I have quite a few friends from the African Diaspora, both directly linked to the Continent by way of parents and close relatives, and indirectly linked by way of ancestry. Some of them have travelled to the Continent, and they have had the chance to appreciate some parts of our cultural inheritance.

Today we see it everywhere: the material culture from the Continent seems to have found a place in the African Diaspora, and I think this is what unites our African global community. In recent times the display of the Ethiopian-inspired print dashiki – commonly known as ‘Angelina’ in Ghana, has become what some people would label as “cool”, and although this type of material is not only linked to Ethiopian or Ghanaian cultures – namely Chinese culture, it is indeed a symbol of the African Diasporic pride. Other attires such as African or African inspired headwraps have become very dominant in the mainstream, so much that we have businesses whose sole purpose is the trade of headwraps – i.e. the Nigerian-owned The Wrap Life. When it comes to other materials, accessories that recall African ancient symbology can be found all over the place. If you are a neo-soul music listener, you would know that Erykah Badu shaped and decorated her music with Egyptian iconography, making the ankh her primary symbol.

It is important to understand, however, that the use of African material culture is not a new phenomenon, and as it happens in every generation, what we are experiencing is a new-found freedom of expression of what African nations have to offer, not only as a means of entertainment and beauty, but perhaps as a statement of political views, social ideologies, awareness and affirmation of self and an attempt, in some instances, of collective memory.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Black intellectuals and social activists, mainly in America, realised the need to reaffirm and reclaim their African identity. Through the work of Malcom X, Maya Angelou and W.E.B DuBois, the sense of African-ness started to form more fervently than before. A genuine feeling of belonging to the African community started to take form. It was an attempt to repossess the African material heritage and intellectual patrimony. W.E.B DuBois, for example, went as far as denouncing his American nationality and adopting Ghanaian nationality, a clear manifestation of his vision of reconciliation and reconnection of the African Diaspora with the Continent.

This is, partially, the framework within which African material culture in the Diaspora finds place. It is a deeper conversation that goes beyond the visual display of African prints and iconography.

While discussing this phenomenon, an issue arises: what does the word African really mean? The definition would naturally suggest something or someone related to the Africa, thus the whole Continent. But the reality is that when we are talking about Africa, it is mostly a West African narrative. In this sense, it is important to understand why, before getting lost in translation. Historical circumstances have created a contact between West Africa and the ‘global North’ since at least the 15th century, and consequently when we look at the display of African culture in the world, it is mostly an expression of a very specific region of the Continent. However, the vision of a Pan-African Africa and African experience often hides this necessary point. Africa is not a monolithic continent with one history. It is very diverse in all its parts, thus a selective knowledge and selected description of it may lead to the perpetuation of a very specific ideology and ideas.

Benjamina Dadzie
Benjamina is a Ghanaian born Italian, currently living in Manchester, England. She’s the editor of The African-Italian Project, an online blog through which she shares her story.
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3 Comments on "African Material Culture as Unifier of the Diasporic African Community, and the Problem with the term ‘African’"

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Ameer Weston

This was a great piece. Thanks for highlighting the often misunderstood concept of “African”.

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