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Inspiration vs. Cultural Appropriation

An intimate conversation between two scholars and fiction writers who’ve witnessed both

At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando.
At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando who won for his role in The Godfather. Photo: Bettmann/Getty

By Robin Kirk and Karla Holloway

TThe conversation over cultural appropriation is necessary, long in coming, and deeply fraught. By their nature artists, including writers, absorb and incorporate many things into their work. Groups and cultures do this, too. Journalist Nadra Kareem Nittle notes that Americans who grow up in diverse communities “may pick up the dialect, customs, and religious traditions of the cultural groups that surround them,” all natural, predictable, and even desirable.

Appropriation is fundamentally different. Members of a dominant culture appropriate when they take things — sacred ideas, clothing, music, lifeways — from a historically oppressed or marginalized group, separate them from their original meaning, then use them for their own benefit and often without attribution, context, or respect. The dominant culture may celebrate these elements. But the key divider is power and the theft, erasure, and silencing of the communities where these ideas and lifeways were created.

This doesn’t work the other way, with minority groups adopting elements of the dominant culture. Nicki Lisa Cole points out that, “While people of color are forced to adopt elements of mainstream White culture, White people can sample at the buffet of other cultures at their leisure, picking and choosing what they wish to consume.”

AAmerican culture is chock-full of ferociously dissected examples. The way Hollywood appropriated Native American culture was the motivation for actor Marlon Brando’s refusal to accept a 1973 Academy Award for his performance in The Godfather. Instead, Native American actor and activist Sacheen Littlefeather stepped up to the podium, politely refusing the statuette to scattered boos and some applause. In his statement, Brando noted, “the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile, and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.”

More recent examples in literature include accusations that J.K. Rowling appropriated Native American culture by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker. In her four-part series, The History of Magic in North America, Rowling describes “skin walkers,” an actual myth of the Navajo people.

Members of a dominant culture appropriate when they take things from a historically-oppressed or marginalized group, separate them from their original meaning, then use them for their own benefit.

Another much-discussed example was The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller that was later made into a movie that won supporting actress Octavia Spencer an Oscar. Stockett, who is White, writes in the voices of two Black women and uses vernacular. Later, the book was excoriated for trivializing, misrepresenting, and stereotyping African Americans.

SSome writers have dismissed this debate as a “passing fad.” But many, many more are honestly engaging with this crucial discussion. Where do inspiration and appreciation end and appropriation begin? What about when what inspires is itself a product of amalgamation and mixture?

In the spirit of learning more about how this works in the world of fiction, including science fiction and fantasy, Karla FC Holloway and Robin Kirk engaged in an online discussion. Both are academics and fiction writers.

For Karla FC Holloway, who is African American, her research and teaching interests focus on African American cultural studies, biocultural studies, gender, ethics, and law. She is the author of a forthcoming novel, A Death in Harlem.

Robin Kirk, who is White, is a founding member of the Pauli Murray Project, an initiative that seeks to use the legacy of this African American human rights leader to examine America’s past of slavery, segregation, and continuing economic inequality.

Robin Kirk: First of all, thank you for suggesting this conversation. To start off, can you talk about how you have approached the issue of cultural appropriation in your scholarly work?

Karla FC Holloway: I think it was more an aspect of my teaching than my scholarship. My classrooms were more likely to notice the issues of appropriation — such as my annual fall reminder that cultures are not costumes, or in public lectures discussing the problematic gaze of researchers like Rebecca Skloot, who made the private life of the Lacks family her public domain, or fictions like Stockett’s The Help, that replicates a narrow and self-absorbed characterization of Black women who worked in White households.

Some point to the 1973 Academy Awards, when Sacheen Littlefeather spoke on Brando’s behalf, as the moment when this conversation burst into prominence. Is that your sense?

If we think of “prominence” as when White folks started paying attention, possibly yes. But part of the issue of appropriation of who notices what and when, and displaying the Academy Awards as the origin story neglects, I think, the innumerable moments when Blacks and other minorities understood appropriation as an avenue to a particular kind of cultural play-acting — think 19th century (and beyond) White minstrelsy — that can put on, and critically take off a racial or ethnic mark, without attention to the histories embedded in those marks. I think aligning it with the Brando moment actually clarifies the distinction of how White folks and Black notice origins.

Is there something about this moment that makes this discussion particularly contentious?

Perhaps we’d anticipated more thoughtfulness and even accommodation to the cultural scholarship embedded in the idea of appropriation, in an era when expertise in these matters is readily available.

Some feel pretty comfortable with what cultural appropriation is. I think where there is confusion is regarding what it is not. As you know, I recently faced an accusation of appropriation because I posted about being inspired to partly base a character on the look of created in a high-fashion photo shoot featuring Sudanese model Malaan Ajang. Is it appropriation or something else?

First of all, anyone who was not inspired by that exquisite photo shoot needs another opportunity to engage the image. I’d be more concerned with someone who would want to restrict and allocate the appreciation of its artistry, composition, and person than someone who acknowledged and delighted in how its aesthetics informed their own.

In other words, it’s the old parallelism in a question like: “If Black art is only for the consumption of Black folks, is Shakespeare only for 16th-century British folks (a population that included, by the way, Black British folk)?” And the answer is of course not. Appropriation is a correct label if the act of cultural borrowing is dehumanizing. In my judgment, this matter of humanity and personhood guide my sense of cultural exchange.

Cultures in contact will inevitably share cultural markers. Contemporary migrations of cultures — from virtual to real — make contact even more accessible. However, when these marks erase or — and this is a critical consideration — when they diminish the origins, appropriation is an absolutely reasonable inquiry. We need to attend to what erasure and diminution mean alongside the appearance of a cultural idiom, moment, or mark. So when we wonder if it’s cultural appropriation, the correct standard, in my judgment, is whether it diminishes, erases, or displays a privilege that corrupts its intrinsic cultural value.

Do you think the distinction between inspiration or legitimate artistic use versus appropriation is becoming muddled or do we “know it when we see it”?

I don’t think it’s that apparent, which is why intent and effect have to accompany any question of and assignment of “cultural appropriation” as a pejorative act.

Is there such a thing as cultural appropriation within cultures or perceived cultures? I’m thinking of some of the criticism leveled at the recent film Crazy Rich Asians. For some, the category of Asian itself is an erasure of the huge cultural differences the movie glosses over.

I did not like the movie, let me just say that. But I’m not a rom-com person generally. I do think “Asia” as geography and “Asians” as persons is a problematic conflation. And it’s important to acknowledge the ways in which geography itself is a cultural invention.

But I also don’t expect film to do the work of cultural information and that’s, I believe, where some of our problems lie. We’ve forgotten that fictions are fabrications, and we’ve allowed whatever we accept as history to repeat, without interrogation, the privilege of whomever writes the story. Intent and effect again.

I know you are a reader of science fiction and fantasy. Some writers are avoiding writing characters with contemporary racial identities since their worlds are constructed with different divisions. Is that a cop-out? How should these writers be thinking about appropriation?

They should think about it. And then they should write. I remember talking to a group of young readers in Houston, Texas who said they wanted more stories about them and their experiences. I suggested that was fair and absolutely reasonable, but I challenged them to also see their claim to knowledge as extending beyond and behind those experiences.

So if they didn’t read fiction and fantasy, if they didn’t follow an imaginative turn or bend of myth, they might not know anything other than their direct experience. And that’s not why we read. We want ourselves, certainly. But we also want more and different. When a writer correctly considers appropriation, go to intent and effect. Spend some honest time answering those questions, and then keep writing.

Now that HBO has concluded Game of Thrones and the books seem ever farther offI’d like to put a pause on European medieval fantasy settings. There are wonderful new books using a much more diverse history. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, for example, set in a future time, has a heroine based on a Namibian ethnic group (and won a Hugo and Nebula). Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik, imagines a magical world within a Russia-like shtetl (nominated for a Hugo). How do you see this trending and what are you looking forward to?

I love that my imagination is waiting for theirs. Binti was an absolute gift. And the extraordinary inner-world work of N.K. Jemison startles me with its intricacy and craft. I read Jemison with the same kind of wide-eyed wonder that I experienced when I realized Octavia Butler’s space ship (Lilith’s Brood) was living tissue and I had to adjust my universe to incorporate (literally, “give body to” hers). I read to reach imaginative realms that I had not considered. And then I sit with that consideration really really grateful for the gifts of these writers.

“We’ve forgotten that fictions are fabrications, and we’ve allowed whatever we accept as history to repeat, without interrogation, the privilege of whomever writes the story.”

Tell us about A Death in Harlem and what prompted you to write this novel.

A Death in Harlem started as a sequel to Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing. Larsen’s narrative ends with a woman’s death that a policeman pronounces a “death by misadventure.” The phrase was provocative, possibly because of my law school background, but also because the woman who died was enveloped in the dangerous intrigue of passing as White.

My novel begins with the moment of that death. Harlem’s “first colored policeman” solves its mystery. My characters eventually called (more like shouted) for their own identities, At some point, I quit writing Larsen’s sequel and let the voices in my head come fully out and have their say. They are flawed, socially privileged, and absolutely composites of folk I knew growing up who were members of the most elite societies and who would maintain their privilege by any means necessary. So A Death in Harlem is about family secrets, safety and trust, betrayals, and navigating the color lines embedded in race and privilege.

Robin Kirk is the author of The Bond, the first in a fantasy series for young adults. The Bond recently won the Foreward Reviews Bronze Award for young adult fiction. She is also a professor and teaches human rights at Duke.

Karla FC Holloway is the James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University. She also holds appointments in the Law School, Women’s Studies and African & African American Studies.

Kirk is the author of The Bond & The Hive Queen, Books I and II in a fantasy series. She teaches human rights at Duke University.

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