This weekend, I am in Camp Lake, Wisconsin at the Midwest Social Forum Teach-In, an intentional multi-issue, cross-movement, cross-community gathering of radical organizers from the middle of the United States. The space, to this point, has been an interesting experience in the nascent intentional work of creating an interconnected, self-identified, liberation movement in the U.S.
To be clear, there have been communities and movements working for liberation in the U.S. since the first white man set foot on Native soil 500+ years ago, but this is the first time in our history that various issue based and identity based movements have done the conscious work of addressing the barriers that keep us from working together. In the few hours that we have been together, I have met queer folks, folks from a half dozen ethnic and racial communities, women, people with disabilities, people working for disability rights, folks working against unsustainable development, folks working against war, for peace, against violence, for democracy, against environmental racism, for green spaces and clean air. It is a frustrating and exciting place to be.
There has been an effort to integrate cultural work into the structure of the weekend. It is refreshing, as a cultural worker, to be in a space that honors the vision and work of cultural organizers. But last night I had a moment.
Four hundred years ago, with the advent of slavery, the only slave nation to deny the use of traditional African drums to its slaves was the United States. Drums for me, in particular the conga, bongo, and djembe are sacred instruments akin to the shofar. And, frankly, unless you are of African descent you should not put your hands on one of these instruments. The history and struggle around access to African drums is such a heavy and powerful history that these pieces of wood and skin are more than instrument, they are holy devices, a chalice, the Host.
Personally, I have been in more than one space where white men with dredlocs are playing these instruments, while white girls with dredlocs and doing “traditional” African dances. Even better, I have seen and heard these same white women and men berate black folks for not playing the “right way” or that they were not doing the dances correctly. I understand that for the white folks that are engaged in his appropriation, they are, in their view, honoring these art forms. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet one of them that actually understands the power, significance, and history of the drum and its particular relationships to slave descendants in North and South America.
I have, lately, been engaged in significant conversations with various folks about what it means to be an ally, how to show up and be present, and how to live your life in a manner that reflects ally values. For me, an ally is not someone that tries to erase their own privilege by appropriating what they believe to be cultural expressions of people of color. A friend of mine said to me that some appropriation is good. I agree. But I believe that there are particular forms of cultural expression that should not be appropriated...or...at the very least...should be hands off until the communities from which they are appropriated have, themselves, had a chance to claim and celebrate their culture.
I remember the first time that I saw the conga played. I remember the power and spirit I felt the first time I saw the djembe played. I was transfixed. And I was angry. I was angry that this part of my inheritance had been systemically and intentionally torn away from my ancestors. These instruments wake something so visceral in me that I need no convincing that genetic memory is real.
Of course, this is part of a larger conversation about racism, cultural appropriation and expropriation, and the need of some white folks to run so far away from their own history, power, and privilege that they attempt to jump history and land somewhere in the middle of mine...but with the super hero power of being able to assume only the best while leaving the oppression for the rest of us.
To my white brothers and sisters, if you want to truly be an ally....be yourself...engage with your history...appreciate my history...and honor what is sacred. You have taken from us what you deem to be of value...our labor...the bodies of our women...our music forms...our children...our food...indigenous knowledge...and our languages. Your continued cultural appropriation is no different from slavery...once again...you are taking what you have decided is of value and that you covet...and you leave the rest behind without thought or regard for your actions, our history, or your unchecked and overexercised power.