You Have to Pay Us for It: Curbing Cultural Appropriation Through Ownership

by Michelle Y. Talbert, Esq.
"I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground." ~ Madam C.J. Walker
“Ouch, Mommy!” she exclaimed, from her seat on the floor in between her mom’s knees, as she reached for her scalp. While Mom’s hands moved skillfully through Daughter’s mass of curly, kinky, beautiful hair, an exasperated, “Sit still, we’re almost done,” was the only reply.

Some variation of this scene, occurred weekly in my home, both as “Mommy” and as “Daughter.” It is a familiar memory for almost every woman of the African Diaspora; a rite of passage. Trying to ‘sit still’ as our elders, moms, aunties, sisters and even stylists, grappled with and lovingly (sometimes frustratedly) managed and manipulated our kinks, waves and curls. We own this memory, as proudly as we own the beautiful styles of our sometimes beaded cornrows, twists, plaits and braids, and curls and puffs that were the glorious crowning outcome of the pain suffered by all involved in the process.

In modern times, people of other cultures have chosen to incorporate our styles, some wearing them as ‘costumes’ for performances, on the fashion runways and red carpets. These styles, the rewards of years of our pain and ingenuity, are being adorned by people with no knowledge of the rich history and cultural roots from which those styles sprouted. There’s no irony lost on the fact that the Black haircare and cosmetics industries were, “a market segmented by Jim Crow,” industries long ignored by mainstream manufacturers. Those manufacturers are now reaping financial benefits in the natural hair industry alone of over $2 billion per year.

Cultural appropriation aka ‘Columbusing’ of historical African-based hairstyles like Bantu Knots (recently called mini buns) and Cornrows (apparently the creation of some white dude at Tresemme a few weeks ago) has been written about elsewhere, so I won’t do more than reference it as the backdrop for why it is so important that we own the legal and financial rights to our beauty. That is exactly what Madam C.J. Walker did centuries ago, and what has been done recently by Gwen Jimmere, founder of Naturalicious and the first African American woman to own a U.S. patent for a natural hair care product.

What is Ownership?

Madam C.J. Walker was the first self-made [African] American woman millionaire, building her empire in the haircare industry. She was not only the youngest daughter borne of former slaves, she was the only of their six children born into freedom. She was a fierce businesswoman who believed it was her duty to ensure that she provided for not only her daughter, but provided a means for many other Black women to provide for themselves and their families, as well.

Madam Walker created products to straighten hair and trained legions of Black women throughout the U.S., the Caribbean and Africa in her processes and procedures to become salespeople and entrepreneurs in their own right. Although she did not create the hot comb, she did improve upon it and her company owned patents for other chemical compounds, as well. When asked how she feels following in the footsteps of Madam, Walker Gwen humbly states, “I hope that Madam C.J. Walker would be proud of me for actually owning something, not sitting back and complaining about it.”

Bragging Rights are Not Rights at All

As Gwen says of our styles and beauty processes, women of the African diaspora are “the creators, the originators and then [others] come along and they sell it and get paid from what we’ve created.” We get so steamed, and rightfully so, when we see our styles not only worn by white models as they saunter and skulk down NYFW runways, but as they are lauded with having ‘created’ some new ‘trend’ when we know the styles date back to our history in Africa. But getting steamed, writing think pieces, and taking to Twitter to decry our outrage and call ‘foul’ because mainstream media has yet again ignored our contribution to another thread in the fabric of the American social experience is not our only recourse.

Yes, we created the styles, but so what? We can’t take that information to the bank or into a court of law. We can’t stop the constant raping of our intellectual property when it comes to hair and beauty… or can we?

Gwen Jimmere, realized that that’s exactly what she would do, when at the urging of her mom, she filed the necessary paperwork with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, for her proprietary Moroccan Rhassoul 5-in-1 Clay Treatment product. Like Madam Walker before her, who incorporated and took legal means to protect her business and creations, Gwen used the legal system to one up the social system.

By receiving a patent for her creation, Gwen’s business has the full force and credit of the U.S. Constitution and the courts behind her should anyone come along and attempt to profit from her creation. Since receiving the patent Gwen says that she is most encouraged and proud by the number of other Black women who have been inspired to start their own businesses, and for those already in business, who have been inspired to research protecting their ideas and creations, as well.

It is also of note that Gwen flips the appropriation script with her product line, which she says is also purchased by non-Black consumers; at least five percent of consumers of her natural hair care products are non-Black. Gwen is banking, literally, on her sentiment regarding the use of historically Black beauty products and styles: “We’re happy to license it to you, but you have to pay for it. You can’t take our stuff anymore.”

Photo: Courtesy of  Gwen Jimmere

Michelle Y. Talbert, Esq., is a recovering lawyer, author and host of the Her Power Hustle Podcast. She is a regular contributor to For Harriet. You can tune in to her podcast interview with Naturalicious founder Gwen Jimmere, where Gwen discusses the business of beauty from getting her products into Whole Foods to winning a $10,000 pitch competition.

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