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.



Comments closed.