This is one of the editorials are on the website Our Own Words. There are so many great articles on that site, you should check it out.
I didn’t realized how much bias I must have grown up with till I began researching for this article. I’m not going to say I didn’t know there must be some; of course there was and is. Everyone has them. I just zeroed in on one of mine.
I grew up with books on a number of different cultures—as well as languages. I grew up with what’s now probably a pretty slaughtered version of a Zulu word, and a specific form of “Na nani boo boo, I got the better of you.” Sounding like “Pe-WEH-toe.” Most of the Zulu and Bantu languages my parents ever knew were long gone by the time I wanted to learn it. Periodically my father would say it.
So while I’m the child of white South Africans, we were shown some of the beauty of African cultures—I’d say more than most white people. And while I think my upbringing was remarkably open minded, it’s still hard to avoid when most of the books printed on the subject have an unspoken bias my father really did try his best to overcome. And while I often borrow from other cultures to craft the cultures for my books, I am hopefully being respectful, as well as crafting something unique.
When I watched Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets I was shocked into hating it right off. It was the opening scenes that really clinched it for me.
I was reminded of different styles of African dress, but the alien culture is clearly bone white. And they apparently have a rare power source, for which, of course, they’re destroyed. The last scene you see is of the princess being burnt black as everything else is pretty much vaporized. I did end up buying it so I could give it a fair assessment, and I could not connect with the main characters, who seemed to have taken a dose of valerian (the herb, used to cure insomnia) through all their scenes.
Imagine my shock when I saw Black Panther (and note, I still LOVE this movie), and felt similar—but not as strong—reservations about how they used culture. There is SO much I loved about that movie, but… And I’ll go straight to the subject of lip purses—or lip plates.
I grew up knowing those as being worn by women, and women only. Somewhere, and I have looked in my mother’s books and mine, I learned that it was used for gossiping women. It would get bigger depending on how much she’d gossip. Having really gone through all her books, far as I can tell, that is a faulty memory…. Not only that, just note the ugliness of that thought. However, and wherever I learned it, it is a diminishing judgement.
But I was also a bit disturbed, because a man is the one wearing it—but I also saw it as a win on gender issues.
There are, in fact, Amazonian tribes where it is the men who wear the plates. They begin to wear them when they leave the house of women, and enter the house of men. One of the better known men who wear one—different from the African style, is Raoni Meturktire. He is a chief of the Kayapo people, and an environmentalist. (He was nominated for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, if you’re curious).
Now, let’s talk about lip plates, or plugs. Here are some plugs worn by others. These are ivory, and worn by elders of the Turkana community. Regardless of if it’s got a wooden stopper in it, or it’s carved into one piece, the lower incisors are usually removed at puberty so they’ll fit. (Fisher, p. 65) That seems extreme to many of us, but it is considered not just a decoration, but something that implies status, supports self esteem, and cultural inclusion.
There are contemporary cultures where women do still wear lip plates. “The lip-plate (dhebi a tugoin) has become the chief visible distinguishing characteristic of the Mursi and made them a prime attraction for tourists. A girl’s lower lip is cut, by her mother or by another woman of her settlement, when she reaches the age of 15 or 16. The cut is held open by a wooden plug until the wound heals, which can take around 3 months. It appears to be up to the individual girl to decide how far to stretch the lip, by inserting progressively larger plugs over a period of several months. Some, but by no means all, girls persevere until their lips can take plates of 12 centimetres or more in diameter.” (Mursi Online).
It is a matter of choice. Quite honestly, in a lot of the reading I have done, such as Turner’s Forest of Symbols, the women have far more egalitarian power than one would think. And sadly the practice, while personal, is also now a feature in tourist driven economies of that landscape. “Each woman photographed expects to be paid 2 Ethiopian Birr—less than 20p—for each photograph taken of her, although she normally has to settle for 2 Birr for each series of photographs taken of her by a single tourist. The money is spent in highland markets on such items as grain, salt, goat skins for skirts… “ (Mursi Online) It is apparently disturbing to be photographed, but it is money.
This article also discusses the theory that the size of the lip plate is based on wealth and dowry, but that’s disproven easily as a woman’s marriage is decided long before the lip plate is put in.
In Africa Adorned, Angela Fisher writes, “The popular story told to travellers over the years is that the plates were inserted as a means of disfigurement, to deter the traders. Whatever their origin, even today older Kichepo women consider themselves undressed without them; often as large as saucers and requiring the support of one hand, they are never removed in front of strangers.” (Fisher, p. 16) A little bit of awful, as far as theory goes. Is it better or worse than it being put in because one gossiped too much?
She also suggests that it might be based on animal worship, as this picture suggests. The lip is made to “look like certain birds—broadbills and spoonbills.” (Fisher, p. 55). After the ideas of gossip, and slave trade. I’d rather wish I could ask the Kichepo of south-east Sudan.
Looking up what I now know is an error did help me wrestle with some of my faulty education, as well as bias. I’ll admit, I have vivid memories of beautifully beaded lip purses—rather than lip plates. My memory is likely wrong. Did I learn incorrectly because there’s a history of disparaging “lesser” cultures? Possibly. Probably. It isn’t as if there have been a lot of anthropological research accessible to the average person. Cultural bias of superiority rears its head quite often when it’s not European. Even growing up in a household that was largely accepting of world cultures, bias clearly reared its head.
While I’m always going to flinch if I ever see that opening scene in Valerian, I learned something trying to find the source of my original, and erroneous idea of a lip purse or plate being for a misbehaving women. It wasn’t. Was it for, as Angela Fischer seems to think—as some of the practice seems to protect themselves from slave traders? Maybe there’s a bit of truth to that. Maybe there isn’t. It seems to be a prevalent theory, but quite unproven. Just as much as it was for gossips.
“Race in general, and myths and stereotypes surrounding physical features and skin color in particular, have been so pervasive and basic in black-white relations and in accounts of those interactions that in spite of a stream of scientific evidence to the contrary, the concept of black inferiority continues to thrive in many minds.” (Harris. p. 13).
And that quote there is why I will continue to strive towards ensuring I am respectful in my own speculative fiction. I began culture crafting with largely non-European cultures because, for one, it’s been done, and two, the cultures of the world are absolutely fascinating, wonderful, and reveal and share a lot we can gain from, if we take the time to look. I honestly believe that we need to share more “evidence to the contrary”, call ourselves out when we make errors (as I do here with myself, and my faulty memory), and support and celebrate good anthropological research, as well as good documentaries on rich, vibrant cultures that have histories longer, and older than many others (see link below).
I’m still going to have a gut reaction to Valerian, and will have a vomit taste my mouth with that horrid opening scene. However, working on this article, and challenging my own memories, I’m going to love Black Panther even more. I will also work to ensure that my own culture crafting and world building is as celebratory as that incredible movie.
Fisher, Angela Africa Adorned; New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1984.
Joseph E. Harris: Africans and Their History: Revised Edition. New York: Mentor, 1987.
Other articles of interest:
And one of the best reasons I have for paying a mere $5/mo is to get PBS Passport, and this FABULOUS show: Africa’s Great Civilizations, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
When one—and the only educator to have EVER done so—presented the class the book Africans and Their History, and focused on African history in a World History class because he, quite rightly, state that it was among the least cultures taught. So that program was, to my mind, a celebration.