Monday, September 15, 2008

My thoughts on "cultural misappropriation"

Many bloggers have written about this, but my thoughts were sparked by Kim Hampton , who wrote about it passionately, and CC , who wrote more pensively.

A creative writing teacher once told me that the more intensely personal my story was, the more universal it would be. CC demonstrates that principle with an anecdote about a black friend who was offended by a white man singing "Old Man River". "But at the same time, I knew how deeply the words "Tired of living and scared of dying" resonated with me, and the idea that no matter what, the river just kept rolling along." Actually, it was doubly demonstrated- the lyrics resonated so well with her black friend that he was unaware it was actually written by a white man. Interestingly enough, the same phenomenon was brought up by Rev. Fred L Hammond , who spoke of the song "This Little Light of Mine"; "The original composers sung it in defiance of the slavery and the cruelty they faced by their task masters. No amount of abusive infliction of pain and suffering was going to take away from them their integrity and dignity as humans. “This Little Light of Mine” no longer sounds like a cutesy children’s song, does it?" But in a postscript, he adds, "I just read in Wikipedia that “This Little Light of Mine” while long considered to be an African American Spiritual, it is in fact not. It was written in the 1920’s by Harry Dixon Loes. It was however ‘appropriated’ as an anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s, so my point above is still valid in more ways than one."

If words are true, does it matter if they were first spoken by Aristotle, Rabbi Hillel, or Langston Hughes? No culture is so pure that it was not influenced by all cultures that came before, and surround it today. Wiccans know full well that their practices are an amalgam of folk culture and bits taken from the Freemasons and the Golden Dawn, others. All Christian practices are taken from those who came before- Jesus gave no instructions on how to perform a mass. There is nothing new under the sun- including that quote.

Cultures don't just spring into being; they evolve, just like bodies do. I have a vivid mental image of a Neanderthal telling a Cro-Magnon, "You can't sing that song- it's ours"... and an orangutan telling that Neanderthal, "You can't use handprints in your cave drawings- hands are our thing!" I understand why the cries of "cultural misappropriation"- it's the pride of possession. But excessive pride becomes a deadly sin, and most religions have warnings about becoming too deeply attached to possessions.

Merriam Webster online defines "misappropriation" as ": to appropriate wrongly (as by theft or embezzlement)" But misappropriation is a crime because it denies the original owner the possession and use of the thing stolen- "cultural misappropriation" does not do this. Words, truths, wisdoms, are the one class of possessions that can be taken without depriving the creator of it's use. When the civil Rights movement appropriated "This Little Light of Mine", they did not deprive anyone else of the meaning they drew from the song. If a UU congregation performs a Seder, or a Samhain ritual- with or without a dissertation on the origins and a FAQ on the back of the program- they have harmed no Jews or Wiccans in the process. It's hard enough to draw meaning from this confusing world even without someone saying "No, you can't have that symbol; it's mine." Writing a preemptive "Thou shalt not" into our PPs just on general principles is a burden we don't need.

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