When the trailer was released for Beyoncé’s new film, Black Is King, described as “a celebratory memoir for the world on the Black experience”, countless Africans commented on how this was an appropriation of African culture.
It poses an interesting, if unanswerable, question about African-American and Black-British identity; an issue that in “ordinary” times, is often compartmentalised in the recesses of subconsciousness – only to dog us cyclically when racial tensions arise.
How helpful is it for Beyoncé, as a black African-American woman, to be reprimanded on the count of so-called cultural appropriation? Or should her right to be fascinated by her ancestral culture – a culture effectively stolen from her and every black person domiciled on “civilized” Western land because of the provenance of slavery – be accepted?
“Identity” for the black African-American and Black-British person is elusive, and intangible. Businesses like Ancestry provide the valuable means to discover one’s provenance – all the way back, if you like, to 14th century England. But this is not so for those who ancestors were forcibly plucked from their respective African countries, and brought to these distant lands in chains and on boats.
Once at a family reunion, we had produced a tree that traced our lineage all the way to our first slave ancestors in the US, unearthing many more generations of white slave masters. And that was it. There was nothing beyond that. Just an identity tied to a country that refuses to meaningfully atone for its horrific past by dismantling racist systems that govern law, education, health and opportunity.
For people like me, there is a gaping hole in our traceable past. This gaping hole, generations later, comes pervasively to light to remind me of this ancestral nothingness: at school we learned history where America’s past is recounted with the arrogance and ignorance of the victor. Today, we have a galvanised Black Lives Movement because some people prefer to protect statues of the early architects of slavery than the victims themselves. I am reminded of this gaping hole every time anyone appears to innocently ask me “…but where are you really from?”
The truth is, I no longer know what to say when I’m asked this question.
It’s not an innocuous enquiry that will yield a satisfactory answer for the enquirer. I was born in the US. So were my parents. Their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were too. But for every insistence to elaborate beyond that, I am forced to recite a dog-eared, standardised, well-practiced script that is part biographical, part history textbook, about the genesis of slavery. It always surprises me how decidedly unapologetic and un-awkward the interrogator (usually white) is. And how do I feel? Exhausted to the point of numbness.
I began increasingly contemplating this gap in my identity when I left the US and moved to the UK 10 years ago, and then later to Geneva where I work for the United Nations. What further compounds these identity issues for me is the assumption – not just by white Europeans but black people too – that I am in fact African.
But when a black Uber driver said one night on a journey through Zurich: “We Africans feel sorry for you black people in America. You don’t know where you come from and you don’t have any place to really call home,” it hit a nerve because it was spoken with pity. Once again it conjured the compartmentalised ghost of my inherited rootlessness.
And so it was, when a colleague carelessly dispensed her judgement of me: “You’re just an African with an American accent,” that these assumptions would reinforce a pernicious kind of imposter syndrome, validated by those who cannot (or won’t) see the injurious repercussions of their words.
Can I live a fully enriched life without really understanding my roots? Perhaps. But only when the world acknowledges, apologises and offers reparations to generations of black people whose identity was robbed.
Recently, I got a tantalising teaser of my probable heritage. My Ghanaian friend held a housewarming party where she served up some delicious national dishes. I remember excitedly placing several large helpings of black-eyed peas on my plate – a dish, I explained, that my mother used to cook for me as a child. “Ah really?” exclaimed my friend’s aunt. “This is a Ghanaian dish you know.” We both briefly fell silent, wondering how a staple dish from her country came to be a regular culinary feature in my childhood. My mother of course had eaten it as a child too, and probably my grandma had as well.
Is it possible to culturally appropriate food, as you can with accents and attire? For I have no traditional dishes that I can share that indicates my ancestral heritage. Just warm, American apple pie and baked mac ‘n’ cheese passed down to me by father from Alabama.
Some African countries have understood our need to want to belong somewhere – anywheree – and have offered the opportunity for African-Americans to claim citizenship in their country. In 2019, Ghana launched a campaign – Year of Return – holding a citizenship ceremony for 126 African-Americans and Afro-Carribeans to mark the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in North America.
It’s a small, if performative, gesture that serves to bridge this pervasive identity gap. Although united by a legacy of slavery, all African-Americans and Black British are equally united by a far more significant and ancient ancestry, rooted in an African country once regarded as “home”. We have distant cousins, uncles and aunts whom we will never meet, but know exist somewhere in that vast continent.
Criticisms of Beyoncé for reinforcing lazy tropes and peddling a homogenous narrative of African culture that disregards the nuances and individual identities of the 54 different countries within the continent is a reflection of a far more simplistic and sober truth, and one that every black person whose ancestors were enslaved must get: displacement, and the human compulsion to belong.
In this ever-divisive world, even the term “racism” is being appropriated and aped by those fortunate enough to have never had a lived experience of discrimination. There are much more pressing things to be angry about than an African-American using her platform to question, explore and artistically interpret a way in which to fill the gap in her identity.
Tineka Smith is a racial equality advocate and founder of Huetribe, a diverse greetings card company. Her new book, MIXED UP: Confessions of an Interracial Couple from Audible Original is out soon
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