Ownership of Coffee, Fries and Fashion – When you claim with the confidence to proclaim

To claim your space is to embrace your space, but to own your space is to have a sense of pride in it deep enough to proclaim it and invite others to share in it. To own does not always mean to lay claim to the originality of an idea or the products that result from the idea. To own is to have claimed the connection of an idea or product to one’s identity and then proclaim it in a way that the consumption and distribution of such idea or product are inseparable from its owner’s location and/or identity. A commonly invoked notion of originality has often conflated authenticity with ancestry and/or tradition. I want to share three examples from three different geographic spaces to illustrate my take on ownership.

France – There are many coffee drinkers for whom the French coffee is the referent to which others are to be compared. Yet, the French do not have coffee farms nor do they have coffee trees from which they produce coffee. What they have done successfully is to claim and own a refined coffee consumption identity in ways that has become a core part of their culture and collective identity. Coffee growing is neither traditional to French nor is it a part of their ancestry, yet it is an authentic part of their consumption culture.

USA – Of the many cultural attributions in American consumption, the French fries assumes a central role. In fact, in the heat of the 2003 opposition of France to the war in Iraq, some American congressional leaders asked that the ‘French fries’ be renamed ‘Freedom Fries’ in their House of Representatives’ cafeteria. This change of name, which never stuck, was made even though the French fries is actually the Belgian fries, if location of origin where to determine ownership and authenticity. Ownership anchored in shared consumption practices has made it an American cultural food identity for all to experience, including the French. This brings us to one of the most telling identifiers of a group.

Africa – A widely known form of African aesthetic production relates to clothing materials. Some of these materials today continue to represent material production and refinement in the spaces that bore its origin, such as Ashoke (Nigeria) and Kente (Ghana). However, the most commonly worn materials whose ownership today is ascribed to Nigeria and other West African countries were not originally produced in Africa. Many of the materials used to produce much of what is today known as African outfits owe their origin to Indonesia. Some of these materials today continue to be produced in places like the Netherlands. Just like French coffee and American French fries, these materials are claimed and owned as African cultural representation as a result of their refinement into fashions that are anchored in African identity. To claim ownership of these outfits and fashion as African identity, even when not in originality of material production, in no form erases its authenticity. What it does is confirm the power of ownership through appropriation, claiming and proclaiming of product or ideas whether in cultural identity or product naturalization.

In the same way as materials assume cultural identity, knowledge production follows similar historical departures on journeys that have led us to the reality of today as we continue on the journey for the possibilities of tomorrow. Authenticity and ownership cohabit in real or imagined spaces that connect the past to the present with promise of the future. Own your space and share it with the world with such pride and confidence that others can’t help but want to celebrate with you and partake in it… Here is to you as you drink…, eat…, and fashion…!

This polylogue is brought to you from a Wakanda state of mind…

Collins O. Airhihenbuwa