By Quinton J. Hobson
The Hunger Games trilogy will probably always be synonymous with star Jennifer Lawrence but the Academy Award-winner hasn’t been the focus of mass media attention for the past few weeks.
Instead, the spotlight has fallen upon the homework of actress Amandla Stenberg, Lawrence’s co-star from the first Hunger Games film. That’s right, her homework.
If her name seems unfamiliar at first, that’s actually quite reasonable. A 12-year-old, Stenberg appeared in the first film in 2011 as a young girl named Rue who befriends and develops a sisterly bond with Lawrence’s character. However, Stenberg’s short-lived Rue is killed off midway through the film, which of course made it virtually impossible for her to reprise her role in the two sequels.
While Lawrence’s fame and fortune have been increasing exponentially, Stenberg appears to have retreated from the public eye in favour of focusing on school but that’s not to say the actress has completely isolated herself from what has been going on in the world of her billion-dollar employer, Hollywood.
Four years and two blockbuster Hunger Games films later, Stenberg, now 16 and a junior in high school, has finally made her way back into the spotlight. No, she has not made a major movie comeback but she has teamed up with a classmate for a history project.
They created a video entitled Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows, essentially a rundown of the history of Black culture – hair, wardrobe, music, food, dialect – and how it has fallen victim to a phenomenon known as cultural appropriation, defined as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture.”
At first glance, the video appears to be nothing extraordinary from a visual perspective, definitely not akin in its special effects to the film for which Stenberg remains best known. It appears to have been filmed using a webcam from the comfort of Stenberg’s own bedroom, which the actress was initially only planning on using in order to get through the eleventh grade.
However, the video ultimately became much more than just an old history project when Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows garnered widespread attention after Stenberg posted it on the social media blogging platform Tumblr, where it won a widespread following almost overnight.
In the video, Stenberg calls out several of today’s biggest names in entertainment, among them singers Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Madonna and Taylor Swift, and rappers Eminem and Iggy Azalea – each a non-Black recording star – for committing cultural appropriation by adopting African-American culture, transforming it into entertaining stereotypes and incorporating it into their songs, music videos and performances in order to benefit their careers.
Stenberg made sure to cite the difference between appropriation and cultural exchange, explaining that the former is “when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in.”
For example, the popular hairstyle cornrows is at times a necessity for Black women as opposed to the luxury it is often made out to be.
Stenberg, who has been vocal in her opinions of the recent Baltimore riots, asks in her video, “What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we loved Black culture?”
The subject of cultural appropriation can be, has been and will be discussed for decades but the real question is: Did Stenberg’s teacher give her an A?