27. January 2020 · Comments Off on Why cultural appropriation is here to stay · Categories: Olio

When I was in high school I lobbied to have Muddy Waters play at a school music night. He and his band came for a mere $1500. He wasn’t pleased about doing a high school gig, but clearly he needed the money.

I was ecstatic. It would be the only musical event I ever attended at my school. Muddy Waters was the real deal to me. Bands like The Rolling Stones were pale (haha) imitations of real bluesmen like Waters. But I was the only one in the crowd who looked happy listening to Muddy and his band. Everyone else would have been far happier if we had a cover band playing the ersatz blues of The Stones.

After that concert, I tried to understand why my fellow students disliked what was raw and real, Muddy, and loved what was fake, derivative bands like The Stones. I decided that the appeal of The Stones was really about their whiteness. My fellow students couldn’t connect directly to a black musical art form. They needed a smoother, anodyne and whiter version of the real thing. Just like Elvis Presley took Sam Cooke’s music and put a less musical and whiter face on it, The Stones were putting a white face on the blues.

It irked me that playing white versions of black music made millions while playing the real deal got you a gig at a Milwaukee high school. Life wasn’t fair. But as I grew older, I mellowed a bit. The Stones and Elvis could be thought of as cultural appropriators, sure. But there was another way to look at them that was perhaps less negative. They were translators. They translated black music into something accessible to white people. Was it as good as the real thing? No. But it was as close as mainstream audiences wanted to get to the real thing.

In literature, I’ve run into the equivalent of Elvis and The Stones frequently. It hasn’t just been in novels like The Help, where a white person writes a cartoon version of black culture that sells millions of copies. I’ve read novels about Holocaust survivors and Eastern European immigrant families written by people who are clueless about this culture. I’ve thrown books against the wall again and again that have been on bestseller lists. I know that if white Christian readers encountered an authentic book about Holocaust survivors and their families, they’d read a few pages, close up the book and never open it again. Mainstream readers prefer anodyne versions written by Americans appropriating/translating outside cultures.

Given the reality that the mainstream reading public strongly prefers the inauthentic to the authentic, publishers, of course, prefer to publish works by cultural translators/appropriators. They’ve been doing so for as long as I can remember. They’ve been making big bucks doing this as well. What has changed recently is not the demand for tone deaf books by white Christian cultural translators. Instead what has changed is the rightful public resentment by people from outside cultures, especially from writers of those outside cultures whose work has been ignored by big publishers and mainstream readers.

Five years ago, a cultural translator book like American Dirt, which came out last week and is about a Mexican woman trying to come to America, would have sold millions to white Americans without much of a peep from the Latinx community. Now Latinx and even Asian writers are angry. I don’t expect cultural translators/appropriators to go away. The market demand for their work is too great. They will continue to be published and sell millions. Latinx writers will continue to throw books against the wall they read that are written by appropriators. Asian writers will continue to throw books against the wall. I’ll continue to throw books against the wall. But these books are here to stay just like rock and roll.

I note that the Rolling Stones have made billions playing the blues badly and are still filling stadiums. In contrast, Muddy Waters died long ago and while he was alive bought used cars from my wife’s uncle. The marketplace decides what sells and what sells is frequently not very good and in bad taste. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that I love to listen to recordings of Susannah McCorkle, an American, singing Brazilian tunes and Theodore Bikel, an Austrian Jew, singing Russian folk tunes. I’m certain people in the know about Brazilian and Russian music howl at these efforts. I don’t care. The desire for the inauthentic but comfortable and non-threatening will always be strong.



16. January 2020 · Comments Off on Acts of kindness · Categories: Olio

I was in New York at a theater last week and just two days before developed a shoulder condition that inflamed my right rotator cuff and restricted the movement of my arm to zero. Broadway theater seats have never been known for their comfort and as I sat down, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit in my seat next to my wife and daughter without occasionally yelping in pain. I got up and explained my problem to the house manager. She expressed sympathy. They didn’t have seating for disabled people, but she could bring a dining room chair out and put it next to one of the seating rows “as long as you don’t call the fire marshal because what I’m offering you is illegal.” I told her I wouldn’t call the fire marshal. I sat in a comfy seat that gave me enough room to put my dead arm in a position that kept me pain free and enjoyed the show.

The house manager did not have to do this for me. It was extra work. It was a violation of fire laws. But she decided to be kind. It was a small favor that she gave to a stranger, albeit a paying customer. During intermission I thought of acts of human kindness big and small that have impacted me and my family.

My mother was a great believer in human kindness. She was, given her past as a child who lived through WWII, also alert to any potential danger. Somehow her view that people will often go out of their way to help others mixed happily with her belief that a new Stalin or Hitler could come back any day and ruin her life and the world again. She never would have survived the war without acts of kindness. After the war, that was true as well.

In 1946, my mother, 17 and on her own, left the safety of the American Zone of Germany to go back to Poland and search for her father. She wandered from town to town. It was dangerous to do this. Poland was, at the time, lawless and rubble-filled.

My mother searched for her father for thirty days, when she ran out of money. She had failed and it was time for her to return to Germany. She waited at a train station for the train that would take her back. A Soviet soldier at the train station was ogling her. Finally he shouted, “Come here, girl.”

My mother was scared. She’d heard the stories of young women being raped and murdered by Soviet soldiers. She knew she was trapped and approached the soldier. He asked for her name and she didn’t lie. The soldier heard my mother’s Russian accent, the result of being in a Soviet gulag with her family during the war, and was surprised. “What’s a Russian girl doing here?” he asked.

My mother told the soldier her story of being in a Soviet gulag town during the war, of being separated from her father when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and her father was conscripted into the Soviet Army, and of her failed effort to find her father in Poland. The soldier said, “You don’t have to stop looking for your father. Take this.” He handed her a suitcase. “I’m going home today. I don’t really need it.”

The suitcase was full of Polish zloty, nearly worthless as a currency. But given the large quantity of bills it contained, the suitcase would allow my mother to continue her search. She found her father two weeks later and with false papers reunited him with his wife and my mother’s kid brother.

Why did the Soviet soldier decide to help my mother? Humans have an innate capacity for kindness. We respond with empathy to other’s hardship. In difficult situations  big – my mother in search of her father – and small – me in search of a seat at a Broadway show – we can find it.

We live in a time when we’ve elected a president who doesn’t believe that kindness is possible, that everyone is on the make. Our news is full of tales of cruelty, selfishness, and greed. But we can be better than our president, better than what we read in the newspapers. In fact, many respond to their better angels every day.

05. January 2020 · Comments Off on Jewish and proud · Categories: Olio

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