It was Ralph Ellison who offered the most cogent response to claims of “cultural appropriation,” the recent academic bogeyman of the punitive left. Based on and fed by resentment, cultural appropriation is the act of using language, tropes, or notes from another social group without the proper obeisance, guilt, and virtue-signaling.
Ellison died in 1994, but his 1970 essay “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks” argued that since its founding America has been a flowing river of appropriation of other cultures and traditions—and that it is impossible and foolish to reduce such richness to politics. One of those cultural realities is the way that African-American language and idioms have always been part of America, even before the very founding of the country. Ellison wrote:
For one thing, the American nation is in a sense the product of the American language, a colloquial speech that began emerging long before the British colonials and Africans were transformed into Americans. It is a language that evolved from the King’s English but, basing itself upon the realities of the American land and colonial institutions—or lack of institutions—began quite early as a vernacular revolt against the signs, symbols, manners and authority of the mother country. It is a language that began by merging the sounds of many tongues, brought together in the struggle of diverse regions. And whether it is admitted or not, much of the sound of that language is derived from the timbre of the African voice and the listening habits of the African ear. So there is a de’z and do’z of slave speech sounding beneath our most polished Harvard accents, and if there is such a thing as a Yale accent, there is a Negro wail in it—doubtless introduced there by Old Yalie John C. Calhoun, who probably got it from his mammy.
Ellison observes that “Whitman viewed the spoken idiom of Negro Americans as a source for a native grand opera. Its flexibility, its musicality, its rhythms, freewheeling diction and metaphors, as projected in Negro American folklore, were absorbed by the creators of our great nineteenth-century literature even when the majority of blacks were still enslaved.” Ellison then traces the origin of the American novel to Mark Twain, who celebrated black speech “in the prose of Huckleberry Finn; without the presence of blacks, the book could not have been written. No Huck and Jim, no American novel as we know it. For not only is the black man a co-creator of the language that Mark Twain raised to the level of literary eloquence, but Jim’s condition as an American and Huck’s commitment to freedom are at the moral center of the novel.”
No Twain, no Hemingway, no Stephen Crane, and no William Faulkner—that is to say, no American novel. Ultimately, Ellison concludes, black English and the experiences of African Americans point to something larger than American history: “It is its ability to articulate this tragic-comic attitude toward life that explains much of the mysterious power and attractiveness of that quality of Negro American style known as ‘soul.’ An expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness, soul announces the presence of a creative struggle against the realities of existence.”
Thus, as in all of the greatest art, the subjective becomes the universal. Jazz genius John Coltrane’s magnum opus A Love Supreme not only speaks to the spiritual journey of African-Americans, but can be loved by any person as an objectively grand work of art that expresses a universal thirst for communion with God.
Ellison calls for us to “cease approaching American social reality in terms of such false concepts as white and nonwhite, black culture and white culture, and think of these apparently unthinkable matters in the realistic manner of Western pioneers confronting the unknown prairie, perhaps we can begin to imagine what the United States would have been, or not been, had there been no blacks to give it—if I may be so bold as to say—color.”
What a rich, sensible way to celebrate the glorious polyglot nature of American English and letters. It’s much more inviting than the dreary and enervating recent volume Appropriate: A Provocation, by Utah poet laureate and English professor Paisley Rekdal. Like a surgeon using a photon microscope to search for signs of illness, Rekdal picks apart poems in search of racism and “appropriation,” which she finds in abundance.
One poem Rekdal dismantles is the young American poet Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem How-To, which was published in The Nation in July 2018. Assuming the voice of a homeless person, it opens: “If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl, / say you’re pregnant—nobody gonna lower / themselves to listen for the kick. People / passing fast.” Rekdal notes how problematic this is: “Identity otherness is what ‘How-To’ accidentally achieves, because the exact racial or regional identity of the poem’s speaker gives its readers no more complicated a sense of how visibility might be socially coded, enforced, or personally experienced.”
What this academic jargon means is that a white poem can no longer write using black slang. The Nation, which sets out to “drive bold ideas into the conversation and ignite debates far beyond our pages”— issued an apology from its poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith. Carlson-Wee’s poem “contains disparaging and ableist language that has given offense and caused harm to members of several communities,” the editors admitted to a serious mistake in publishing it.
Ellison’s lineage of the American novel traces my own path through our country’s literature. In high school and college in the 1980s, I also went from Hemingway to Faulkner to Stephen Crane—and then to Ellison’s own masterpiece Invisible Man. (There was also Tolkien and Lewis and Le Guin and Sylvia Plath and Harlan Ellison and Solzhenitsyn). Faulkner spoke in the voices of white and black Southerners, children, the developmentally disabled, an incredible quilt of characters. Imagine an editor telling Faulkner to stick to one voice.
My journey continues today. Two of the best modern novels I’ve read in the last few years were Clockers, a 1992 work by Richard Price, and A Brief History of Seven Killings, the 2014 Booker prize-winning novel by Marlon James.
In Clockers, author Price, who is a New York Jew, masterfully reveals the world of a Ronald “Strike” Dunham, a low-level New Jersey drug dealer. Because Price was more interested in creating suspense and empathy rather than policing his racial and class bona fides sentence by sentence, he creates a thrilling and deeply sympathetic character that the reader finds himself deeply caring about.
I still remember the first time I read Clockers and the breathlessness with which I flew across the final pages, hoping and praying that Strike would get on a train he was awaiting to escape his horrible life. More than any diversity seminar, Price had created deep empathy for a character who was completely different from me. The opening: “Strike spotted her: baby fat, baby face, Shanelle or Shanette, fourteen years old maybe, standing there with that queasy smile, trying to work up the nerve. He looked away, seeing her two months from now. no more baby fat, stinky, just another pipehead. Her undisguised hunger turned his stomach, but it was a bad day for his stomach all around, staring with the dream he had about his mother last night.”
Price is describing an open-air drug market in New Jersey. A young novelist writing now might avoid describing such a scene if his characters were of a different race. Better, especially after the example of poet Carlson-Wee, to avoid the topic entirely.
That would mean spiking the great novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. Marlon James, who was born in Jamaica before coming to America as a young man, adopts the voices of several different people who were characters in and around the 1976 attempted assassination of reggae superstar Bob Marley. The multiple barrators rage from Marley’s girlfriend and Jamaican politicians (both living and dead) to a middle-aged CIA operative and a white twenty-something writer for Rolling Stone magazine. It’s a bravura performance, the product of a free mind fearlessly engaging its truth without the over-the-shoulder paranoia of the language and politics Czar crushing creativity. The Philadelphia Inquirer described Seven Killings as “a capacious 19th-century novel crossed with a paranoid Don DeLillo conspiracy-theory thriller.” James’s literary influences came from his mother, who gave him his first prose book, a collection of stories by O. Henry, and his father, who loved Shakespeare and Coleridge
What a messy, glorious, fantastic hodgepodge of influences and inspirations. How lucky we are that Marlon James, like Richard Price, grew up at a time when he could absorb all these great works without the cramping barrier of academic and leftist self-awareness. Rather than being reduced to race, age, class or sexual orientation, they are all like Ellison’s free-thinking American pioneers—one family with one raucous, ever-changing mother tongue.