By: Terrence A. Merkerson
“You been on my dick nigga, you love my style, nigga.”
-Nas, Ether (2001)
Ownership has always been a complex theme for Black folks in America.
The *LACK OF ownership has always been a complex theme for Black folks in America. In fact, it is an intrinsic component of our narrative in this country. Black folks have and continue to negotiate the concept of ownership in reference to our thoughts, our space, our labor, even our bodies. At one point, we did not even have ownership our own person.
Imagine that, though I would rather not.
The resilience of our people is our power to create, despite not having all the necessary tools. We make lemonade. We have made some of the richest, sweetest, diabetic-coma-inducing lemon sugar water palatable. Through a history and legacy of making the best out of fucked up situations, we have woven together a culture, a dialect and a tradition all our own. The problem is that even when we are fed the scraps from the master’s table, the master sees us reinvent and create something much greater than the sum of our rations, so the master decides that he wants those too, but there is one obstacle… the master can only consume; the master cannot create.
I was born in the ‘80s. Hip Hop was my compass. The culture was our mother. She created a space, a framework from within we were liberated and motivated to create. So that is exactly what we did… create. She was beautiful, just as her mothers were before her, and because we believed she was beautiful, in turn, we also believed in our own beauty because we were from her. She was for us because she was by us. Every few years, the culture changed to maintain her authenticity and respectability, but as popular culture became more and more intrigued by her, popular culture made it clear that it was it’s intention to consume her, as it had her mothers. (Just a touch of romance, in the literary sense ;))
So there is this thing that happens whenever Black folks create something cool. Whether it is a new genre (or sub-genre) of music, our hair, our fashion, our slang or even a dance, White folks see it and are immediately mesmerized by it. So they do what White folks in America have always done, they take it, strip it of its sophistication and try to convince you it was never yours in the first place. That is the part that is both disheartening and remarkable about Black culture. Black folks have always created out of necessity and our culture is no different. Our ancestors were stripped of many of our histories and traditions, so out of necessity, they created one. It gave us an identity. It has been the cyclical task of every generation to re-create and re-invent our culture to preserve its survival. We do it because we have to. We do it to have ownership to accompany our curatorship. It is all we have. It is the only thing we’ve ever been openly allowed to own.
The commodification and commercialization of the culture is the culprit. Someone, somewhere, at some point realized that culture can be diluted, repackaged and repositioned for mass consumption. God-damned capitalism. This made our music, our style and our compass accessible to people who have no interest in empathizing or understanding the narrative that is used to create the very thing that they so fervently consume.
Sometimes, this really pisses me off.
When I’m driving down the road and a 3-Series BMW full of white sorority girls pulls up beside me, blaring the latest offering from Gucci Mane, as they clumsily and awkwardly recite the lyrics of the song, while only managing to remain ever-so-slightly offbeat, I get pissed off.
When I watch the live broadcast of any event and see a white kid repetitively dabbing his appropriated ass off, I get pissed off.
When I hear a white girl use the phrase “Bye, Felicia”, knowing the she has no conscious idea of the origin of the expression, I get pissed off.
Whenever I see the word K-A-R-D-A-S-H-I-A-N at any point, anytime, anywhere, I get pissed off. (I like Kendall though… for now.)
I am not pissed off because they are listening to the song, doing the dance, using the phrase, or in the case of the Kardashian clan, merely existing. I get pissed because they feel entitled to and empowered by my culture. That’s our shit. That’s my shit. THAT shit pisses me off… sometimes.
Yes, that sounds really selfish… but that’s because it is. I am aware that the commodification of our culture has made a lot of people, including a lot of Black folks, very wealthy and if I am a proponent of anything, it is the growth and distribution of Black wealth. Sometimes, we have to take this shit mainstream to cash in. But why does popular culture (i.e. White folks) have to take shit so far overboard EVERY (pause) SINGLE (pause) TIME (pause).
Thankfully, there has been a cultural renaissance, of sorts in 2016 (the only good thing that 2016 has offered us). Beyoncé gave us Lemonade. Chance the Rapper allowed us to flip through his Coloring Book while riding shotgun on an Ultralight Beam. Kendrick reminded us that We Gon Be Aight by instructing us to Levitate. Solo offered us A Seat at the Table. Gucci got out. Drake danced in a gray turtle neck. J. Cole gave us an early Christmas present. A Tribe release a new album for this first time in Y E A R S. We saw the story of Nat Turner revived. The culture gave us “Atlanta”, “Insecure”, “Queen Sugar”, & “Luke Cage” and we enjoyed one last year of our “First” Family. We lost soldiers, but gained a movement. Black folks started caring about Black folks shit again.
That is the beauty and resilience of the Black culture.
For the first time in a while, I feel like we created some shit that’s for us. Just (pause) For (pause) Us (pause). So far, it seems as though a few of those constructions will say exactly that, for us.
Not to backpedal, but I understand and appreciate the desire of White folk to participate in the culture. We know you can’t help yourselves. This is not to ostracize you. This is to make you aware. There are some White folk and members of other races and nationalities that are deeply invested in our culture. That’s cool. We want you to enjoy it, but we need you to respect our space and respect is just a minimum (thanks Lauren). Some of you do the exceptional work of respecting, preserving and positively contributing to the culture, but just because I can walk in a store and buy a tampon does not change the fact that I, as a male, cannot use one properly, nor does it give me license to critique how women should use them.
To the White and other non-black contributors, participators and consumers, there is very fine line you must tread when you are in use or critical of Black art and culture, because remember, that shit wasn’t made for you.
Black folks, we create. Let’s continue. This shit is for us, by us.
Terrence A. Merkerson is the Founder & Creator of Avenue Fifteen. Terrence earned Bachelor’s Degrees in both Political Science and Gender/Race Studies from the University of Alabama. Terrence also completed Graduate School at the University of Alabama earning a Master’s Degree in Communication.
He currently resides in Baton Rouge, LA.