The Utility of Walls: Cultural Appropriation’s Role in Literature

Essays

 

INTRODUCTION

What is the utility of a wall? The answer depends in part upon where it is built; the rest of the answer depends on why. If you are reading this indoors, then the room in which you sit is some amalgamation of walls. Their utility is partially to enclose, to protect, and perhaps even support a structure such as a roof.  Prior to demolishing walls, construction crews must ask, “is this a load-bearing wall?” In such a pragmatic question, we see the nuance brought forth by questioning the utility of walls.

Walls come in a wide variety, with myriad uses. There are walls of steel, walls of earth, walls of glass. Walls in a dentist’s office must be lined with lead. Some walls have windows, while others have none. Walls can contain doorways and secret passages. They can be topped with minarets. Inside, walls hang posters, shelves, and sconces. A classroom wall may double as a whiteboard. The utility of each wall is ultimately determined by its unique physical identity.

But, there are walls we build that are unseen. Laws, as such, are walls. They separate the abiders from the dissenters, hoping to enclose, protect, and ultimately support a particular society or way of life. Laws might not seem like tangible objects, but cross over to the other side and you will know the wall is very real. Similarly, unseen walls exist in other applications of the written word. For instance, this essay. Its form is defined by walls of convention and expectation, from the twelve-point font to the anticipation of a thesis statement. If these walls are smashed in too many places, the writing is still writing, but it is no longer an academic, expository essay. Therefore, I adhere to the formal structure for a reason, which is to allow my professor to proceed with the ease of familiarity. In this vein, we must question the utility of walls whenever we find them imposed on the written word, especially if a wall is still being erected. The idea of cultural appropriation, as applied to literature, is such a wall. So, I ask, “why is it being built?” What is its utility? By juxtaposing the idea of cultural appropriation with the idea of multicultural literature, it will become clear that the former mutates the positive aims of the latter into an ideological kangaroo court bent on redefining and limiting artistic expression.

THE WALLS OF LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE

In Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, she opens the tale by writing in the style of a classic, basal reader à la Dick and Jane. “Here is the family,” she writes, “Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are happy.” (Morrison 3) There is no reason for alarm here, no linguistic rules have been tossed aside, but in the next paragraph, Morrison begins to break down walls. She repeats the previous line, but in a new form: “here is the family mother father dick and jane live in the green-and-white house they are very happy” (Morrison 4) The removal of capitalization and punctuation reveals what was previously unseen, or at least taken for granted; capital letters and punctuation marks are walls that give rise to the sentence, dividing groups of words into independent thoughts. Their utility makes reading easier. Next, Morrison removes the spaces between words, leaving us with, “hereisthefamilymotherfatherdickandjaneliveinthegreenandwhitehousetheyareveryhappy” (Morrison 4) Now we see that the empty spaces, the omission of characters, were indeed walls that separated letters into words, once again allowing for easier reading.

However, not all empty spaces and omissions in writing have reader ease as their utility. I believe Morrison opens with Dick and Jane, then deconstructs the sentences, to show the nonsense quality of those basal readers. In children’s books of that era, there was no representation of African-American life. She is pointing to a space, an omission, an unseen wall. Whereas the walls between words have a practical, benign utility, the walls between races are abhorrent. We need only to look at their utility, which imposes the voice of one race by muting the other. Morrison saw this wall, saw the immoral nature of its utility, and chose to smash it by writing her own book, which garnered the Nobel Prize.

THE WALLS OF WESTERN CULTURE

The unseen wall observed by Morrison was not unique to basal readers, but surrounded the entirety of literature in the Western canon. The canon, made explicit by Harold Bloom in his book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, was also made implicit by its domination in American school curriculum. (Bloom 13) Writers such as Shakespeare, Whitman, and Dickinson, were granted preeminence in the American classroom. Whether it was raised with intentional malice or not, a literary wall was erected. On one side, white authors of Western descent ruled the roost, while African, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic authors were largely relegated to the dustbin of history.

Overtime, this unseen wall became tangible and people began to question its utility. On one hand, it preserved important Western works. On the other hand, it irresponsibly excluded important American voices. Seeing this wall for its true utility, a consensus to break through it emerged with a call for the inclusion of multicultural literature.

In order to understand the benefit of breaking the canonical wall, it is important to define multicultural literature as a term and a movement. Unfortunately, available academic rhetoric does not provide a clear definition of multicultural literature. One scholar suggests, “in the absence of a more accurate, widely accepted term, each ‘expert’ creates her own definition of multicultural literature”, but then goes on to explain that she chooses to “focus on literature by or related to people of color.” (Bishop 2) This emphasis on non-White authorship fits with the description of the multicultural literature course in which I am enrolled. The syllabus notes that the course “examines selected writings by representative American authors of racial and ethnic minority, including Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans” (Han) In light of this coherence, author ethnicity provides a serviceable focal point for viewing the merits of multicultural literature. The argument is clearly for the inclusion of more voices, not the dismantling of the preexisting canon. As such, it is hard to argue with the benefits. If literature is good in its own right, is more literature not better? Put another way, the utility of the great, white wall of Western canon is not sufficient to justify its continued existence. The multicultural literature movement swings like a wrecking ball, expanding the study of literature in America through liberation.

THE WALLS OF CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

Now, however, the spirit of multicultural literature is being perversely mutated by a new idea: cultural appropriation. Like multiculturalism, cultural appropriation has a racial and ethnic focal point which is revealed by using the cultural adjective. The second word in the term, appropriation, essentially means theft. This negative connotation is the definition that appears to be emerging in the American zeitgeist. (Friedersdorf)

In academic discourse, however, the definition of cultural appropriation is not so cut and dry. In fact, academics in general do not seem to have a firm grasp on what they mean when they use it. Communication theorist Richard A. Rogers states, “although such works in critical/cultural studies often use the notion of cultural appropriation, the concept is frequently used without significant discussion or explicit theorizing.” (Rogers 474) In other words, the unseen wall that is being erected lacks definitive form. The track is being laid before a moving train. However, Rogers seeks to right this wrong by reconceptualizing and explicitly defining the term. Therefore, we will turn to Rogers’ definition to examine what type of wall is being built and ultimately assess its utility.

Cultural Exchange.  Based on literature addressing cultural appropriation, Rogers identifies four categories: cultural exchange, cultural dominance, cultural exploitation, and transculturation. (Rogers 477) The first part of the wall, cultural exchange, is defined as “the reciprocal exchange of symbols, artifacts, rituals, genres, and/or technologies between cultures with roughly equal levels of power.” (Rogers 477) In literature, the exchange of symbols and artifacts could include language, archetypes, tropes, genres, settings, asthetics, mythos, and so on. This type of exchange in literature has positive utility. The advent of something like three-act structure enables all playwrights, regardless or cultural origin, to experiment with and revel in theatrical expression. But, Rogers does not end at the exchange of ideas. He includes matters of power, and that is where we see a wall being built. According to his definition, writers can only exchange in a reciprocal nature if their cultures have roughly equal power, which we must assume refers to political or financial power. This would suggest that the publishers of Dick and Jane could not learn anything from Toni Morrison, and vice versa. In this idea, I see no utility other than to choke and stifle literary innovation.

Cultural Domination.  The second category, cultural dominance, is explained thus: “the use of elements of a dominant culture by members of a subordinated culture in a context in which the dominant culture has been imposed on the subordinated culture, including appropriations that enact resistance.” (Rogers 477) The realities of cultural dominance are impossible to deny, but not impossible to ignore. In this essay, the dominant culture of the academic institution expects me to use a twelve-point font and state my thesis within the first paragraph or page. The former I obeyed, the latter I chose to ignore because I was building toward my thesis. As a writer, I have agency, and I also have a goal. Toni Morrison used her agency to omit punctuation and spaces from her Dick and Jane paragraph, but she did not continue this for the rest of the novel, because no one would have read it. In literature, writers cannot be subordinated unless they do so willingly as a means of reaching a particular audience. Therefore, I see no utility in relabeling the wall of common sense as cultural dominance.

Cultural Exploitation.  The third wall Rogers proposes to erect is called cultural exploitation, and this is the definition that most laypeople would attribute to cultural appropriation. Rogers defines it as, “the appropriation of elements of a subordinated culture by a dominant culture without substantive reciprocity, permission, and/or compensation.” (Rogers 477) When applied to literature, this idea is utter nonsense. Intellectual property is already protected by copyright laws, the practice of citing sources, and plagiarism both as a term and an idea. Cultural exploitation seeks to expand these rights from the individual to the collective, thereby expanding the wall of plagiarism to a scale that separates large groups of people from each other’s art. What is the utility of such a wall? It is not the protection of intellectual property, but the commoditization of intellectual property for political, and perhaps financial, power. Furthermore, this is antithetical to the very idea of multicultural literature.

Transculturation.  The final category, transculturation, is simply an out for Rogers. In a long-winded manner, he describes it as, “cultural elements created from and/or by multiple cultures, such that identification of a single originating culture is problematic, for example, multiple cultural appropriations structured in the dynamics of globalization and transnational capitalism creating hybrid forms.” (Rogers 477) In other words, if a literary work cannot be sufficiently picked apart by any of Rogers’ other three definitions, it can still be labeled as cultural appropriation because determining whether or not such a thing is true is too “problematic.” (Rogers 477) Here, we have crossed into madness, and a wall that is built on madness cannot be said to have any beneficial utility.

With the idea of cultural appropriation adequately, or perhaps inadequately, defined, a picture emerges of the intellectual wall it builds. But, to answer the question of ultimate utility, we must look at a portent of things to come. To see where this idea leads, we can look at an example of how it has been applied to the visual arts. In March of 2017, Dana Schutz, an American artist, was protested for a painting she displayed at the Whitney Biennial art exhibition. Her painting, called “Open Casket”, depicted the open casket viewing of an African American who was lynched during the nineteen-fifties. Since Schutz was white, petitioners cited cultural appropriation as grounds for having the painting “removed from the exhibit and destroyed.” (Friedersdorf) Since then, activists have called for another exhibition to ban Schutz, despite the fact that the controversial painting was not slated to appear. In an Atlantic article discussing the incident, columnist Conor Friedersdorf wrote, “calling for the destruction of art would be akin to . . . calling for books we find offensive to be burned. As writers, book burning is anathema to the values we hold dear, namely free thought and expression.” (Friedersdorf) In my opinion, this is a road we need never travel down in the realm of literature.

CONCLUSION

What is the utility of a wall? A wall can protect us, but it can divide us as well. A wall can define territory, but it can also be mounted with guards, ready to use violence to prevent crossing or approaching. I grew up in an era that celebrated the demolition of walls. When the Berlin wall fell, I watched as Germans cheered, cried tears of joy, and sang exultations of freedom and unity. Much to my chagrin, ideas like those associated with cultural appropriation step away from unity and toward totalitarian thinking. No artist in a free society should be subservient to censorship, no matter how unpopular their opinions might be. The right to free speech is about more than speech; it is the freedom to express oneself and to communicate with others. Therefore, it is inexorably linked to freedom of thought, which is the very essence of our minds. What, then, is the utility of a wall? As applied to literature, public discourse, and my own mind, the answer is simple – none whatsoever!

Works Cited

Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Selecting Literature for a Multicultural Curriculum.” Using Multiethnic Literature in the K-8 Classroom, edited by Violet J. Harris, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997, pages 1-6.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. Riverhead Books, 1994.

Friedersdorf, Conor. “What Does ‘Cultural Appropriation’ Actually Mean?” The Atlantic, 3 Apr. 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/cultural-appropriation/521634/. Accessed 20 Jul. 2017.

Han, John J. ENGL 563: Multicultural Literature Student Syllabus. 2017. Missouri Baptist University, Creve Coeur, MO. Microsoft Word file.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage Books, 2007.

Rogers, Richard A. “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptulization of Cultural Appropriation.” Communication Theory, vol. 16, no. 4, 2006, pages 474-503.