Fall Hunter Moon
Ruth wanted to see the Queen of Katwe, the story of a poor Uganda country girl who became a chess champion. So we did. It was a good movie, not great; but, its almost all black cast reminded me of Luke Cage, which also has an almost all black cast. I have been and am suspicious of the idea of appropriation* as bad, but these two media pieces have made rethink it.
The problem I have with the idea of cultural appropriation is its clash with the aims of art. We could not write books, make movies, script plays, probably even compose music if we did not borrow both from the realm of our personal experience and from the experiential realm of others. At its most fundamental, a man could not write about women, or a woman about men. And, to drill even deeper into this morass, since we can never know the interior life of another, I could not write about anyone else.
Also, to have no characters or roles or melodies that have roots in cultural experiences other than your own would make novels, films, plays and music monuments to cultural isolation. Too, the voice of one culture’s representative commenting on another’s is the stuff of art and provides important information, reflection for our common life as members of a diverse human community.
Having said that I found myself intrigued with both Luke Cage and Queen of Katwe because they had almost all black casts. The voice of the characters, the setting, the narrative drive had an integrity, a cohesiveness different from a white dominated movie or television program. The vulnerabilities, tensions, outright conflicts reflect immersion in Uganda and Harlem. They help open up a world, a way of being, a certain thrownness, as Heidegger put it, that is well outside my white, male, middle class, small town Midwest USA experience.
This presentation of the panorama of black and African characters humanizes them, makes them real, in a way that appropriated roles often cannot. What I’m saying here is that the positive argument stemming from the idea of cultural appropriation, that members of a group or culture can tell their own story best, seems validated for me by this particular movie and this television series.
However. The notion of silos, common in critique of bureaucracies, corporate or governmental or academic, seems to me to apply here, too. Silos are self contained domains, segments of a differentiated work place. The easiest place to see silos is in academe where biology and physics occupy different departments, often different buildings, and usually do not communicate. The internal culture of the military makes it secretive while congress wants transparency, the EPA is a separate agency of quasi-cabinet rank, so it is separate from the department of Agriculture where many matters of critical environmental concern receive attention. The critique is that while the silos differentiate and protect, the world is not so divided. Biology and physics operate within each organism. In the world as it is, Federal Superfund sites, under the administration of the EPA, interact directly with farms and municipalities. There was no bureaucratic barrier between the toxic waste pouring from the Gold King Mine and the waters of the Animas River.
Sorry to have belabored that but my point is this: even if cultural appropriation was to become a norm, it would create its own problems by cordoning off the experience of one culture from another, creating silos of African-American experience or LGBT experience.
It seems to me that the best world would allow and encourage both works by members of all cultures that include and therefore reflect on other cultures and works by and about members of one culture. Let the reader, or the movie goer, or the symphony audience experience the tensions and conflicts. That’s the way to a richer and more intense dialogue among and between all people.
*Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial, notably when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority; this is seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity and intellectual property rights. wikipedia