Afro-American, appropriation of culture, Appropriation of voice, bannock, blues, defending culture, eric Clapton, fascism, freedom of speech, globalism, Indigenous rights, intellectual property, Led Zeppelin, mob rule, multicultural world, no fix for the past, paul william roberts, Robert Johnson, Robert le Page, Rolling Stones, Slave, tyranny, unity not division
With the closing of Robert le Page’s Slave, a musical of traditional slave songs, whose crime was having a white lead singer, an intensely irritating fly in the social ointment needs once again to be plucked out with tweezers and left to dry in the sun somewhere far away. For those in a rush who just want a bottom line, a slogan to pluck out like a brolly when rain falls from the clouds of cultural fascism, here it is: “cultural appropriation” is a two-word phase whose components are mutually exclusive – like, say, “jello engineering” or “dental confabulation” – which renders the term meaningless and the concept non-existent in reality. There is then no such thing as cultural appropriation, or its companion in semantic folly “appropriation of voice”, which in its overweening arrogance and pomposity tells me I have no right to include African or aboriginal characters in my stories, because only they are allowed to use their voices and will not be my ventriloquist’s dummy. We’ll get back to this captious twaddle.
Let’s examine what happened to Robert le Page’s musical, in so far as we really know what happened, at least. Is there anything inherently wrong about a white person singing songs originating with African slaves working the southern plantations? Of course not. How could there be? For if there were the whole history of American pop music would be wrong, since all its roots were sunk deep in those cotton fields back there in the beginning. Robert Johnson had the blues, so is that what permitted him to sing them? But are we then suggesting that Eric Clapton, the Stones or Led Zeppelin are too wealthy to get the blues so have no right to sing them? I trust not, because blues are a ubiquitous feature or malady of homo sapiens — one man’s not remotely comparable to another’s in terms of crushing severity. Who can say if Robert Johnson’s miseries were any worse or any better than Clapton’s, a man whose only son accidentally fell to his death from the window of a Manhattan skyscraper, a man who suffered heroin and alcohol addiction, laudably overcoming these demons. If blues cannot be compared per se, what then is left to differentiate between singers? Only skin colour, which may be a crude indicator of class in endemically racist America, yet even there, not to mention across much of the world it indicates nothing of the sort. When the controversy over Slave first arose, Le Page pleaded for his potential audience to see the production first, see what he had done with it, before passing judgement. It seemed the only possible rational response to a hubbub over something protesters had not in fact seen. What they’d heard about – white woman in lead role singing black songs – was more than enough proof for them to be utterly certain this was just more of the same old exploitation and abuse. Why, it was scarcely any different from enslaving us to pick Le Page’s cotton till our figures bleed. You pictured him prowling his stage in white straw panama, loose linen suit, a cheroot clamped between his yellowed teeth, and the bullwhip cracking as he demanded more heft behind that bale. O Lordy! The CBC had a virtual ER of overexcited Afro-Canadian objectors, one of them asked why she didn’t take up Le Page’s offer and see the show first before complaining about it. “I don’t need to see it,” she screamed in outrage. “Do I need to see the hotplate where I burnt myself to know it hurt?” The host was no more certain about this analogy than I was. “I know it will cause me more of the same old pain, so why would I subject myself to that?” No one dared venture the obvious answer: Because it might not be what you think… This attitude is, I suggest, essentially no different from the one in Nazi Germany that said all books and art by Jews are poisonous monstrosities and must be burned. If there was someone who suggested the books ought to be read first in case some weren’t poisonous monstrosities, he was probably thrown on the pyre as well to burn on top of Marx, Freud, Kafka et al. For this is facism, which loves censorship, and this is mob tyranny, which hates freedom of speech, and indeed most constitutional rights.
Although never stated as such, the real argument was basically that to sing slave songs you had to have come out of the slavery culture. Someone might just have a great-great-grandmother living who could honestly claim to have come from a “slavery culture”, but the great-great-granddaughter can only claim knowledge of post-slave culture, which was admittedly often worse than slavery, but still no worse in essence than that suffered by working classes the world over, and indeed sometimes even a little better. To hear millennials talking about the legacy of slavery in their genes or souls, the ongoing bitterness of it, its eternal penumbra shadowing their lives, it all made recall the TV shows, songs and dramas where this sort of emotional language was forged, and where their sort of neo-Baldwinesque rage personae were released to roam the Afro-American psyche. My people were also persecuted periodically, despised and abused, even enslaved, but I don’t feel their rattling tribulations smashing around my subconscious. They were other people, ones I never met, and they were long ago. It could happen again, and vestiges of it do occasionally surface here and there. But all in all things have changed and I’ll take my chances in a different world. Sure, ancestors of the old enemy roam in our midst, but these are mostly far from the old enemy themselves. They’ve changed as everything changes. If these objectors have been taught that the past is still present, then they have been ill-taught, for a lie is no lesson. Let their teachers un-teach these errors, especially the error of thinking that the past can be undone, rearranged to suit the present and its new needs. No historical revisionism, and certainly no apologies from officialdom unable to apologise for crimes in which they had no part, and no mollycoddling exceptionalism in society can ever alter what was done long ago. It may even be damaging, because the pendulum swings both ways, and if one pushes it too hard, the other will find its arc scoring a far larger swath over very different territory. What was gained will then be lost.
A less popular way of seeing all this is its reflection in an essentially neo-colonial attitude of indulgence. Ah, it’s only the blacks and the Indigenous. They’ve had a rough time of it, so let’s indulge their whims, eh? They don’t have much, so no wonder they’re trying to hold onto it. Humour them, because who really cares anyway?
In short, treat them like the children we’ve always regarded them as in our patriarchal world-view. That is not my world-view, however, and since I never had a father I don’t really understand what a patriarch is – except to know I don’t want one. I address all you culprits as adults, so kindly cease and desist your promotion of nonsense about “cultural property”. Such a thing is imaginary. It is not like intellectual property, which is someone’s creation. Feathers, beads, dances, drums, work-songs, foods, speech-patterns, none of it and any of the rest is the work of any individual. Traditions created them over centuries, and traditions are streams flowing from every direction into the river you think of as yours. Well, it’s mine too, brother. One of those streams is me, sister. You want a better world? Then help make it by knocking down your imaginary enclosures, you walls and fences, because the only better world there can ever be is one multi-world, where all are earthlings first and foremost, and then whatever they want to be after that. The human genome is the same in everyone, so, in scientific terms, race does not exist unless it’s the human race. When you tell me what I can and cannot do with my imagination, it makes me want to unpack all of your conceits and ill-informed assumptions. But you must know what they are, how much of what you now consider yours is actually from the hated colonisers. Even your beloved bannock, even your steel guitars… even your religion and sometimes your name too. Who has whose cultural baggage?
I notice lawyers on the whole stay out of this, knowing as they must that a can of worms the size of Trump Tower lies beneath it, waiting hungrily for the first fool to launch a suit and feel the floor beneath him deliquesce as he falls forever through an eternity of wriggling worms. The case might be something like: Cinderella is a Teutonic cultural artefact and cannot be adapted to suit the needs of an Urdu movie. After expert testimony from seventy witnesses, the court will be wondering if Cinderella originated in Indonesia, Africa, Asia Minor, Iceland, among the Sioux or Lakota tribes, in Tierra del Fuego, Uruguay, and any one of a few dozen other places where versions of the tale exist in one form or another. This will make Jarndyce and Jarndyce seem like summary justice. For it could never end, since all mythologies and all languages spiral down into a single vat at the end. It is of course all interrelated, so no one can appropriate what is theirs to begin with. You who pride yourselves on being more attuned to the mystic than the rest of us ought to use the facility to put your facts where your myths are. Do not divide, unite, as you claim to believe we must all do.
There was one plaintive but truer note in all the jargon and sloganeering over Slave. Someone said the lead role should have been given to a black singer because she was herself a black singer and could use the work. Honest if naïve. That a director of Robert le Page’s stature and radiant resume could be suspected of racial bias is preposterous and insulting. Anyone aware of his work could only be certain that he’d select as his cast the very best performers who auditioned for each role. The production itself could also be presumed to represent his finest work given whatever limitations might have existed, and his greatest efforts under any circumstances. I imagine the backers closed it down, thinking, like all moneymen, of the bottom line and any damage to their reputation. Put quotes around “thinking” because it’s only their euphemism for reacting. Had anyone actually thought, they would have realised this nonsensical codswollop could be stopped with a little pertinent straight talk. But political correctness – another vile misnomer – is a creeping distemper in the arts community reminiscent of the 80s herpes scare. You can be afflicted by someone who doesn’t even know they’ve got it. You can catch it by sharing a meal or a doorknob. And when you’ve got it you will lose all your friends and have to consort with others similarly afflicted. The slightest hint of a derogatory remark, even an innocent query – isn’t basket-making more of a craft than an art? – will see you flung into the outer darkness. So no wonder an Achilles did not appear to shout from the ramparts: “There’s no such thing as cultural appropriation!” But you’d have thought at least someone would have echoed Robert le Page’s suggestion, his very fair and reasonable suggestion: see it first. But none did. Those unwilling to defend imagination and the arts from censorship and tyranny in a thousand forms deserve to have no arts at all, since they already lack the quintessential imagination to house them and the vital courage to follow them wherever they lead.