Cultural Appropriation or Cross-Cultural Encounter?

Trigger/content warning: racist language, blackface minstrelsy.

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Rihanna wearing a Catholic bishop’s mitre at the gala for the Metropolitan Museum show “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”

The lines between cultural appropriation and a more innocent cross-cultural borrowing can be blurry. Are there rules for determining which is which?

Is this cultural appropriation? (Watch the whole thing.)

What about this?

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“Oh, Susanna” is sung from the point of view of an African-American man, apparently free and wandering with a banjo from Alabama to Louisiana (in 1846!). He sings in a thick dialect that is Foster’s own invention, and the second verse, which is never sung today, contains the unforgettable line:

I jump’d aboard the Telegraph and trabbeled down de ribber
De lectrie fluid magnified and kill’d five hundred Nigger.

“Oh, Susannah” was written for a blackface minstrel troupe, the Ethiopian Serenaders.But the song used to be sung by most American schoolchildren. Here is the Canadian folk ensemble The Be Good Tanyas’ version.

What about this, more in the original context?

We’ll be discussing these things at length this semester.

The Appropriation of Cultures

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Percival Everett

Listen to a wonderful live reading of Percival Everett’s 1996 short story “The Appropriation of Cultures”:

This is the song, “Dixie,” that Everett’s character Daniel sings. It was written in 1859, and was adopted, with additional lyrics, as the national anthem of the Confederacy.

Perhaps the way that Daniel sings “Dixie” sounded something like jazz singer René Marie’s version. As Marie says:

Why should I let someone’s misuse of a song determine whether I like it? I want to reclaim it as my mine — I’m from the South, too . . . But instead of singing it in this happy, up-tempo way it’s usually played, I’m going to put some grit in there and some dirt, and sing it from the perspective of my people.

In their book Way Up North In Dixie, Howard and Judith Sacks make a the case that “Dixie” was actually written by a black man, a fact not widely known by those who have adopted the song as an anthem for the “Lost Cause” (see the excerpt in your course reading packet).

As Rhiannon Giddens says, it’s complicated.

Here, Rhiannon Giddens talks about the history of the banjo, which was transplanted from West Africa to the Caribbean to the southern U.S.

Giddens playing an original song with banjo, “Julie,” based on the memoir of a nineteenth-century slave — a genre that John Jeremiah Sullivan calls “neo-slave ballads.”

Percival Everett talks about what he calls the myth of race:

And then, there’s producer John Sims’s “AfroDixie Remixes” project, which he describes as “playing ‘Dixie’ in the key of black.”

Because, as Gary Clark, Jr., notes, this land belongs to African Americans.