Bretha was dad’s colleagues’ daughter. She was 23 years old. A white blonde with the most charming smile my ten-year-old self had ever seen. It was the first time she and her dad were visiting Nigeria, and indeed the African continent. Before then, dad had told us how Bretha’s dad presumed Africa was a place where people still lived in huts with thatched roofs, where there were no tarred roads, and monkey swung on trees. Dad hadn’t tried to convince him otherwise. Instead, he had fuelled his anxiety as the time he would be coming drew closer by telling him we also ate worms straight from a baby’s buttocks.
When I asked why he said that instead of attempting to educate his friend, he told me he wouldn’t believe him. Dr. Brenda would see things for himself when they came around.
And come around they did. We knew they would be tired of eating chicken, so we served them a meal of fried plantain and something else I can’t remember now. Bretha loved it.
We also gifted Bretha a sewn Ankara blouse and wrapper that the Yorubas call Iro and Buba. It was a green number, and she looked lovely even as she giggled and took in our explanations of how the outfit was a staple for the Yoruba woman. Bretha would attest to how much she enjoyed herself at ours, especially the food and the outfit she took with her to her home country of Austria.
A couple of months later, we would learn that Bretha was late.
She had committed suicide by throwing herself off the top of a high rise building. Her reasons were unknown.
I know…it’s a sad story.
But that’s not the focus of today.
Even though the encounter with Bretha was almost a lifetime ago, I still recall how thrilled my family was to see her in our native wear. We took pictures and oohed and aahed at how good she looked. Terms like “Cultural Appropriation” were non-existent at the time. It gave us a sense of pride to see someone from another culture don our attire with such joy and interest.
And up till now, my first reaction to seeing a person from another race adopt elements from my culture or tradition would be pride. I would beam and appreciate them for acknowledging and flaunting what emanated from my side of the world.
It’s why I find it difficult and a tad ridiculous to see folks rail at others for wearing their hair like them or infusing bits of their music in theirs. Apart from the fact that this reaction is at odds with the principle of freedom of speech and expression which is a basic fundamental human right everyone should enjoy, it boggles the mind that people would find it offensive when someone from another clime decides to explore themselves in a way that is similar to theirs.
What exactly makes it offensive?
And who decides what another individual can wear or sing or dance to?
I get the grudge of those who have been maligned and discriminated against for their dreadlocks or kinky hair; folks who have been denied jobs on account of their braids or name or accent are well within their rights to feel oppressed, especially when those who can speak up for them opt to be silent.
Nevertheless, it’s not enough reason to appoint oneself as gatekeeper or police of a culture that is subject to varying narratives.
How do we, in one breath clamour for an inclusive world where all humans are equal and possess the unfettered ability to evolve as they deem fit, and in another breath, insist they are not allowed into the hallowed chambers of a certain culture?
Why are blacks allowed to wear a pair of jeans and stiletto heels, but whites are crucified on hastily constructed crosses when they dare to borrow an expression from blacks? Why can’t I wake up one day and decide to wear a kimono or sari without the fear that someone would equate my decision to the desecration of the Japanese or Indian heritage?
In the end, it’s a piece of cloth or hair (albeit one with a lot of history) that will be taken off at some point. When Adele decides to wear her hair in Bantu Knots, it’s not because she is insensitive to the struggle of Jamaicans. When Beyonce does the legwork or opts to work with African artistes, I choose to see it as an exploration and not exploitation. After all, these artistes gain recognition, visibility, and monetary value from these collaborations.
Rather than play the victim all the time, African Americans who are mostly wont to remonstrate when a white person copies their way of expression need to look inward. Blacks will not earn the respect due to them because they insist others seek permission or stay away from anything that defines them. No, the black race will earn respect by thinking, and creating, and contributing meaningfully to the advancement of humanity.
P.S: My new book on writing is out! It’s free to download here.