Imitation isn’t always flattery…
Who Stole the Soul?
Skinhead was an extension of the sixties mod subculture.
1950s-1960s: The Mods- European Clothes & Black Music
Mods were working-class kids who wanted to dress better than their parents, peers and bosses. Their style was influenced by French, Italian and Ivy League fashion and they listened to (and celebrated) music by black artists, such as blues, soul and R&B. They were also introduced to ska (sometimes called bluebeat) and early reggae by Jamaican immigrants (who had their own subculture, the Rudeboys).
1970s: From Jamaican Rudeboy to English Skinhead
The style skinheads wear today was actually stolen from Jamaican and white Brits. It was all about dancing, looking cool, learning from each other. These weren’t the same skinheads you know today.
Towards the end of the sixties, Mod had become mainstream, commercialised and very flowery. Psychedelic music was becoming popular and some mods became hippies. The tougher, more masculine ‘hard mods’ hated it and wanted to distance themselves from all that. So they started to cut their hair in a very short college-boy style, often with a shaved in side parting (also popular with Rudeboys).
The overall look was stripped down, mixing Ivy League style button-down shirts, dockworker boots and Rudeboy style short trousers and skinny braces (that’s suspenders to you Yanks). People called them various names, such as ‘cropheads’, ‘bovver boys’ or ‘peanuts’, but on the 3rd of September 1969 a Daily Mirror article gave them the name Skinhead.
And so a new, multicultural subculture – based around working-class pride, toughness, looking smart and dancing to ska and reggae music – was created.
The whole scene was influenced by black culture
– the haircut, the length of our trousers, the walk, some of the talk and, of course, the music, much of it copied from Rude Boy style. Black and white generally got on, we intermingled and if there was trouble it was usually about a woman.
– Nigel Mann, original Skinhead [quote taken from Paolo Hewitt’s book, The Soul Stylists]
1980s: This Is England
Along with this, white nationalist and supremacist movements began to arise in Britain’s marginalized underclass. Under-educated, unskilled and unemployable, these rebels with neither cause nor clue were so culturally and intellectually bankrupt that they didn’t even have an identity. They resorted to stealing a white imitation of black culture and claiming it as their own, either unaware of the irony, or too desperate to care:
Unfortunately, the skinhead’s hard, macho image started to attract the National Front and the British Movement. Racists put on braces and big boots and called themselves skinheads without knowing the roots of their adopted subculture. Kids were shouting ‘sieg heil!’ and saluting diagonally, unaware of the irony. There was less emphasis on style – racist skinheads tended to wear t-shirts displaying British Movement and National Front logos instead of smart button downs – and they distanced themselves from the subculture’s black influences by listening to white power rock bands.
News of attacks on Asians, black people and other minorities spread and soon the media blamed skinheads, whether they were actually responsible or not.
White supremacists infected the skinhead scene like a virus- hijacked a vitality and identity that they could never come up with themselves.
Let’s take a second to think about how the white skinheads felt. Their look and lifestyle, which was an expression of their admiration of black fashion and music, and multiculturalism, had come to symbolize the opposite. Their identity was stolen from them. They couldn’t even be themselves anymore, unless they wanted to be mistaken for violent racists.
It’s been stolen.
For me it felt great. You’re amongst your own kind with the music and the clothes. I loved it. So when I read these things about fascism, it’s been stolen, they’ve stolen something that meant so much to me.’
– James Ferguson , original Skinhead [quote taken from Paolo Hewitt’s book, The Soul Stylists]
Those Who Hate You Imitate You
That the swastika is an ancient African symbol has been known to historians for centuries:
[They] were a dark-skinned people with short hair and prominent lips; and that they are referred to by some scholars as Cushites (Ethiopians), and as Hamites by others.
Mr. Wells alludes to this early civilization in his Outline of History, and dates its beginnings as far back as 15,000 years B.C.
“This peculiar development of the Neolithic culture,” says Mr. Wells, “which Elliot Smith called the Heliolithic (sun-stone) culture, included many or all of the following odd practices:…(9) the use of the symbol known as the Swastika for good luck. …
Elliot Smith traces these associated practices in a sort of constellation all over this great Mediterranean / Indian Ocean-Pacific area. Where one occurs, most of the others occur. They link Brittany with Borneo and Peru. But this constellation of practices does not crop up in the primitive home of Nordic or Mongolian peoples, nor does it extend southward much beyond equatorial Africa. …
The use of the swastika as an African symbol is an established tradition that still flourishes today amongst the Akan or Ashanti people of western Africa:
The Akan occupy a large part of West Africa including parts of Ghana and the Ivory Coast and include many sub-ethnic groups such as the Baule and the Asante (Ashanti). The Akan were producing swastikas to weigh gold dust which was their currency, thus the name ‘gold weights’. When used on the gold weight, the swastika was a symbol of currency, expressing power, money, wealth and integrity. The idea and the implementation of gold-based currency came from the Akan people of modern-day Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. (Oliver 2014)
The swastika is also one of the Akan people’s famous Adinkra symbols. Look at number 12 below:
Skirt, Kuba people, Congo
Comb, Akan people, Ghana
Many more swastikas from throughout Africa can be viewed on Pinterest: suunjata – swastika
Of course, though, the swastika is most famous as the symbol of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or National-Socialist German Workers’ Party, better known as the Nazis. This is where its association with white power and white nationalism comes from. But where did the Germans get it from?
In the century leading up to the Nazi era, Europe and Germany in particular gained a profound interest in Eastern religion, philosophy, mysticism and occultism. The most famous leader of the most famous movement- Theosophy- was Helena Blavatsky. Her writings had a profound influence on the Ariosophy- love of Aryans- that later arose in Germany and Austria, NSDAP founder Adolf Hitler’s place of migration and birthplace, respectively. This is undoubtedly how he became aware of the symbol. As we read above, though, many of the eastern cultures that Theosophy and, in turn, Ariosophy were based on, especially the more ancient ones, were actually dark-skinned, and often Africoid, people. There is evil irony in the fact that their symbol was used against them in hatred.
There is another nearer possible connection to Nazi Germany and the swastika: Germany’s colonial misadventures in Deutsch-Südwestafrika (German Southwest Africa, a/k/a Namibia) from 1884-1915. Namibia borders Angola, in which very ancient swastikas have been observed. Were they exposed to it there? One can only speculate.
Today’s Neo-Nazi Skinhead
Neo-Nazi skinheads are, in essence, using black fashion and an African symbol to express white power and racism. On top of that, their musical style- neo-Nazi punk- is a genre based on- you guessed it- the ska and punk of Jamaican Afro-Brits.
Despite despising them- or maybe because of it, I’m starting to realize- they stole everything from them: their style, their symbols, their very identity.
Without African (diaspora) fashion, music and symbology, white supremacists wouldn’t have an identity. Someone that utterly impoverished- morally, intellectually, spiritually- is normally worthy of sympathy.
Conclusion: Going Viral
As can be seen with the original skinheads- a blend of black and white British culture- trading and borrowing, when credit is given where credit is due, is always welcomed and encouraged. The borrower is enriched, and the donor is embraced. (We have to remember that the original skinheads didn’t become Neo-Nazi skinheads- they were hijacked and discarded, too.) That is cultural appreciation. That is symbiotic.
What we see from modern skinheads, though, is cultural appropriation, and that- feeding off the host and destroying it- is viral.
How do the two differ? Cultural appropriators
- claim the cultural items as their own- theft
- overlook the plight of the culture they borrow from- hypocrisy
- benefit from the borrowed culture in ways its creators can’t- privilege
Here are some examples:
The girl on the left is “edgy” or “eclectic”. The girl on the right, whose culture originated the style, is “ghetto” or “thuggish”:
The woman left and center (Saartjie Baartman) got paraded in human zoos in Europes. The woman on the right who used a wire frame in her dress to imitate her anatomy was a ‘lady’:
This is where skinheads today, the Nazis, Ariosophists and Theosophists of the past, and indeed most racists went awry: they crossed the fine line between appreciation and appropriation. They turned something so beautiful and unitary became so ugly and divisive.
They stole the soul.
Let’s take it back.
All quoted text in “Skinheads” section from Max. “All You Skinheads Get Up On Your Feet!”. 20th Century Max. 1 October 2015. http://20centmax.tumblr.com/post/130292077655/all-you-skinheads-get-up-on-your-feet
Jackson, John G. “Ethiopia and the Origin of Civilization” (1939); Retrieved from http://2017blackart.wordpress.com/2009/11/01/ethiopia-and-the-origin-of-civilization-by-john-g-jackson/
Oliver, Daniel. “Afrikan Swastikas.” Knowledge of Self. 11 December 2014. https://selfuni.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/afrikan-swastika/
Angolan Swastika: Drawing by Redinha, 1948. Found in Coimbra Fernando. “The astronomical origins of the swastika motif”. Published in 2011: Proceedings of the International Colloquium – The intellectual and spiritual expressions of non-literate peoples. Atelier, Capo di Ponte: 78-90. https://www.academia.edu/2951519/The_astronomical_origins_of_the_swastika_motif