Cultural Appropriation: Less Heat, More LightUntitled Part 1

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 "Anything that divides men from each other, that separates them,

singles them out or hems them in, is a sin against humanity."

--José Martí, Cuban poet, professor, and national hero (1853-1895)


In 1839 a ship named La Amistad ("Friendship," of all things) was transporting captured Africans of the Mende people to lives of slavery on New World sugar plantations. About 200 of the original 500 slaves from Sierra Leone had already died in transit, and only 49 adults were on this Cuba-to-America run. These Africans "mutinied," killing all the Portuguese crew except two to sail the ship. A Talladega College mural by Hale Woodruff shows a intensely violent scene; the Mende killed the crew mainly with cane knives. Imagine the blood.

But who could possibly object morally to self-defense of this kind?

Physical violence, though, isn't the only form of self-defense against brutal oppression. Many laws in the ante-bellum South criminalized teaching literacy to slaves. How do you respond to such intangible oppression, to the attack on your cultural capacity itself? A slaveholder's wife, Sophia Auld, taught young Frederick Douglass to read and write—and look what came of that. With eloquence and power, Douglass publicized something rare at the time: African American self-representation. Again, who could possibly object? An African proverb is relevant: "Until lions write history, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunters."

Looking back at the long, bloody centuries, it's no surprise "cultural appropriation" is such a white-hot topic just now. As Chris Berg puts it, "A spectre is haunting the planet: the spectre of cultural appropriation"--and that's not as over-dramatic as it may sound. Oppression should haunt us all. As just one current example, Donald Trump—leader of the free world—praised Brexit with a burst of casual coded racism and xenophobia in his usual articulate way: "People, countries want their own identity and the UK wanted its own identity"—a bigotry all the more disgusting for being so thinly veiled. And of course Trump's presidency is only adding fuel to this fire.

But how does all this play out, specifically? What exactly is "cultural appropriation"? Despite the ardent certainty of some, we're on relatively new ground here—our thinking is still very much in formation.

Two Canadian editors were recently forced to resign for "defend[ing] the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds." Lionel Shriver set off an international wildfire when she spoke in favor of cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writers Festival. (I think Shriver made some excellent points; I also think she was blithely dismissive of the other side of the issue and more-or-less ignored the serious problems that led to it). Even more disturbing is a desire to actually destroy artwork considered appropriative. Sam Durant's "Scaffold," intended to honor the 38 men of the Dakota tribe hanged during the 1862 Dakota War, was roundly condemned because Durant is white, and Durant ended up destroying the work himself. Dana Schutz' painting of the corpse of Emmett Till, the African American boy brutally murdered on the false pretext of whistling at a white woman, inspired a petition to destroy it; Schutz is white and was deemed, for that reason, to be appropriating. And the Chanel company took flak lately for offering—I'm not making this up—a luxury boomerang priced at $1,325. Let's leave aside ethical questions about conspicuous consumption; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people accused Chanel of CA. (There's a hitch, though: The oldest boomerang known was discovered in what's now Poland). I read about a young woman who longed to get a PhD in Chinese studies but agonized over whether that would be ethical since she's white. Or consider this unnecessary anxiety, from a letter to the Race Matters column on TheRoot.com:

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