In her last column entry for No Fly on the WALL, the wonderful Ruth pays homage to that most unique and magical of beings: the carefree black girl. An uplifiting one for you – let all the black girls rise and let all the black girls soar. This one’s for you.
Carefree black girl
- There is no one aesthetic for how she looks. She comes in all shapes and sizes.
- She is incredible, committed to loving herself, being unapologetic in her existence and bringing others along on that journey.
(Ruth Sutoye, 2015)
If I am blessed to ever have a daughter, it would be an honour if she were a glorious combination of Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya Coleman and Willow Smith. Watching a younger generation of black girls become so deliberately engaged and conscious about the world we live in is inspirational, to say the least. Though many-a-times, the world of social media proves to be a thorn in my flesh, it has also introduced (or re-introduced) me to some incredible people and has allowed us to bear witness to pivotal moments in digital history.
Back in February, Zendaya (18) responded to the inherently racist remarks about her locks from Fashion Police Host Giuliana Rancic (them smelling of weed) with such grace, using it as an opportunity to not only call folks out about their prejudice, but to also teach on the cultural significance of locks within her family and for black people(s).
From her unapologetically feminist music to her choices in aesthetics, to all her all round badass “I’m-doing-me-regardless” approach, in spite of the endless criticism she, her brother and her parents receive, Willow Smith soars on as a point of positive reference for black girls embracing who they who are…. all at the budding age of 15.
Most known for her role as Rue in the Hunger Games, Amandla Stenberg (16) has been serving over the last several months on social media and educating the masses on black femininity and sexuality, cultural appropriation, racial injustice, activism and more. I have yet to discover anyone of her age grasp and deliver such concepts with such nuance, eloquence and tact.
“Black features are beautiful, black women are not,” Stenberg wrote. “White women are paragons of virtue and desire, black women are objects of fetishism and brutality. This, at least, seems to be the mentality surrounding black femininity and beauty in a society built upon Eurocentric beauty standards.”
These are just a selection of moments which have solidified the reputation of these three young women as utterly awesome.
Amandla in particular has been making headlines. Her apt analysis came as a necessary contribution during ongoing violent conversations from mainstream media concerning Serena Williams’ body. The constant fetishization that black women and our bodies are subjected to through everyone’s gaze but our own honestly grows tiresome. Serena’s blackness, womanhood and sexuality have been policed and under attack since the inception of her career, and the critics bulldoze on without attrition. Her most recent shoot with New York Magazine is to die for and she prospers on as my heroine, requiring approval from no one and being unapologetic.
In some of Amandla’s most recent teachings, she addresses Kylie Jenner and her repeated cultural appropriation when Kylie donned her last set of cornrows on Instagram. Several media outlets framed their reporting language to depict Amandla as a bully or as aggressive in her exchange with the reality star. It’s worth noting that Kylie, (now a legal adult), is clearly more than competent and aware of the decisions she makes. Jenner is an 18 year old who has bought her first home (a point laboured by her older sister, Khloe, in a recent interview in which she defended her then illegal relationship); is ‘now’ in a legal relationship with rapper Tyga (25); and is clearly business savvy with multiple ventures. Yet, she is continuously portrayed as the victim when called out on her constant cultural appropriation. She is painted as ‘unassuming and innocent’, a faultless victim being bullied by bitter black girls and women.
This is said with no intention to pit anyone against each other, but rather to point out how white people and the narratives surrounding whiteness are always afforded nuance or innocence, however the same effort is unsurprisingly denied to black people, especially black women. Any black girl or woman who dares to speak up or exert passion in her voice is immediately detained within the ‘aggressive, angry black woman’ trope.
It occurs much too frequently on social media sites. The (now) catchphrase ‘cultural appropriation’ being used by people more often than not, in ignorance. In a generation where we blindly jump on bandwagons, this phrase has become the new trend applied to anything and everything, causing much contention. So in attempts to clear up confusion and co-sign much of what Amandla has shared online, when referencing (the act of) cultural appropriation, we mean:
‘…the adoption or theft of icons, rituals, intellectual property, cultural expressions, aesthetic standards, and behaviour from one culture or subculture by another. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols. It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture. This “appropriation” often occurs without any real understanding of why the original culture took part in these activities or the meanings behind these activities, often converting culturally significant artefacts, practices, and beliefs into “meaningless” pop-culture or giving them a significance that is completely different/less nuanced than they would originally have had’ (Dalya, 2011, Scafidi, 2005).
I think it’s imperative to actually provide definitions for cultural appropriation firstly, to dispel the myth that it doesn’t exist. Secondly, so we can check how we are (mis)using it. Thirdly, to recognise that fundamentally, appropriation is exploitative, demeaning and a perpetuator of erasure. Black girls and women will be punished, sent home from schools, denied jobs, or bullied for their cornrows, afros and braids (culturally exclusive to black people (s) ) but then Kylie will wear a set or cornrows or faux locs and be praised by all (including MTV) for ‘setting a new trend’ ????
Bantu knots become ‘rebranded’ under Marc Jacobs as ‘mini buns’ and practically anything formally viewed as ‘rachet and ghetto’ when worn by black girls becomes ‘high fashion’ when thrown on white models. Elle Canada will call Dashiki’s ‘the newest it item’, whilst West Africans collectively side eye.
Jamie Oliver will take Jollof Rice and make an utter mockery of it in his remake. Retail stores call Ankara material ‘Cultural Explosion prints’, whilst selling these items for inexcusable prices, pushing independent African owned tailors and business out of work. Appropriation is not solely about the cultural violence or theft, erasure and smudging, but also the economic robbery from ethnic minority communities too.
I believe the above definitions clarify the difference between cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation/cultural exchange, where the latter would involve the intentional learning of cultures and appreciating of them. It is important to acknowledge in a world so ‘fluid’ and ‘flexible’ but drenched in (white) privilege, not everything is to be shared – and that should not always be up for debate.
Bringing this back home to Britain, I find myself constantly searching for black women here in our context who we can be inspired by their carefree-ness. Whilst there’s a love for Black America, representation for us here matters too. Centering around and building ourselves as Black British women is so important- that we can see and share our narratives from within our space is practically political in itself.
Some carefree black girls and women here in the UK I’d suggest to check out and engage with are Cecile Emeke (Filmmaker and creator of the Strolling Series and Ackee and Saltfish Youtube series), Bekke Popoola (Curator of Black British Girlhood), Alicia (@naturallytiss Writer), Kelechi Okafor (Actress & Personal Trainer),Yomi Adegoke (Multimedia Producer at Channel 4) and No Fly on the WALL’s very own Siana Bangura (writer and spoken word performer).
Always give thanks for the carefree black girls.
Ruth Sutoye is a British-Nigerian poet and writer. Her passions include, but are not limited to religion, feminism, sexuality, the diaspora, experiences of multiple blackness and carrot cake. You can find her ranting on @ruthsutoye, laughing loudly or in a Costa somewhere buried in rugged pages working on her debut chapbook.