The Emmett Till painting is not cultural appropriation

A painting of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy murdered in 1955 after it was falsely claimed he flirted with a white woman, is causing furore in America. Why you ask? Was it gruesome? Is it a bad painting? No, everyone is protesting because it was painted by a white woman.

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I have a real issue with this. I am a black woman and, although I am not ‘African American’, I fail to understand why people in the black art community are so upset. Some may say I wouldn’t get it but, unlike the comments made by Samuel L  Jackson, there are universal experiences that black people share: racism is one. So no, I do get it.

Can you not see that black and indeed Africans are profiting from their own culture too?

However, this kind of ‘It’s my history, it’s my culture I don’t want to share’ notion is something I only see with my black American brothers and sisters. Back home on the continent we LOVE to share our culture. A white girl braiding her hair is a wonderful thing to see. A blonde boy releasing a hit sampling Fela Kuti on the hooks makes us PROUD. Jamie Oliver making Jollof rice (okay, he messed up) but the guy TRIED and we loved that.

But why does it seem that the vast majority of black Americans are not the same? Cornrows is ‘cultural appropriation’? Since when? ‘Hip Hop is ours!’  Is that so? I thought music is for everyone, whatever their experience and background? Okay, it didn’t seem cool that other races profited and capitalised on black culture–I hate the Kardashians too–but can you not see that black and indeed Africans are profiting from their own culture too? In music, we have Wizkid utilising the Fela Kuti and even Bob Marley sound to get paid! And let’s not get started on the blonde ‘Barbie’ black rappers…

I do sympathise that some black Americans feel like they don’t have anything to call ‘theirs’ but why should there be ownership on anything? One of the problems of America is the concept that some things are for some groups and some things are for others. It happens in all ethnic groups and it is quite frankly one of the main reasons I raise my eyebrows at some of the protests happening on that side of the pond.

History, especially in America, is a shared experience.

So on today’s ‘Why we are angry’ Twitter thread: a white American woman painted a picture of Emmett Till. First and foremost, why is this history only the history of black America? Why is it not possible for a white woman to be moved so much by the actions of others and the past that she paints to reflect this? This is ART, guys, come on! Artists should have the freedom to paint whatever regardless of the subject matter. #Freedomofpaint! Since when do black artists paint ‘black’ things and white artists paint ‘white’ experiences? The very same black artists who are protesting are the ones who have  been fighting to be accepted as an ‘artist’ not a ‘black artist.’

Funny how beneficial it is to be called a ‘black artist’ suddenly…

We need to pick our battles better. History, especially in America, is a shared experience. The country as a whole went through so much. Don’t pull the race card in every circumstance. Fight for what truly matters and remember equality goes both ways. It is not possible to fight for inclusion and then exclude others.

I am glad Dana Schutz painted this picture. I see a beautiful painting and an artist showing a painful and horrific part of history to the world. Bravo to her.

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