“Take your hands off of our symbols of struggle!” – The question of appropriation

Tirem as mãos dos nossos símbolos de luta

 

Note from BW of Brazil: Anyone who is familiar with the black struggle for equality and affirmation within a system of white supremacy is familiar with the question of appropriation. Often times I don’t even like to discuss the issue because a lot of people simply don’t get it. If the topic should come up and I express my view, inevitably, someone will say something along the lines of, “but what’s wrong when different racial groups accept styles from other cultures? This is a path to racial harmony.” Well, in theory that would see to be true, but usually it’s not. Whether it’s Blues and Rock n’ Roll, Hip Hop or Samba, often times a style that was traditionally associated with black people ends up being consumed, copied or in some cases completely taken over by the same group that once said that the style in question was “too black”, “too urban” or a “coisa do negro (a black thing)”.

No, there’s nothing wrong when persons of different races and cultures enjoy cultures of other groups. The problem is when the new consumer of the style wants to claim their new found love of another culture as their own and completely erase the people associated with its origins. Of course non-blacks can practice the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira, but where were their ancestors when this art form was outlawed? The Beatles took America by storm in 1964 and became one of the biggest selling Rock bands of all-time. But how much money did Little Richard earn as the “architect of Rock n’ Roll”? You know, the black man whose music influenced the Beatles. 

This whole issue reminds me of an interview I once read with an African-American actor named Keith Hamilton Cobb. Cobb was famous for his role as Noah Keefer on the All My Children soap opera as well as the braids he wore in the role. Cobb once revealed how a white woman had complimented him on his hair. After he thanked her, the woman went to make sure he knew that the braided style was created by (white) actress Bo Derek in the 1979 movie 10. Really? THAT is the exact point! Black women have long faced discrimination for wearing braided hair styles or indeed any African-oriented hair style that doesn’t conform to the Eurocentric aesthetic because it’s considered “ugly” or “unprofessional”. But yet a white woman rocks the look and it becomes beautiful and fashionable?!? If you still don’t get it, perhaps this article is not meant for you…

Take your hands off of our symbols of struggle!

By Eliane Oliveira. Originally published at Blogueiras Negras

Women at the Day of Black Consciousness rally in São Paulo, November 20, 2013
Women at the Day of Black Consciousness rally in São Paulo, November 20, 2013

Some days ago I read on the internet a note saying that the (soccer) player Neymar didn’t consider himself black. Okay then, because I believe that identity is also something built from our experiences; as the poet Sergio Vaz says “being born black is a consequence. Being (black) is consciousness.” From the comments on the aforesaid article, speaking of the hair of the player in regards to our “Brazilian Mixture”, and some other texts I read that focused on our cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair), curly, afro, and finally the various comments in reference to this that is a symbol of global blackness, I started thinking about how they take away everything.

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) at 1968 Olympics
Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) at 1968 Olympics

It’s easy to observe in the current social movements some components, with all the ostentatious pomp, afro styled hair, even the person being white as milk, we still see quite frequently a clenched fist up in the air in reference to the symbolic gesture of the Black Panthers in the fight against American racism and becoming known worldwide thanks to athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200 meter dash in the 1968 Olympics, who reproduced the gesture on the podium in protest against the segregation of blacks in America.

What I wonder is if these people have the notion that these “elements” actually mean to the struggle of black people. OK, the reader can tell me, “it’s a question of identification with the cause,” I understand that, really, the force that these symbols have gained, of resistance and contestation reached a superb level, however no one “becomes black” without experiencing the struggles of this people in some way and very little without knowing the literature dealing with the black movement. Furthermore, the uses that one makes of these symbolic elements are the most diverse, we have Black Power (symbols) in movements that are far from discussing and defending the demands of blacks.

Women at the Day of Black Consciousness rally in São Paulo, November 20, 2013
Women at the Day of Black Consciousness rally in São Paulo, November 20, 2013

As a feminist, social scientist and researcher that I am, observing is my commonplace, my working tool. I have here my considerations in relation to movements that don’t aggregate a larger group of people simply because they don’t know the dimensions of the various ills that afflict a population because of their color or ethnicity. In this way, it causes me a certain discomfort seeing people sporting the great symbols of black resistance only as a way to legitimize themselves within a political group. Or, even worse, to say that it is against the institutionalization of an aesthetic standard.

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes in 1971
Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes in 1971

Coming across debates about straightening our hair, I don’t question who does it, because having Afro hair is only a problem for those who still have not internalized the beauty and power it represents. What bothers me most is seeing people making use of the elements of our ethnic identity as they did with various elements of black culture, distorting their meanings, and taking hold of something that is not legitimate for them. Thus, capoeira that was a fight that was turned into a dance, Iemanjá turned into a white statue on most Brazilian beaches, feijoada (1) comes in many different versions (light and even vegetarian), acarajé became a Jesus cookie and turbans became another piece of various fashion accessories.

Capoeira demonstration
Capoeira demonstration

Fruit of our syncretism, of our mixture, are Brazilians a povo mestiço (mixed race people)? The discourse is always the same, beautiful in theory, as it conveys the idea of equality and acceptance. In my view it is not so simple, I believe that these “adaptations” serve much more for the white elite to appropriate themselves into the part of black culture that fits them best, ie, whitening Iemanjá makes her more acceptable to the eyes of white Christians that frequent the beaches on vacation. I may sound radical, but I’m not fundamentalist; everyone has the freedom to make use of what pleases them. For me, a black woman with blond and straight hair is as natural as seeing a white woman wearing an afro, since she didn’t believe that by making the choice for this ethnic element she is absorbing all the representations that they translate, as they refer to a people and its peculiarities.

Capoeira
Capoeira

Thus, straightening the hair does not make someone white just as well as wearing a black power (afro) does not make one black. It’s not enough to rock a “beehive” on your head, thinking that incorporating therein the attitude symbolized in it, this constructs the conscious actions that benefit an excluded population from the most varied areas. The strength is in the person, to the attitude in its practices; using historical symbols of black resistance is not a fad, we don’t need a false representation of an alleged identification with the cause.

Tirem as mãos dos nossos símbolos de luta (2)

They try to take everything at all times, even our historical identity, could it be that the old practices stemming from the time of the slave trade still inhabit our society? I believe that harmony dictated by such racial democracy exists only for those who are fond of repeating clichés!

Source: Blogueiras Negras

1. Feijoada is a stew of beans with beef and pork, which is a typical dish in Portugal and former Portuguese colonies, such as Brazil, Macau, Angola, Mozambique and Goa. Modern variants of the dish are based on ancient Feijoada recipes from the Portuguese regions of Beira, Estremadura, and Trás-os-Montes. In Brazil, feijoada (feijoada brasileira) is often considered the national dish. The name comes from feijão, Portuguese for “beans.” The basic ingredients of feijoada are beans with fresh pork or beef. In northwest Portugal (chiefly Minho and Douro Litoral), it is usually made with white beans; in the northeast (Trás-os-Montes), it is generally prepared with kidney beans, and includes other vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, and cabbage. The stew is best prepared over low heat in a thick clay pot. It is usually served with rice and assorted sausages, such as chouriço, morcela (blood sausage), farinheira, and others, which may or may not be cooked in the stew. Source

About Marques Travae 3170 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

3 Comments

  1. Interesting. However in a majority black country I do feel that black people in Brazil tend to look down on themselves as well. They don’t really fight for their culture in the same ways that white people do. Nor do they carry the same pride. And because of that people will take advantage of them. Whites are very exclusive but blacks in Brazil are not. So you can’t always blame white people.

  2. The clenched fist was an anti-fascist, anarchist and socialist symbol way before the Black Panthers used it. In fact, it was chosen by the Black Panthers because they were socialists themselves. For example it is extremely common in Australia because the union movement (and other movements) was influenced by the communist party and refugees from the Spanish civil war. It has zero to do with appropriation. It’s got a long history of use both before and after the 60s in resistance movements in every country in the world. I’m very frustrated seeing Americans trying to take a symbol of resistance and solidarity and ban other people from using it under this guise of anti-racism. What it shows isn’t “appropriation” but that discussion has become so US centric that people have become totally ignorant of struggles in the rest of the world.

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