Friday, September 30, 2016

Apropos of Appropriation

Hattie McDaniel and Shirley Temple, (Kodakotype by Pants)

The shit storm Lionel Shriver ignited with her keynote address to the Brisbane Writers Festival a couple of weeks ago is still generating aftershocks. Like this piece by Kaitlyn Greenidge in The New York Times and this one by Nisha Susan in The Hindu. I don't propose to rehash any of the argument here. I'm sure you've all read and considered the talking points to death by now. I will say that I feel most closely aligned with this assessment by Francine Prose* in The New York Review of Books. Particularly this bit,

'The topic is a complicated and sensitive one, and Shriver’s first mistake, I think, was to ignore that complexity and sensitivity by adopting a tone that ranged from jauntiness to mockery and contempt. I can think of only a few situations in which humor is entirely out of line, but a white woman (even one who describes herself as a “renowned iconoclast”) speaking to an ethnically diverse audience might have considered the ramifications of playing the touchy subjects of race and identity for easy laughs.'

That mostly covers it. There's a world of difference between some students freaking out when they find sushi in their canteen and, as Prose puts it,

'...the sorry spectacle of feather bonnets and fake turquoise jewelry for sale at Native American fairs staffed and attended solely by white people. White musicians who get rich performing the songs of black soul and blues singers who live and die in poverty. The fast-food chain Taco Bell, which purveys a bastardized form of Mexican cuisine while paying its workers (who, in the West and Southwest, are often Mexican-Americans) wages that average between eight and nine dollars an hour.'

Why is the difference between these things not blindingly obvious? Now that I find interesting. Prose suggests that there's some misdirecting going on by the elements of society that most benefit from the ongoing exploitation of all cultures subordinated by white patriarchy. I'd include the creative work of women in that. Another interesting element is that men have stayed largely out of this brouhaha, perhaps choosing to view it as a spat between women. Which conveniently makes the issues raised much easier to trivialise and/or ignore. There's one other thing that Shriver might have considered - you can say any number of oppressive things in Australia without unleashing conniptions, but cultural appropriation is an area in which there's a confident history of resistance. Then again, perhaps Shriver did know that.

I'd like to talk about this in the context of a few personal experiences. Recently, a friend here in my district decided to write a song cycle incorporating local history, to be performed at a public event. As you will no doubt be aware, there is by no means agreement on happenings in Australia since white settlement. In our particular corner of the world, there was extreme brutality deployed in the displacement of Indigenous people. And those wounds are far from being healed. The first draft my friend showed me was incendiary. Not because she meant to cause offence, but because she's not a very experienced writer and her initial effort was, shall we say, enthusiastic but quite crass. I urged my friend to tread very carefully, perhaps seek to collaborate with Indigenous writers and musicians and, at the very least to consult with elders. I also suggested she go in heavy on the metaphor and end the cycle with a reconciliation song as the narrative seemed to call for it. A community like ours can't ever have too many of those, and that's for sure. These projects are tricky but worthwhile to get right. My friend is both genuine and courageous and I very much want her to succeed.

Flash back fifteen years when I found myself in a not entirely dissimilar situation. I was living in London and had been for around twenty years. I'd written a novel. In it I'd related some stories that had been told to me by an Aboriginal elder in my callow youth. I remained largely ignorant of what is known in Australia as the culture wars, a long-overdue reassessment of the standard colonial view of our history. The trashing, suppression, exploitation and appropriation of Indigenous peoples' cultural traditions, languages, stories and objects became an important focal point in that contest. I'd inadvertently crossed that line by including material that wasn't rightly mine. I sent the manuscript to several agents and publishers in Australia and was quickly set straight. I should note that the gatekeepers were all white women. Not that it matters. They were correct. I accept that it's my mistake. Like my friend who's writing the song cycle, I'd erred in ignorance. For my part, I've shelved the book and plan to rewrite it as part of a series I'm working on at the moment. The elder who told the stories frequently invited young students to her home and shared these stories to give us some understanding of the history of our ancient homeland. She's no longer around to ask. I have two choices. I could omit those sections altogether, which would obviously be the easiest. Or - it may be possible to gain permission from the current custodians of this knowledge to include them. I'm still thinking about how I might go about that.

Like a lot of Australians of my vintage, I grew up spending rainy Saturday afternoons watching old Hollywood films on television. I was particularly fond of Shirley Temple films. The screen shot above is from The Little Colonel (1935), a sentimental favourite and one that I've based a couple of artworks on. The film, adapted from the novel by Annie Fellows Johnston is set immediately post Civil War in the American South. There are six prominent black characters in this film including parts played by Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar, (Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind). McDaniel suffered many indignities in her long and successful career, including being sat at a segregated table at the Academy Award ceremony the year she won. When criticized for accepting stereotypical roles and pressured to petition the studios for a better deal, she apparently responded,

'Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid. If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one.'

And therein lies the folly of having a pop at someone for sticking her neck out and at least doing what can be done. If there hadn't been a Hattie McDaniel, would there have been an Oprah Winfrey? Yes, I know that these films were made for white folks and that there's always been Black Cinema, sometimes called Race Cinema, where the roles for actors were more diverse, but I'm talking about what I was able to see as a child in Australia on B&W television in the 1960s. And whilst these films don't represent the perfect model of equality that we have today (not!), I recall only positivity from the films I saw in childhood in which black and white characters interacted. I retain a lasting affection for Hal Roach's Our Gang series, in which black and white, boys and girls and even the odd fat kid were cast as equals and undertook adventures together. I'm grateful for those black pioneers of American cinema because they set the somewhere from which to start.

I'm not in any way apologising for past and present stereotyping and discrimination in Hollywood, or anywhere else for that matter, I'm just saying that I feel my childhood was enriched by seeing films  featuring Bill Robinson, The Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, Sidney Poitier among many. I'm saying that as an adult, I am capable of spotting and calling out racism, perhaps because of rather than in spite of my exposure to black folks on film, even in a subordinate cultural context. Just as I'm capable of appreciating Marilyn Monroe's immense contribution to the arts without obliging myself to dismiss her as a sex object. I believe we call that empathy.

I saw Gone With the Wind for the first time in about 1969, when it was shown in a cinema in Sydney. My mother and I went. She had seen the film but I hadn't. I'd read the Margaret Mitchell book. It was probably my first grown-up novel. I thought the film terrific then. I still think so now. I remember when it was first shown on television in Britain in the mid-eighties and the shock when arguments for and against slavery were advanced in the film and the black characters shown as fearful and reticent. Really? I thought. You think people raised in slavery are going to be confident and sassy? There's nothing to be gained by pretending the past is anything other than the ugly thing it so often was. The idea is to learn from it.

At the risk of casting out one more tangent than I can reasonably deal with here - there's also the layer of ownership and its definition to consider. My excuse is that Shriver based her argument on the proposition that stories are anyone's to tell. In a perfect world with level playing fields as far as the eye can see, I might agree with her. But we don't live in that world. The telling is not so much the problem. Profiting is the real problem. Capitalism has commodified human experience and lays down the law about who gets to benefit from its packaging and sale. It has no appreciation of cultures based on the ethic of community property, who can suddenly find themselves thrust into the foreign world of proof and claims. Who do we make the cheque out to?  No one in particular? Great, we'll just take what we want. Traditional custodians of culture are forced to either protect their heritage or watch as some entertainment behemoth poaches at will. That situation can make cross-cultural sharing fraught and risky. But what's the alternative? We all retreat to our cultural corners and eye each other suspiciously? No, the huge middle ground is collaboration. Not stealing but sharing. We all have an obligation to advance the human project by building understanding through cooperation. That project is not furthered by the kind of attack narrative proffered by Lionel Shriver. As plenty of people have pointed out, nothing is stopping her from writing whatever the fuck she likes. She just needs to understand that she's not the only one with the right to free speech.

*Isn't that just the best name for a writer ever?