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Our America: Confessions of a Race Traitor, Part Three

This is Part Three of a three-part series. Read Part One here, and Part Two here.

Part Three: In Defense of Cultural Appropriation

Yes, I know. After spewing forth more than sufficient verbiage for a pair of blog posts, I still haven’t earned fully the title of this series. Nothing necessarily, either in my brief and partial history of the Massachusetts Review or in my reminiscences from grad school, more than hints how my interests/values/tastes (in what I don’t know already) make me a race traitor. Perhaps there is no necessary connection, but that’s how it worked out in my case. These days, with the line between alt-right trolls and the so-called Republican base increasingly impossible to draw, it is time to pick sides. I simply want nothing to do with that club who, if identity were skin-deep, would claim me as a member.

In the Comparative Literature graduate program at Penn, we were required, for our Ph.D. qualifying exams, to create a list based on a national literary tradition. Since my studies focused on twentieth-century narrative and literary theory, where nothing important is the product of a single tradition, I was never thrilled with this program requirement (though I did understand it aimed to make us marketable). Obliged to choose, I opted for what I couldn’t avoid, since I was born into it, and decided to build a list of USian literature and culture that would itself be comparative. Houston Baker chaired that committee, with Betsy Erkkila and Roger Abrahams as its other members; in short, I had plenty of support for my efforts. During those years, along with coursework in the presence of other luminaries (e.g., Myra Jehlen, Jan Radway, and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg), I had attended Baker’s course on African American women writers and Sandra Pouchet Paquet’s seminar on Caribbean writers, so, by that point in my studies, canon revision had become more or less instinctual.

In thinking back about where such tastes originated, however, it’s clear that growing up in Michigan—a child during the sixties and college student during the rise of Reagan—made certain choices more likely than others. My parents were trained as social workers, and, for a time, my dad worked in the state’s Department of Youth Services for Robert Little, Malcolm’s younger brother. Plus my sister used to babysit for Howard Wolpe, chair of U.S. House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Africa and a leader in the movement to impose sanctions on South Africa.

Though both my parents died young, way back in 1990, I can still hear my dad, with great relish, calling out “Ray Charles” whenever the radio happens to play his tunes. Along with Mahalia Jackson, the Father of Soul’s music is what I remember from my father’s memorial service.

I also remember hearing that, a few years before I was born, my dad reported for jury duty but got excused by a preemptory challenge from the defense. When asked whether any of the prospective jurors had been the victim of a violent crime, dad was obliged to raise his hand. In response to the judge’s query, he explained that, one day on a site visit for work, while intervening in a family squabble, he’d had a knife held to his throat by the husband (who happened to be African American, as was the defendant). A shame, I think, that the defense attorney didn’t ask any follow-up questions; he probably lost the best juror prospect he had that day. After all, if my dad hadn’t been both empathetic and persuasive, there would have been no me.

The first African American performer I fell in love with, though, wasn’t at the top of my father’s list. Back in junior high, a buddy and I listened to a certain Richard Pryor album—I won’t repeat the title—so many times we could recite it by heart. My friend’s father was black, though his mother wasn’t; his parents were also separated or divorced. I only ever saw the father of this friend in a photo at their home, wearing a military uniform (and, of course, during this period the US was at war in Vietnam). A few years later, his mother remarried, this time with a white guy.

A famous psychology study I remember reading as an undergraduate seems relevant here. It was done on Martha’s Vineyard, and, if I recall the details correctly, the research measured certain linguistic markers in the speech of middle and high school students—forms of speech specific to the islanders not found elsewhere. The kicker is that, apparently without conscious effort, some of the secondary school kids lost their Vineyard accents and others didn’t. The ones that did, it turned out, strongly correlated with those who chose to leave and find a life elsewhere. The ones who didn’t stayed home.

It’s not hard to understand why junior high school kids would love Pryor: his combination of cultural insight, performative bravura, and prohibited speech acts are still breathtaking, and the Midwest does tend to favor edgy forms of rebellion. In one of the Pryor bits I remember from that album, the comic played a wino mouthing off to everyone, his voice slurred and singsong. You’re messing with the Kid, he’d say, and then he’d get the shit kicked out of him.

The other routine I recall took the piss out of The Exorcist, the blockbuster film from a few years earlier. If it’d been a black preacher, there wouldn’t have been no movie. You see, black preachers, they’se real close to God. (taking on the role) Bitch! It smell like shit in here!! Git out of bed and wash you’ ass!! (then, in a stentorian, basso profundo) Gawd? Gawd, I know you’re busy. . . I’ve checked your schedule. . . But Gawd, the devil is acting a mutherfuckin’ fool down h’ya. Could you please come down h’ya and exercise that mutherfucker to Cleveland someplace? Pretty much all there, isn’t it? Pryor takes on a cultural phenomenon, and in seconds shows how ridiculous it is. En route, he unpacks African American culture in order to deconstruct whiteness, and uses language, the body, as well as macho bravura in ways that are both recognizable and troubling.

At the moment, of course, I’m also using Pryor in an argument of my own. To make this explicit, and so as not to fudge the data, I didn’t check my inevitably partial and fuzzy, forty-year-old memory against the original, but instead just transcribed whatever I recalled, or thought I did, from the routine. This isn’t Pryor, it’s my Pryor: in other words, an act of unadulterated cultural appropriation. (Just another white rapper from the suburbs, another minstrel, blacking up. No doubt, while rehearsing family history and name-dropping, I should not have left Marshall Mathers off the list.) Long ago, Eric Lott described minstrelsy as both love and theft: where my own performance falls in this regard is not my call. I will simply observe again that, for me, this story began back in junior high, at a time when, consciously or not, I was learning the language that would eventually become my life, the only one I have.

I should also add that, not too long after, my childhood friend and I grew apart. We didn’t have a falling out; at least throughout high school, we remained friends but saw each other less often. As I recall, he spent increasingly more time with other black kids, some of them older than we were. At some level, even then, I think this choice made sense to me, especially given his mother’s second marriage. After I left for college, we lost touch completely—in every life, there are many islands, but only one Vineyard. Years later, I would hear that my friend had survived a life-changing car accident, but by that time, other than family, I had few ties left in Michigan. Kind of late, I assumed, to walk back across that burning bridge. On some level, nonetheless, I probably wrote this piece for him.    

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So where does all this get us, or me, when it comes to the questions that began this series? How could personal history even matter when it comes to a political moment like the present? By definition, my answer to questions of this sort has to be simple: I have no certain answers. Nonetheless, given time, answers will certainly come.

The real question is where will they come from? My wager, based on my history and that of the magazine, is that they’ll come from others, from outside, not from an automatic repetition of the same. By now, you’ll have realized that the language of my series title is intentionally inflammatory; I chose the label “race traitor” in part because of the heightened level of rhetoric that surrounds us today and in part because right-wing trolls would likely think of me this way. Perhaps translation, rather than either betrayal or appropriation, would be a closer description: after all, a translator does learn enough of a second language to allow words and work—and the name of the author—to appear in another tongue. Despite my tongue-in-cheek subtitle, no one could, or should, defend cultural appropriation: pace Proudhon, theft is criminal. Done well, translations do not appropriate; they are woven from care and love, from empathy and knowledge. They are also made of loss, and repair. What I’m arguing against is the idea that truly important cultural work today will happen within, rather than between, languages. We’ve had enough of that island.

Yet for many these days, digging in and circling the wagons—rather than opening up and welcoming in—appears the instinctual reaction to uncertain times, to a future that looms rather than lures. What we need instead is a different sort of reflex, a readiness to hear others out, to be open to persuasion. Akeel Bilgrami’s introduction to Edward Said’s lectures on humanism is eloquent on this point:

"[S]elf-knowledge is the highest form of human achievement and the true goal of humanistic education. But [Said] also believed that self-knowledge is unattainable without an equal degree of self-criticism, or the awareness that comes from studying and experiencing other peoples, traditions, and ideas."

Study and experience of “other peoples, traditions, and ideas,” so far as I can tell, is what this magazine has always published, what made its reputation. Not only a legacy worth preserving, such openness may be what, in the end, preserves us.

Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.

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