Hoop earrings, acrylic nails, bucket hats, hip hop, drag, the renegade, salty, lit, bae, woke. What do these terms have in common?
They’re all parts of what we in North America- and to some extent globally- now know as “popular culture”.
But that’s not all. They also all come from Black culture. These trends all originated from black artists, celebrities, internet stars, and public figures.
So how–and why– did black-centered style and culture become so mainstream? And why, in the midst of what many are coining a cultural renaissance, is anti-black sentiment and violence still rising? The answer to this lies within our history.
Black or African American culture comes from the mixing of the native African cultures of West Africa and Central Africa and the European culture that has influenced and modified its development in the American South. Even with the cultural genocide of slavery that restricted the ability for Africans to practice their original cultural traditions, many practices, values, and beliefs survived. Over time, these practices have been blended and modified with European culture as well as other cultures such as that of Native Americans, and American immigrants. The African-American identity that was established during slavery times has created a rich and multifaceted culture that has persisted in its dynamicity and continues to have a profound impact on American culture, and that of the broader world.
AAVE (African American Vernacular English) was created by enslaved Africans mixing their native tongues to accommodate to their new surroundings. From work songs and field hollers came Blues, and Jazz. The 40’s gave us R&B. Economic depression in the South Bronx section of New York City birthed Hip-Hop and Rap. Entertainment companies like BET (Black Entertainment television) further spread black music and fashion across the county. From Hip-Hop culture came much of the style and cultural aspects that have now become “the norm”. Over the centuries, black people have managed to turn their pain into music, culture, literature, art, and fashion. And it’s constantly evolving.
But let’s not forget the role African Culture plays in all this. Not only is it the root of all African-American Culture, after separation from its American sister, it only continued to thrive. Despite the attempted quashing of African culture through French and British colonization, Africans continued to create and share their music, dancing, literature, food, and fashion. And while the western world tried to ignore it, it caught on. Groups and Artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Angélique Kidjo, WizKid, and Burna Boy have broken into the western music scene, and the music genre now termed “Afrobeats” has become the base for many viral TikTok and internet trends.
It’s the vibrancy and authenticity of Black culture that attracts appropriators who, ironically, dilute those very same qualities. Non-Black people claim they’ve found a new phrase, custom, or fashion trend, only for Black people to point out that it is actually a deep-rooted cultural practice, often one that black people themselves have been shamed by “proper” society for engaging with. The same hoop earrings and acrylic nails that prominent black figures such as Nina Simone and Angela Davis were called “ghetto” for wearing have become style staples thanks to the influence of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. Sneaker culture once seen as unprofessional in young black boys has now become essential to any closet.
But this love for Black culture doesn’t seem to translate to the people it came from. When members of the black community call for proper recognition and respect for contributions to pop culture they are more often than not dismissed or accused of “cancelling”. There’s a global sense of entitlement to black culture that is always unjustified and often unearned. People who see the absurdity in wearing a sari as a “cute dress” seem puzzled as to why box braids are anything more than “just a hairstyle”. The line between cultural appropriation and appreciation is often crossed without a second thought.
This is without mentioning the ever-rising racial tensions occurring worldwide. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the resulting outrage, unearthed much of the racial injustice still present in North America. Travel and immigration laws continue to unfairly target African countries, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. And even in Africa, Neo-Colonization continues to rage on, spurring more anti-African mistreatment and violence.
It’s hard to believe that a world that seems so enamored with black culture can still treat Black people with such contempt. While it is good to acknowledge how far we’ve come. We must never forget there’s a long way to go. While black culture may have broken through the glass ceiling, many Black people certainly have not.
So while reflecting on what you have learned this Black History Month, ask yourself: What do you love more, black culture, or black people?