the States and look down on me because to them, I sound American and have lived here for an amount of time that means I’m Americanized now. I let them know a.) there’s no need to look down on Blacks in the States and b.) I’m so Nigerian my blood is made of palm oil. I love you but sit down.

It annoys me greatly the ease with which Blacks take on an African identity while doing little to no research/reading whatsoever. Spending a semester in Ghana does not equate with my life as an African. People still ask me if I’m Yoruba and pride themselves on knowing that one ethnicity. *Blank stare* Asking me if I’m Yoruba when you find out I’m Nigerian is like me asking you if your name is Keisha because you’re Black and live in the States. Yes, it is that ridiculous. I’m not Yoruba. I’m not Igbo. Abeg, please stop asking. Going to see Fela on Broadway does not qualify as an education on my country. It doesn’t even qualify as an education on him, given there’s only so much a two-hour performance can contain of a person’s life. We all love Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri and Fela but Naija done produced more brilliance than the likes of them.

Can we please be accountable to the way in which Blacks travel the world as tourists with the same or similar kinds of destructive manners/patterns as rich white people? Tourism in third world countries is another form of colonization. Beautiful portions of the country are often off limits to people indigenous to that country in order for hotels and resorts to be made available for tourists and the tourism economy. Traveling to someone else’s home in search of peace of mind, relaxation or a deeper sense of self is the most colonial bullshit on the planet. Black Americans do this in Africa and the Caribbean, looking for a rugged, vacation lover to help them forget the woes of their lives. Please, please read Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place for an amazing analysis of what tourism has done to Antigua. I don’t travel to other people’s countries to get free. I would never be so arrogant or disgustingly first world. I go home. Or I travel because I want to partner to make art and/or partake in activism that is led by those indigenous to the place I’m traveling to. Any Black person with the privilege and resources to travel to another country to find themselves, and who does this, is feeding into a racist and violent tourist economy.

South Africa, Kenya, Ghana are some of the chosen countries that everyone outside of Africa wants to travel to, specifically Black people. The sexiness and allure of Yoruba culture is due, in my opinion, to how far it’s traveled (Brasil, Cuba, the States) and the exotification of Brasilian and Cuban cultures/languages continues to feed into the way in which Yoruba is a commodity and a spiritual practice laden with inaccuracies (as it is practiced in the States by those initiated into it) and commerce.

It can be strange to talk about my culture to Blacks in the States. One of or a combination of things happens: they can’t relate at all or they make weird statements that highlight their ignorance of my culture or try to make me see how much they know (asking if I’m Yoruba or Igbo) or there’s a sadness that they don’t have the same linkage to their culture that I do to mine. At times, there’s a visible resentment that wo/manifests in challenging my choices, eg: asking me why I hang with so many Nigerians. < --- Um reeeally?! Why do you have so many Black friends? So many gay friends? Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? I guess the same reasons why all the Nigerian queers are eating jollof rice in the park. Sanity dey with family sometimes. And there are all types of family. A lot of my chosen family are queer Nigerians and I’m blessed to have such a beautiful community. I also rock hard with Caribbean folks, Africans from other parts of the continent, South Asians, Latinas and so on. My family wide. I will not apologize for loving my Naija folk and anyone that asks that is selfish and just weird.

I’m surprised that folks sometimes are surprised that I miss home and the extent to which I miss home:

people wonder why i talk about Naija so much & hang w/ Nigerians so hard... Wednesday, September 08, 2010 10:27:16 PM via web

...dude--you know i ain't from here, right? you know every breath i take away from my country breaks my heart right? #dontgetittwisted. Wednesday, September 08, 2010 10:27:41 PM via web

All Black people are not the same. The reason I do not identify as Pan Africanist is because so much of its application (from my perspective) of the ideology is about making Black people everywhere the same. We aren’t the same. I live here but I am not from here. First world privilege, third world blood. Na serious.

So many people want to say we were kings and queens before the white man came to Africa—yeah, like 10 of us, and the rest of us were just regular folks. This hyper-romanticization of Africa is terribly aggravating and completely ahistorical. Nigeria is hella modern, is hella rural, is hella lots of thangs. It ain’t full of “nubian kings and queens.” #realityfail. Africa today is not some fantasy, nor has it ever been. It’s a real place, filled with 54 countries, thousands of ethnicities and languages, countless hairstyles, clothing styles, culinary magic and so on. Africans are real people, not mythological fodder for folks’ fantasies about what they’d like Africa to be for them. When I hear there are ethnic conflicts in Nigeria, I call home to make sure my family is okay. I don’t shake my head and keep sipping on my coffee. That is the difference.

I am from the Delta and I am proud. If ever I choose to have babies, they will know exactly where they are from because we will live there and there will be no English spoken in my household, besides Pidgin of course. I’m a Naija elitist in this way. And that is as it should be. Allowing anyone with wide eyes into African culture is part of the reason our land was haphazardly partitioned for colonization by Europeans in the first place—abeg our heart bigger than the universe we dey in, sef.

Black people are descendants of Africans. Of course. But they aren’t African. My great grand mama is from Trinidad. I am not Trinidadian just because she was. Na difference, you see? To ignore these differences, to gloss over them is to pretend mac and cheese is fufu. Na lie.

I am intensely patriotic and deeply proud to be a Nigerian. I can’t even explain it, it’s mad intense. I love Black people. I be marching, writing poems, mouth behind bull horn, loving hard, soft, tender and fierce for the sake of ALL our COLLECTIVE freedoms regardless of what continent we were born onto. We are a global community and we are connected. Let’s respect who we be and who we ain’t.

“It’s not that I’m heartless. You don’t understand, my heart is buried in Nigeria.”

~Yagazie Emezi.

My bodi dey here.

My heart dey in Naija.



Roseline said...

What!!!??!!!...I can't talk I might sound really ignorant right about now because I'm so proud and inspired and hyped and just full. Full of everything that is beautiful and Nigerian and African and just human. Great essay!


bLaKtivist said...

SPEAK.ON.IT. Love you, love this piece. Love that you SENT IT OUT like - I would like you to read this.

You said so many things that I've needed to read, to share, to express because being a descendant of Africa I've never been psyched about aggrandizing "African Culture" -- wutever the hell THAT IS... Right! Especially love the part about TOURISM...

I was about to post this on my wall, and make a quote of it my status message on Facebook, until I realized it was down.

Twitter it is... THEN :)


Vcat said...

Black Americans have to learn to be proud of what we do know--our history in this country. Despite singing "We Shall Overcome" every once in a while, we've been taught to view slavery/Reconstruction/Jim Crow/etc through a prism of deep shame. There's no need to reach back to a mythical/mystical Africa when in our own history there are stories of triumph/survival/etc.

And, of course, no need to try to dissect another's identity when you are secure in our own.

T.Allen-Mercado said...

I'm without words, or atleast words i feel are worthy. I am deeply moved by your writing, your passion, and your truth. Thank you for sharing, educating and uplifting.

"It’s my life’s work to be me as I see me and let the world do what the world will do." This is a gem.

memorexe said...

I'm with #realityfail: the hyper-romanticism of the continent needs to stop, like RIGHT. NOW.


thank you....

skelly said...

# 1 - you can't have both. you can't "claim soul music, hip hop", etc., & maintain your elitist african-ness @ a distance from all us heathen american blacks.

2 - if she was born here then that makes her a true african american.

it seems as though many of our kin from the continent think of us as 'slaves' - when mainland africans were part & parcel of our becoming slaves, & NO accountability is taken for that. my mother's ghanaian significant other mentioned that the slave trade is never mentioned in african schools - the party line is that we just 'went away' as if on vacation. talk about a sideye.

3 - hate to bring this up, but as many good nigerian private citizens as there are out there doing real work, it may take more work on an activists part to discern them from those who run the myriad scams that nigerians are famous for - so why is she hating on ppl who help set up schools in third world countries? - wierd.

we have been divorced from our culture, & are fascinated by it why is she so scornful of that?

if she's SO nigerian, then maybe that's where she should live. but she won't do that b/c by her own admission, she will get treated with the same snotty 'tude that she bestows upon black americans, & doesn't want THAT.

is she trying to claim that africans don't travel? let's talk bourgoise - not only do they travel - extensively, but most mainland africans TO THIS DAY keep a servant or two - still haven't learned about that little iron-clad class system of theirs.

now here's where i get really confused: she claims to be 100% nigerian, just BORN here... & in another breath, that her great grandmother is trinidadian - but she isn't. so which one is it? b/c that type of mix makes her patently afro-american.

& then in the end, she wants to talk global community. my senegalese SISTER, who has walked the catwalks of paris, & keeps a DOPE apartment on gold st. while she lives part of the year in dakar, NEVER tried to sell me a load of bull like this.

methinks the author is plagued with issues, & may need to do a little research of her own; specifically w/regard to her own persona. she seems to fully identify w/hip hop culture & yet divorce herself from the people who created it/fought for its/our freedoms.

this is disrespectful, patronizing, callous, & soulless much of the things we accuse white colonists of being.

the author needs to check herself.

nelo89 said...


Na wa.

1. Ya, she can. If you read her article, you could see how. :)

2. No, it doesn't. It just doesn't. Until First generation Nigerian/Gambian/Ghanaian/Cape Verdean is taught in school and as accepted as your culture, it REALLY doesn't.

"my mother's ghanaian significant other mentioned that the slave trade is never mentioned in african schools - the party line is that we just 'went away' as if on vacation. talk about a sideye."

That's because most of still have elders that get misty eyed or angry when they talk about circumstances that led to the slave trade in some of their line. Slavery didn't just scar you lot, it scared us too.

3. Same reason why AAs are not that cool with white people who teach in the hood. The patronizing that might be included in that person's admission is not compatible with elements of (at least) Nigerian history.

"yet divorce herself from the people who created it/fought for its/our freedoms."

She does not. She is just doing what isn't popular in the "Pan-Africanist" mindset--stating what she is and what she is not.

Anonymous said...

Although I understand the general idea of arguments set forth in this essay, the issue i have is tht it is so black and white. or should i say african and black. the whole time i am reading, i wonder where the author would place me, having a black mother born in south carolina and an igbo father born in nigeria. i was born in america, yet i still identify as nigerian just as much, if not more than i identify as being black/african american. i have always felt a division between these two sides of myself, with the african side of my family often seeing me as primarily and black and the black side of my family seeing me as primarily african.

i find it confusing that the article talks so much about self-identification and not letting others define who u are, yet the author is so adamant about who can and cannot identify with africa. maybe none of the comments in this article are meant to apply to someone like me, who truly has ties to both sides of this spectrum. i invite the author to say something on this issue of individuals with a bi-cultural background.

daughter of my mama said...

@everyone: thank you for reading this! please find my fan page on facebook (just search my name) and join me here: of course, please keep reading!

see below my individual responses to you. also, I wrote a follow up to this essay:

@roseline: thank you!!! I appreciate the love!

@bLaKtivist: I'm telling the truth as I see it. it's so so soooo necessary to keep speaking and keep speaking. tourism from the 1st world to the 3rd world is inherently racist. I think we need to be really thoughtful about this and not think that because we’re Black, we have no power to engage in oppressive practices. I want to write more about this. that sucks re: facebook. hopefully you can post it now? ;)

@Vcat: I agree, I agree. what do you mean by "And, of course, no need to try to dissect another's identity when you are secure in our own."? is that directed at me? at no point do I dissect anyone's identity except my own.

@T.Allen.Mercado: oh thank you so much for your heartfelt words, it means a lot. truly truly. ;)

@memorexe: YES DELTA STAND UP!!! thank you!

@Skelly: see this for my response to you:

@nelo89: thank you dear one for standing up for me, for standing for truth and for so clearly articulating what needed to be said. na wa o, for real. sending heart & palm oil. ;)

@anonymous: I think if someone has a Nigerian parent then they are Nigerian. to what degree any Nigerian outside of Nigeria (in England, the States, France, etc etc) chooses to identify with their culture is up to them.

re: what you find confusing: no I can’t tell anyone how to identify, but from my perspective, someone who’s never set foot in Africa, doesn’t know anything about their African culture or spirituality, ambiguously claims all of Africa (not a country or ethnic group) and whose last family member born and raised on the continent was hundreds of years ago is NOT African. that is my opinion. it’s not just about having African blood, it’s about culture and language and experiences. everyone on the planet has African blood in them—that’s where life started, but what makes someone African is more than just that blood.

there’s a lot to be written about identity. there are innumerable ways to think of, talk and write about Nigerian identity. I wouldn’t say that my article wasn’t “meant to apply to someone like (you)”. it applies if you think it applies, however please not that I’m not Black and Nigerian in the way you are, so my issues and perspective aren’t the same.

daughter of my mama said...

@anonymous: there was a typo in my previous comment to you: i meant to say: please NOTE that I’m not Black and Nigerian in the way you are, so my issues and perspective aren’t the same.

thanks so much for taking the time to read my thoughts. please do keep reading. ;)

Anonymous said...

There are only 24 people who follow this page, and I see why. The owner of this blog proves (in her 2 articles on this topic) to be divisive and myopic in her vision.
Her statements in these last 2 essays on this topic are contradictory and confusing. I have seen other (Africans) talk about some of these challenges of "appropriation" in a much more respectful and analytical way.
The owner of this blog, is an opportunist who uses
incendiary language, "hate mongering" and disprectful, hurtful statements to try to "prove" her wack point. My theory is, she used such a divisive title and thesis to try to build up her profile. In one instance she says "Black Americans (implying all)" do this and that, and in her rebuttal she conveniently starts to say "Some Black Americans". This should have been more of an aspect of her stance from the beginning if she was going to talk about this complex issue. She could have used her essays to be catalysts for this important discussion, but instead she alienated a lot of folks in a disrepectful and dismissive way.

When the owner of this blog matures in her ability to truly put forth complex analysis, then she will truly be "Fly". until then, her writing is just a hot mess.
p.s. also the owner of this blog labels herself a Dyke of a certain caliber, I hate to tell her, but she would not be considered "African" either by many Africans due to her gayness. She should really be careful of the Us vs Them stance, because in the minds of many Africans, she would truly be a Them.
I wish her well as she grows up.

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