In defense of cultural appropriation

Dear Hannah,

The first thing you've got to know about "cultural appropriation" is that, aside from a slew of top-notch performers and basketball stars, black people have contributed almost nil to American greatness because they weren't allowed to -- and they're painfully aware of it.  They've given us some good soldiers and fathers and occasionally a great writer or an actor.  But when it comes to the kinds of men we really give praise to, the generals and heroes and scientists and tycoons and theorists and spiritual leaders and directors and metaphysicians and literati and top-of-the-line presidents; the things we really take pride in and associate ourselves with when we want to feel good about ourselves as a nation, the truth is that black men have contributed far less to us than we have to them; and when they really have contributed, their contributions have done more to advance black people than Americans in general.

There's no such thing as cultural appropriation of whiteness because no white person is terrified that anyone's going to run off with our heritage*.  In general we consider black Shakespeareans an improvement**, and any Arab who ditches Islam for Mormonism is a godsend.  To be like us is to join us.  Nobody wants to see a white man acting like Snoop Dogg.

But more importantly than this, cultural appropriation is the idea that someone's going to run off with your business.  Whites aren't worried, for instance, that blacks are going to do rock and roll better than we have and "steal" it from us, or that our racial monopoly in science is in peril, or that Spike Lee's going to make a new Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin's going to end up on the bread line.  Simply put, black people defend "black things" because they're worried white people are going to be better at them.  They've been forced out of industries and civil service for generations until they became very good at the leftover things, and now that they're very good at the leftovers they want to stay the best at them.  It's mercantilism on a racial level.  What you can't accomplish with talent you force on others with rules -- exactly what we did, for a few hundred years, to them.

I believe the modern theory of cultural appropriation began with jazz.  Nobody wanted to be like or marry the slaves and then they were set free; and freedom meant a degree of mixing, and mixing meant a sharing of culture.  For a while black culture was thought inferior and then all of a sudden it wasn't.  The thing that black people did made white people jealous.  The energy, the vibe, the (at the time) earthy and sexual nature of the new music set people dancing wildly, and white men wanted to make people go wild.  So in an unexpected turn of events, a people who were trying to be white were faced suddenly with a tide of people who wanted to act black.  A monopoly on one of the only industries blacks could go into was suddenly in competition with whites who could (theoretically) choose anything.  To one people it was just another choice.  To another it was one of the only choices.  Then came the blues.

Once again a surge of black energy and the soul of black suffering penetrated the clubs and bars and meant something that whites could never have made for themselves.  Black men started it and then ended up fighting whites for it.  And the same thing happened with rock and roll and the same thing happened with rap.  Blacks would build something indisputably black in one of the only areas they were successful and whites would capitalize on it and oftentimes do better.  Blacks would create a brand of cool on their own and the people who hated them worst would steal it.  Muddy Waters gave way to Led Zeppelin.  Chuck Berry gave way to Elvis.  Tupac passed the tradition to Eminem and Aretha Franklin passed the torch to Adele.   And it isn't that music or clothing belongs to a race.  It's that the black experience of suffering and slavery in the new world gave birth to things that even Africans never came close to, and these so-called African Americans, a breed of people with a culture incomparable in many ways good and terrible to any on the face of the globe, want to have a monopoly on it.

What black people don't realize is that "cultural appropriation" was culturally appropriated -- from us.  Not only were we responsible for keeping them from "white" occupations and skill sets, but we used these tactics against white people hundreds of years ago.  Barbara Tuchmann writes in A Distant Mirror that European society in the 14th century was divided into the clergy, the nobles, and the peasants; and the bourgeois peasants were making gains, and the gains had made them wealthy, and immediately after getting wealthy they began to dress like the nobles.

This of course wouldn't do.  Being confused with the peasantry was  an insult to the majesty of the master class; and so, lacking the business know-how of the "little people," and holding a monopoly on violence, they decided to tell the bourgeois how to dress themselves.  A ban was placed on the wearing of certain fabrics and colors; trimmings and jewelry were permitted and banned to varying degrees in varying locations; peasants in many places were forced to dress in black and brown; and a noblewoman's number of costume purchases was determined according to her rank.  The nobility wanted to remain noble, and nobility was a kind of a sham.  They couldn't keep themselves above the others naturally so they had to do it by force***.

Cultural appropriation has also done its work in economics.  Before classical liberalism was invented, England was known for its wool.  Adam Smith writes in The Wealth of Nations that English techniques and sheep were far superior to the rest of Europe.  English merchants had gotten rich off it, and because of this the manufacturing of wool became a serious source of revenue to the crown.  The ruling class got scared that the French or Germans might catch on and catch up, so they put the whole industry in something bordering on slavery.  The manufacturers were forbidden to travel or sell their wool freely, and punishment could range from the loss of a hand to a violent death.  Those of us who laugh at our ancestors for this should note we do nearly the same thing today.  If anyone patents anything and anyone can do it better, we tell the better man he can't do it or we'll ruin his business.

What's worth remembering here is that life is never static.  Existence, and especially conscious existence, is a competition.  Freedom means other free men are free to beat you in love and business and music and glory.  If you're on top of anything there's always someone trying to knock you off it -- and black Americans know it.  They've been knocking whites off stages and football fields for decades now because whites had kicked them off of speaking platforms and doctors' chairs for centuries.

We've been trying to make it up to black people, but we're botching it.  Not content with recognizing his greatness we praise even his mediocrity; celebrating his second-rate heroes for an entire month at a time****; cheering every time a black woman becomes the first  black pogo-jumper in Mississippi, and sending people who can barely form a sentence to the once-best schools in the nation.  And many times we send them for free.

What we ask of him is the same thing we ask of any other free man.  To fight his best to be the best if he wants to be the best, and if he can't be the best, to at least let us enjoy the person who actually is.  Great black men are free to be anything they want.  They can be presidents and they can be bums.  They can sing opera and they can wear tie-dye.  We only ask the same for ourselves.  

Your father,

*If we consider the case of Disney alone, they did The Lion King better than Africans could have and Aladdin better than the Arabs and Moana better than the Hawaiians and Pocahontas better than the Indians and Mulan better than the Chinese.  It's no wonder black people are afraid of white artists.  We've done the world better than the world.

**The great spiritual difference between the races can be proved by comparing a fear of illegal immigration with a fear of gentrification.  A man who's terrified of illegal immigration is worried the country's going to get worse.  A man who's terrified of gentrification is worried the country's going to get better.

***Tuchmann's example is from the Middle Ages, but a much closer one is available.  It's a crime all over America to impersonate a policeman because policemen are worried about losing their power.  A surge of false policemen means a skepticism about real policemen; and a skepticism about real policemen leads to a loss of authority.  Police culture, the ways they talk and dress and command, is their power.  The moment they lose it they become like the rest of us; so the rest of us have decided that they shouldn't be able to lose it.

****Black History Month is an insult to the dignity of African Americans and can best be summed up by that essay of Mencken's where he insulted the entire south and then a Georgian state historian responded embarrassingly.  Mencken writes,
It is as if the Civil War stamped out every last bearer of the torch, and left only a mob of peasants on the field. One thinks of Asia Minor, resigned to Armenians, Greeks and wild swine, of Poland abandoned to the Poles. In all that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate there is not a single picture gallery worth going into, or a single orchestra capable of playing the nine symphonies of Beethoven, or a single opera-house, or a single theater devoted to decent plays, or a single public monument (built since the war) that is worth looking at, or a single workshop devoted to the making of beautiful things. Once you have counted Robert Loveman (an Ohioan by birth) and John McClure (an Oklahoman) you will not find a single southern poet above the rank of a neighborhood rhymester. Once you have counted James Branch Cabell (a lingering survivor of the ancien rĂ©gime: a scarlet dragonfly imbedded in opaque amber) you will not find a single southern prose writer who can actually write.[Pg 139] And once you have—but when you come to critics, musical composers, painters, sculptors, architects and the like, you will have to give it up, for there is not even a bad one between the Potomac mud-flats and the Gulf. Nor an historian. Nor a sociologist. Nor a philosopher. Nor a theologian. Nor a scientist. In all these fields the south is an awe-inspiring blank—a brother to Portugal, Serbia and Esthonia."
The state historian of Georgia's (accidentally) hilarious reply:
Who has not heard of Asa G. Candler, whose name is synonymous with Coca-Cola, a Georgia product?
The first Sunday-school in the world was opened in Savannah.
Who does not recall with pleasure the writings of Frank L. Stanton, Georgia's brilliant poet?
Georgia was the first state to organize a Boys' Corn Club in the South—Newton county, 1904.
The first to suggest a common United Daughters of the Confederacy badge was Mrs. Raynes, of Georgia.
The first to suggest a state historian of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was Mrs. C. Helen Plane (Macon convention, 1896).
The first to suggest putting to music Heber's "From Green-land's Icy Mountains" was Mrs. F. R. Goulding, of Savannah-- 
--a defense more insulting than the attack.

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