By Carrie Lawal
Black people are the definition of beauty and art. We fill canvases by just being. People see our colors, what we have, and our perseverance, and cling to our creativity. We are not replicas. We are the blueprint.
The appropriation, erasure, and exploitation of Black creativity by non-Black people upholds systems of oppression that enable white supremacy. When the majority popularizes Black creativity, it is often done at the expense of Black people. Black creative individuality is not something that should be commodified by people that fail to acknowledge and understand its origins and worth. When non-Black people engage in Black creativity they must accredit, uplift, and showcase Black voices in a respectful manner that highlights their understanding of its historical origins.
Erasure of Black Creativity
Last year, April Christina Curley, a top Google employee and champion of diversity and inclusion was fired from Google despite her well-deserved, upstanding reputation. According to an article from NBC News, “after receiving constant ridicule for her Baltimore accent and being denied multiple promotions, put on performance improvement plans, facing compensation reduction, and being excluded from meetings,” Curley was fired from her job as a diversity recruiter.
In an article from the Daily Beast Curley states, “Because of my adamant advocacy of black and brown students to be fairly and justly considered for roles at Google, I experienced active abuse and retaliation from several managers who harassed me- and many other black women.” Curley is responsible for recruiting over 300 Black and Brown students from HBCUs since her employment in 2014. Her advocacy to push Black and Brown people into white collar positions was unfortunately met with backlash and betrayal from Google.
It’s hypocritical for Google to boast about diversity, equity, and inclusion, as an essential part of production while disrespecting people of color (POCs) that are working to change company culture. It is important that when a company preaches about diversity, equity, and inclusion being part of everything they do—from how they build their products to how they build their workforce, as seen on Google’s diversity webpage, that there is genuine follow through. Intentionally leaving Black people out of creative spaces due to oppressive aggressions is careless and breeds performative activism. If you are to uplift Black creativity in its fullness, put us in board rooms. Give us the pay, platform, and recognition we deserve.
In an Instagram Post from writer, artist, and comedian Rinny Perkins, she’s seen grasping a mug that reads “pay Black women for their labor instead of using them for diversity clout.” In Perkins captions she goes on to state, “We can see your empty attempts to center equality by asking Black women to position themselves as props for your company image only AFTER you’ve been called out, while still keeping us underpaid. Y’all don’t advocate for black women enough for me.” Her words directly address the performative activism and inequality afforded to the Black creative. Capitalizing off our language, image, art, and craft without providing the proper acknowledgement and compensation is not an inclusive practice…it’s theft.
The Harlem Renaissance Era
When evaluating the impact and erasure of Black creativity, I am reminded of the viral tweet from writer and creator, Melissa Kimble that states “this world does not move without Black creativity.” Dating all the way back to the Harlem Renaissance, Black people utilized their remarkable artistry to remain at the forefront of creative innovation. As hate crimes and sharecropping—an adaptation of slavery—persisted in the South, many Black Southerners viewed the North as a beacon of hope. This migration from the South to the North formerly known as the Great Migration gave birth to the Harlem Renaissance. Due to the determination of white flight, Harlem became a space for everything Black. According to an article from the History Channel, “this considerable population shift resulted in a Black Pride movement with leaders like W.E.B Du Bois working to ensure that Black Americans got the credit they deserved for cultural areas of life.” Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Louis Armstrong were only a few of the well-known visionaries to arise from the Harlem Renaissance Era.
The Harlem Renaissance Era, as stated in an article from The Art Story, allowed a safe space for Black artists to find different ways to celebrate Black culture and identity. However, as Harlem’s popularity grew, the area’s festivities began to be seen as fashionable by white people. Establishments like the Cotton Club arose to cater to white people’s desire to engage in Black artistry without having to socialize with Black people (Harlem Renaissance 2). The idea that Black creativity can be celebrated by the oppressor [white people] as long as their proximity to the Black community goes no deeper than entertainment is another form of the capitalization of the Black experience.
The Harlem Renaissance Era provides a historical lens for the all-too-common erasure of Black artistry and culture once it is deemed fashionable. Once, Black talent takes on the backhanded compliment of being deemed fashionable by the majority, white fingers uplift ideas rooted in Black culture without acknowledging those who planted the seed.
Appropriation of Black Creativity
In an article from Flare Magazine, writer Nezariel Scott states, “Can we keep it real? Black women are tastemakers. We all know who rocked mini buns (AKA bantu knots), boxer braids (those would be cornrows) and coffin nails first, right? It’s sorta like the whole thick lip, thick thigh, thick everything life. Even our slang has become a sensation…but when it becomes a vibe, where is the credit? Case in point: white beauty gurus using tea and snatched wigs or eyebrows on fleek in their videos—which they bank serious $$$ from—but are giving literally zero recognition or gratitude in return.”
It is not a compliment for non-Black people to rebrand Black creativity as their own, especially after years of policing it. Demonizing Black hairstyles, fashion, music, and language/mannerisms when practiced by Black people, while uplifting the oppressors copied, watered-down version of Black culture is exploitative.
Black Hairstyles are Not a Costume
An article from The New York Times recounts the experience of Faith Fennidy, an 11-year-old Black student at a private Roman Catholic School near New Orleans. Fennidy “was asked to leave class because administrators said her braided hair extensions violated school rules…A viral video showed the sixth grader, Faith Fennidy, crying as she packed up her belongings and left school.” Braids, locs, cornrows, and bantu knots are all forms of Black expression, gatekept by the Black community due to a deep history of discrimination and exploitation of Black culture by non-Black people. Fennidy is one of the several Black students told that her Blackness does not adhere to the dress code. In the same year Fennidy got sent home for wearing box braids, Kim Kardashian was called “queen, gorgeous, lovely, cute, absolutely beautiful, pretty, etc.” after uploading a video to twitter of her wearing long Fulani braids. Just last year, Kim Kardashian again uploaded pictures of her wearing blonde Fulani braids and received over 2 million likes. It is also relevant to note that while wearing these hairstyles, Kim Kardashian mislabeled her Fulani braids as “Bo Derek” braids.
When non-Black people appropriate Black culture, they do so without the knowledge of its historical origins. In the 1979 movie 10, Bo Derek ran down a beach in Fulani braids and became responsible for a “cross-cultural craze” and “beauty store bonanza.” Despite Fulani braids being worn by Black people for years, the braids were relabeled Bo Derek braids in an instant. According to the article the History of Braids: more than just a hairstyle, “Fulani braids originated from the Fula people in West Africa and the Sahel region. The large, nomadic community passed on the traditional hairstyle through generations…the hair is decorated with beads, shells, wooden or metal accents, or even a family’s silver coins and amber for heritage purposes.” Calling these braids Bo Derek braids erases their origins.
In an article from the New York Magazine, Bo Derek was asked what she thought of the hair style, culture appropriation, and whether she’d ever considered her role in it. Derek responded by stating, “race never came up around discussions of her 10 cornrows. It’s a hairdo! That’s all it is…of all the important racial and cultural issues we have right now, people are going to focus on a hairstyle? No, no. I’ll save my efforts toward important racial and cultural issues.” Appropriation is an important racial and cultural issue. When Black children can get sent home because their hair is demonized while white people can wear it as a costume and receive decades of praise, there’s a deep-rooted issue that requires acknowledgment.
The Black community has faced judgement, hatred, and intolerance on behalf of their creative individuality. It is reckless to appropriate Black creativity and ignore your hand in the matter. Bo Derek’s claim that her hair was just another hairdo is a privileged perspective that allows her and the rest of the majority to dip their toes in a culture that is not their own.
AAVE is Not Internet Slang
In another viral tweet, professional basketball player for the Philadelphia 76ers, Tobias Harris is seen wearing a t-shirt that states, “Ghetto is nothing but creativity that hasn’t been stolen yet.” In more modern day, appropriation sets its sights on an upcoming generation. Popular social media sites such as TikTok, have enabled African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to be associated with Gen Z slang. Terms like “whew chile, and I oop, periodt, snatched, bussin, thicc, sis and sheesh are being grossly misused and mispronounced by non-Black teens every day. As stated in an article from The Pitch, “up until a few years ago, AAVE was considered ghetto or uncultured. If a Black person wanted to advance in the workplace or at school, they would have to change the way they speak. And to be honest AAVE is still considered less than Standard American English when a Black person uses it.” A key point that the quote mentions is codeswitching—occurs when Black people switch to relate to the majority more closely. Because AAVE is often associated with low intelligence by non-Black people, Black people often feel the need to codeswitch in order to advance in society. When Black people exercise their authenticity through speech, they are often left out of spaces because they are no longer relatable to the majority.
Codeswitching relates to speech, fashion, etc. and while it should not come at the expense of Black authenticity, it often does. Now that certain terms that originate from AAVE are becoming popularized by the majority, non-Black people are using them without understanding their origins and significance. When scrolling through TikTok, non-Black people are able to garner millions of views and likes for doing things Black people have been doing for years. For instance, in the most recent trend of appropriation, non-Black creators are using their parents and/or grandparents for clout by getting them to use AAVE. In these viral TikToks, non-Black creators have their parents do the ice in my veins pose and say sheeshhh as a joke.
The popularization of AAVE on social media sites came from the Black creator’s influence on pop-culture. Calling AAVE internet or Gen Z slang completely erases its origins. The article from The Pitch goes on to state the harmful consequences that follow white ignorance, as it relates to the appropriation of AAVE. For instance, the article states, “If we look at AAVE as just slang, then there isn’t a problem with people adopting and using it. But it’s so much more than that. It’s an actual dialect that people use to communicate. When a non-Black person uses it, with no regard to where and from whom it actually came, that’s just a form of cultural appropriation. I understand that like every other dialect or language, people do have access to it, but what non-Black people in Generation Z could do is at least learn the history behind it and respect AAVE before they use it.”
AAVE is not a joke and shouldn’t be used as a comedic act to garner views. Black people have been long criticized and excluded by white people for the use of AAVE. It is not ok for the majority to then popularize AAVE and not accredit it to Black people and then go as far as to frame the entire dialect as a joke.
In order for non-Black people to engage in Black creativity in a non-harmful way, our hair, our language, and our value must be preserved and appreciated. Invest in our creativity. Buy from Black owned businesses. Spotlight Black creatives. Give us a place in the board room. Give us the pay we deserve and give us a platform beyond Black History month and ingenuine campaigns promoting diversity and inclusion. An Instagram post from Black beauty and makeup artists Ali (@sweetmutuals) displays her artistry while bringing awareness to the plight of the Black creative. In the post, she is pictured with the words “Pay Black Creatives.” The caption on the post reads “PAY BLACK CREATIVES!!!!! If you are going to hire us for your campaigns, please pay us for the hard work and time we put into our craft. It is far too often that Black creatives are both asked and expected to do hard days of work for half the pay. We are overworked and undervalued. And to make it worse, we run the risk of our work not getting credited as well as stolen…We deserve to be properly compensated for the work we do!! We pour love and passion into what we do, and we use materials that we have to purchase. This goes for all creatives: painters, fashion designers, singers, authors, makeup artists, musicians- the list can go on! We deserve to be paid. BLACK PEOPLE DESERVE TO BE PAID!!!!”
Telfar, The Groovy Crew LLC., NDartLife by Nick Davis, Noname, Jamila Woods, and Nappy Headed Club are all influential artists and product brands that embody the innovation of Black creativity. As Ali states, we are undervalued an unaccredited. If the majority fails to acknowledge their hand in the undervaluation of Black creatives, while profiting off of Black creativity, a cycle of appropriation, erasure, and exploitation is bound to ensue.