Recently I had a somewhat tumultuous debate when I stated that African Americans do not have any culture in America. There were some who strongly disagreed with me, naturally because, we feel at least what we deem as culture is simplified through our music, through our style, through the HBCUs and various African American museums that display our notable time here in America. This ideal however does not notate culture in its rawest and viable sense.
As a young black girl growing up in the suburbs of Washington, DC I was exposed to Black culture on a normal basis or so I thought. I feel growing up in the 70s gave me some insight to ‘our’ culture. I remember my mother having Earth Wind & Fire, Funkadelic, and Rick James albums that rendered a visual and ear bending release of Blackness in this sedated white world. Back then, you did live in Black neighborhoods, you knew your neighbors and you went to Black schools where you were typically the majority. So I grew up with a strong sense of that identity. My father was a huge James Cleveland fan, he had stacks upon stacks of his albums, Mighty Clouds of Joy etc, of when Gospel music, was truly the real thing.
In our food, we know that soul food thing, hamhocks, pigfeet, collard greens, sweet potato pie, macaroni and cheese, I mean, these are the hallmarks of Black culture, it is what we deem as ours, no matter how damaging this food may be to us. We know this food was carried down from our imprisoned ancestors who had no choice but to make do with what was given to them. But this is Black culture in America. What remains of it today can be scarcely traced as each generation passes, the environment becomes increasingly washed out, diluted and we as Black people are programmed with new ideas of what is our ‘culture’. Today hip hop is supposed to be the voice of Black culture to some degree, however, it is clear that hip hop has sold out and can no longer be a voice for the voiceless, it is all stage, show, pomps and pride. There is no culture in it at all.
When I finally became a grown woman and had gone thru all the phases of Black american music, it was still the music of the 70s that still held the light, but that in and of itself was still not enough. When I began to seek deeper elements of what is culture, I had to turn to Jamaica and reggae. Reggae music instilled pride, deep thought provoking pride, that Black american music seemed to graze the surface at. Yes, we had James Brown, Say It Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud, but Jamaica had Alton Ellis, I’m Going Back to Africa. These two recordings were done around the same time, the late 1960s, and while we were just engaging in being Black and proud in America, Jamaica was already dialoging about going back to Africa. What a huge gap in distinction and consciousness. While Black america was just beginning to experiment with our natural tresses, Jamaica had long endured the Rastafarian revolution of dreadlocs and its impeccable meaning in society. Jamaica was already turning the tide of producing meaningful and historical music that would break all the boundaries of Black music in the west.
When I sought culture, I found it in Jamaica, because reggae music in its early onset, was always a spiritual, but profoundly protest music. The range of artists and statements are monumental compared to the limited releases of such music in Black america. Commerical interests have always destroyed the potential of Black culture in america, and so we have suffered as a result. While music remains at the heart, the ideal of culture in america, in Jamaica, there was indeed a culture, it was in the language, it was in the food, it was most certainly in the land. The ideal that land represented the farm, the way poor people lived, and their connection to slavery has always been bitterly close and unresolved in Jamaican society. Slavery is a subject that is highly sung about in a great deal of reggae music, while it is only hinted at in either deep blues or jazz, popular forms of Black music does not typically explore the effects of slavery. It has been buttered down to love, love love.
When I had gathered all the reggae music that satisfied my soul and yearning for ‘culture’ I was still left hanging, because my day to day life was not on a Rastafarian sanctuary in the hills, I had to still beget inna Babylon. And these ideas reinforced the true calling of what ‘culture’ would mean to me. Because with all the culture that is in Jamaica, it was dying also, and Rastafari has always called upon Black people to leave our slave dens of the West and return to our rightful place in Africa. Because we are a people without our culture as long as we remain.
So I took the next step and went to Africa, because going to the places where we were dropped off (Jamaica or Caribbean islands) can give us a more stronger sense and reality of culture. In the islands, Black skin is the majority. But there is still much to be desired. Going to the source can only heal the wounds, and can only define what ‘culture’ truly is.
Deeply, African people and our relationship with music is like one of mother with her child. And this concept remains strong in the motherland. I spent my time in The Gambia of course, and there I found what is culture. We have been stripped of so much as African Americans that our ideal of what is culture is like holding a cup of water compared to the ocean that is Africa. In this culture you breathe it, you smell it, you wear it, you speak it, you dance it, you cook it, you pick it, you pound it, you wash it, you consume it in its entirety, not in bits and pieces. Not with other people telling you what your culture is. Culture laments all around you in everything you do. We have been completely removed from that, deeply stripped in all its characterization, where we can see the intuitive humanity of African-ness that defines the word CULTURE. Its not in a museum as a relic, or taught in university as a subject, its not in a song or two, its in the very essence of the people. To be in that very organic nest of culture, you begin to understand why whites had to destroy our humanity and our ‘culture’ at every turn, and they continue to do so. Why they had to enforce that we should never try to ‘go back’ and remember all that they stripped us of.
If you’ve only viewed your identity from a minority perspective, to be in a majority will only be a mystery to you. As African Americans, being the majority and what that means is a mystery, most of us have not had to function in an African society where our norms is the law and custom of the land, and most of us choose not to. We’d rather pick and choose the laments of African culture that creates a convenient exercise of culture, but not one that defines who we are, because we can’t. America defines who we are. We are still blocked from that reality no matter how ‘diverse’ and multi-cultural america becomes.
I was told by my Black american compatriot, “there is culture here you just have to go seek and find it” but I find that to be an insult. Even in my beloved Chocolate City, whose chocolate is turning a pasty vanilla, I am not impressed with what is perceived as culture here, because there is none.
Make a voyage home, to find out who you are, and what has been taken from you Black America, you will never be the same.