Prince De Léon in front of her AFRICAN BOOTY SCRATCHER art piece. (Photo credit: Prince De Léon)

Disclaimer: This story contains a slur specific to dark-skinned Black people, particularly offensive to Africans. While the story spells out the term only when said by the subject of the story, the Germantown Info Hub discourages the use of this language by anyone who is not directly affected by it.

“African Booty Scratcher (ABS)–it’s a slur,” says 23-year-old University of the Arts (UArts) student Prince De León. “It’s like when people use the N-word for African Americans. It’s just another thing specifically for African immigrants.”

Growing up as a Liberian immigrant who came to the United States at four during the Second Liberian Civil War, De León says ABS was the go-to phrase for other Black kids, who often hurled it at her. De León was in foster care until she was adopted by two queer women in 2020, so she’s lived in many places, including Tennessee and New York. But no matter where she settled, she says this language was universal, particularly amongst other Black kids.

She says, “It’s just like having other kids in school sort of push me away, telling me my Blackness wasn’t enough and telling me my Black was the lowest form of Blackness. And also, being a dark-skinned Black woman, it was just not acceptable.”

Despite the piercing words and phrases thrown at De León, she channeled her experiences to reimagine and reclaim ABS through artistic expression. De Leon started the AFRICAN BOOTY SCRATCHER series by thinking about its meaning, as it has no face. In a personal essay, where she speaks about the creation of the piece, she says the following:

The term “African booty scratcher” itself, despite being a hurtful slur, lacks any tangible basis in reality. If one were to search for images of an African booty scratcher, they would find nothing substantial because such an image does not exist. It was a derogatory concept born out of racist assumptions and stereotypes held by individuals. However, the impact of this term was very real, as it undermined the self-esteem and sense of belonging of many African children, including myself. Motivated by the emotional toll these experiences took on me, I decided to channel my feelings into a form of art. I created a painting that visualized the image of an African booty scratcher, not based on any concrete representation but rather on the deeply hurtful connotations and associations attached to the term. My artwork aimed to capture the pain, isolation, and resilience I felt as a young African immigrant navigating the complexities of racial identity and the social dynamics within my community.

The same essay describes her thought-making around the first piece of what became the ABS series and how that informed her creation. Some examples include the usage of thick Black acrylic paint to represent the “unpleasant, itchy discomfort” when other kids threw the slur at her, jagged spikes to “symbolize the pain and unease” it brought her, and the “smoothness of the eyes and lips” to exude her inner humanity. De León describes her artwork as “visceral,” saying that’s how she wants people to feel when interacting with it “because that’s the feeling that comes when one hears the phrase African Booty Scratcher.”

This Friday, Germantown neighbors and other Philadelphians will have a chance to interact with her work when she joins other artists for the Germantown Art & Sound show, which happens quarterly.

The Germantown Art & Sound Show started at Our House Culture Center on October 25, 2019. As stated by one of the show’s co-organizers and owner of Germantown ArtHaus, Keisha ‘Makes Things Beautiful’ Whatley, the show’s goal is to put money into artists’ pockets and give them the spotlight to gain other opportunities.

Whatley says artists apply via the Germantown ArtHaus website to participate in the showcase. Then the panel of curators and organizers review all the artist’s submissions and decide based on that.

Whatley calls De León’s work “powerful,” expressing her admiration for using colors and “Basquiatish” influence to tell a story. Like Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work-of-arts, De León relied on abstract expression to create the first piece of the series. Looking at Basquiat’s self-portrait, she says, “evoked all the feelings that I felt when I thought about what an African booty scratcher looked like–this dark, big-lipped person. And I was like, yeah… this is it.”

Basquiat’s experience as a Black man in a racist American society showed up in his work but also was a part of the inspiration for how De León chooses to show hers. “I thought I could relate to him, but just in a different way. As an African American woman, but also an immigrant, and how that experience would translate in the painting. And so I saw his self-portrait for a reference, which is perfect for it,” she said

While the young artist has done showcases at UArts, this will be her first-ever public showcase. When asked about how she feels about being able to have her work uplifted in a more public atmosphere, she talked about the duality of sharing such a personal project openly, saying she’s both excited and anxious.

“I’m a little nervous, y’know,” she says. “It’s like putting your baby out into the world. I created this [out of] something that was supposed to be for me and going back into my past and healing from a part of my trauma that was really hard and impactful on me.”

De León is optimistic that her work will inspire others and allow others to find affinity in her work. She says, “Now it’s something I’m using as a tool to just relate and hopefully bring healing to other people.”

She continues, “I’m hoping that other Liberians, or immigrants especially, can look at this and sort of heal from it in a way of like, this isn’t us. And sort of get a different insight or view of their culture and themselves.”

De León’s work will be featured alongside six other artists on Friday night. There will be refreshments, live music, and a vendor beside the featured artists. Doors will open at 7 p.m. and close at 10 p.m. If you want to experience De León’s work or enjoy the ambiance of Germantown Art & Sound, you can still RSVP using Eventbrite.

Whatley says, “Come out expecting to be inspired. Come out expecting, even if [you’re] not a creative or [you] don’t make anything with [your] hands. Just come expecting to be inspired to leave and do something and make something. And support these artists because art literally is the culture.”