Afro Boho Aesthetics
I’m so honored that a number of folks have said that so many of the products on Mmmm, Yes! fit the Afro Boho look. It also made me think deeply about what that is and what it means to me.
At this point, I need to distinguish Boho from Afro Boho. Boho aesthetics are rooted in settler colonialism. Even the word Bohemian has its origins in racist language as it refers to the country of Bohemia (currently Czech Republic), from where many people believed the Romani(1) people came.
It also has its roots in the violence of gentrification. In the early 19th Century, young middle and upper class British artists and philosophers moved into low income areas of London to pursue their romanticized notion of the nobility of poverty. Fixated on Orientalism and the racist notion of noble “primitives,” they appropriated garments and home furnishings of “freer, more pure people, namely the Romani and Irish Travellers. They did not see the irony that they remained entirely British in the manner in which they rejected the rigidity of British society. By racist fetishizing of non-dominant cultures they missed the profound substance and very grounded essences of indigeneity.
Make no mistake about it. Europe has a fair number of indigenous people who rejected ideas such as land ownership verses stewardship. Cultures who work with nature, understand the spirit of place, and value the contributions of women. Cultures who resisted or acculturated Christianity without its more colonizing, capitalistic adaptations.
Modern Boho looks evolved and continue to draw upon classist and racist depictions of traditional Romani and Traveller clothing. Think about “the peasant” shirt. Or the fringed fortune teller shawls. Even patchwork is an aesthetic choice deriving from romantic notions about poverty. Boho or Bohemian aesthetics hit it’s popularity peak in the 1960’s and 70’s. Stevie Nick’s and her G-word look. The leather fringe appropriated from Turtle Island indigenous people. The “peasant” skirt and shirts.
One of the beautiful things about over 50 solar returns is witnessing the way time moves forwards, sideways and backwards. The way it layers and folds. The way time has zero respect for itself and yet honors and loves itself fiercely. Its jealousy and forgiveness. Its delightful sense of humor. Its duality as both a construct and a reality. Time has so many lessons for those blessed to have enough of it.
So, what does that have to do with Afro Bohemian Aesthetics? Afro Boho is not the africanization of Boho. It is the evolution of the aesthetics established by freedom fighters in the 60’s and 70’s while simultaneously drawing on icons and imagery from our indigenous African heritages. “Say it loud, I’m Black & proud,” conjures up images of Angela Davis’ big afro, dashikis and the reclamation of the right to natural hair.
Simultaneously, as Boho was reaching iconic fashion levels, the world was being made smaller by advances in technology. Black Americans were casting off their indoctrination that Africans were naked, unwashed heathens in grass skirts who should be grateful to have been enslaved. We were learning that we were more than National Geographic would have us believe ourselves to be. We had beautiful civilizations, spiritualities, fabrics, ornate hair styles, embroidery. We had culture. Indeed, our first steps towards casting out our own internalized racism, was to latch onto “the Motherland” regardless of what we did or did not know about any of the cultural trappings.
If you follow along, you know Mmmm, Yes! Is a very personal business. The mission is deeply personal. The products are deeply personal. & you’ve also gathered it is rooted firmly in some old school womanist theory which means you know that “the personal is political.” (2)
I believe that idea with every ounce of my being. & I like to think, in some small way, I got to witness how powerful living politically during the 1980’s and early 90’s when women (all) were forming their own communities, businesses, gathering spaces, publishing houses, record labels, film companies, music and film festivals. & like most powerful movements which threaten hetero-normative, patriarchal, WhySupremacy, (3) they were coopted, neautrailzed and eventually faded away. The “Boho look” like mainstream awareness of radical social justice practices, ebbs and flows in and out of a wide variety of social justice movements, but always resurfaces as a hot look in repressive political climates. More on that deeper in.
Somebody asked me, jokingly and lovingly, “Why are you like this?
I responded, “Because I read Black women and I believed them.”
I have always been inspired by Toni Morrison. & in fact, she has a lot to do with why I started Mmmm, Yes! In 1981, Toni Morrison spoke at the annual meeting of The Ohio Arts. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that she said, “If you find a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” In subsequent interviews, she returns often to this theme. Accounts of her library posthumously indicate that she did, indeed, return again and again to her own work and read it. Since I believed Toni Morrison, I determined to make for myself the kind of home, clothing and accessories I wanted to see in my life. Following the logic that the personal is political, surely my experience must intersect with at least 10 other people’s experiences, so I did exactly that.
So, again, what does this have to do with Afro Bohemian aesthetics? Everything I have written about above has been about the pursuit of liberation and the responsibility of the person to create for themselves a life as unencumbered as possible by the oppressive nature of conforming to bland, neutral aesthetics presented by the corporate class to create a homogenous society in line with the agenda of the ruling class.
Part of doing that is to opt-out of oppressive systems. Sure, other companies will get you what you want the next day. But, is what you want truly so valuable that you will have it at the expense of the planet, exploited workers, and within the narrow confines of the White imagination? I would hope not.
For me, what people are calling the Afro Bohemian look is inspired by deep engagement with our heritage, culture(s), and a visual aesthetic deeply rooted in the complexity of the spiritual inheritances from our African descended bodies. (4) We are looking for an external reflection of our inner liberation. A connection to our roots (literal and figurative.) “Sankofa in real time,” as the wonderful host of the 9 Minds Radio Show, Rish De Terra would put it.
Indeed, the Afro Boho aesthetic is particularly radical because it eschews a form of consensual submission to White dominance driven by a political ideology that in order to succeed, one must distance oneself from Blackness because White approval ensures success. Nothing was ever made more clear than the 1954’s trade film produced by The Johnson Printing Corporation “The Secret Of Selling The Negros.” In essence, The Johnson Publishing Company had a vested interest in securing advertising revenue from White businesses who didn’t care about our community. So, they made a film to help manipulate us into integrating our dollars.
Unfortunately, however, Afro Boho is problematic language for discussing what we are attempting to achieve. Afro-Bohemian aesthetics have an afro-indigenous understanding of bodies, sensuality, and pleasure that rejects both European and Abrahamic religious attitudes of possession, dominance, human property rights, and control.
When one looks around the world at pre-colonial indigenous cultures - whether on the continent of Africa or America - you will invariably find examples of some form of queer and/or nonbinary positive structure built into the culture, a pro-consentual sexual framwork and processes for polyamoury. Homophobia and transphobia was an import. Looking across images of many ethnic groups on The Continent, offers evidence of people completely at home in their bodies. Whether it is nursing children in public, traditional dances, or garments. African people prior to colonization were at home in their bodies. What people call Afro Boho aesthetics reclaims that comfort.
However, I reject Afro Boho as a label because it relies of racist language to communicate a reclamation of a false indigeneity interrupted by colonialism and perverted by capitalism. This is why I describe my work as Diaspora Design. I'm trying to capture who we - Black people - are here, indigenous to Turtle Island, the Caribbean and South America. The new beautiful thing we created in spite of the determined effort to erase us. For me, Afro Boho is retro. I want to move forward.
Thanks for reading this far. It's a bit rambling, but, there are so many nuances. I tried to grab them all. I will probably write on this topic again. It is rich and deep, like us.
- The Romani are what people mistakenly call gypsies. The Romani people view the word gypsy as a slur equivalent to nigger.
- That quote has a murky origin story with several women all sharing credit as a phrase which popped up in Women’s Consciousness raising Group in the 1960’s and 70’s. However, the first printed statement was in Carol Hanish’s, (a White woman) 1969 essay of the same title. However, it really gained steam and became a womanist anchor through it’s appearance in publications by the indomitable Combahee River Collective’s publications, including Audre Lorde’s pivotal essay, “The Master Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House.
- You will not often see me refer to White Supremacy. For me White + Supremacy is a fallacy. But to summarize, it’s a play on words. Words have power. You can read more about that here: https://christinaspringer.medium.com/why-whypipo-693843b88d29
- African descended bodies always carry with them the voices of our ancestors whether we choose to listen to them or not.