There's probably a better term for this and I'm all ears if someone has it.
So, over the past week a class I'm taking had us read a short play by the playwright Amiri Baraka (nee Leroy Jones) called "Dutchman", which is a highly allegorical story about a young black man who is sort of entranced by an older white woman (there's a scene where she actually offers him an apple, to which all I can say is, this play was written in the 1960s) and who is sort of, for the lack of a better term, led down a path that forces him to choose between accepting this woman's increasingly annoying attempts at cultural appropriation and rejecting them. He chooses the latter with this big dramatic monologue that basically talks about how this woman, because she is white, will never really and truly understand what Bessie Smith really means when she sings the blues or what Charlie Parker really gets at with bop. I won't give away the ending except to say that it's pretty damn disturbing, but I wanted to stick with that retort by the main character.
As a black person, this really resonated with me. Okay, I am not actually black FINE. Seriously though, as a person who grew up poor - poor in a middle to upper middle class community, to be sure, but poor on a level that my classmates from elementary school all the way through high school not only didn't understand but, like, were fundamentally incapable of understanding. There's another piece of, um, literature that is about being poor rather than being black that might tie this in better, the song "Common People" by the band Pulp:
Rent a flat above a shop,
Cut your hair and get a job.
Smoke some fags and play some pool,
Pretend you never went to school.
But still you'll never get it right,
'Cause when you're laid in bed at night,
Watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your Dad he could stop it all.
You'll never live like common people,
You'll never do whatever common people do,
You'll never fail like common people,
You'll never watch your life slide out of view,
And dance and drink and screw,
Because there's nothing else to do.
I don't want to, like, overemphasize my role as the Voice of the Poors or anything; my parents were almost like single-generation tourists to poverty (both of their families were/are strongly middle-class - they were held back by mental illness, to paint our issues with an overly broad brush), although I didn't get monetary support from my extended family, there were clear pathways out of the predicament that me and my brothers and sister found ourselves in which are just not there for a lot of poor folks, and, not to put too fine of a bow on it the other way but both of my parents still raised us with very middle-class instead of working-class values**. There's no denying our own poverty but I do feel like we were kind of ersatz poor, close enough to the people whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents knew nothing but poverty to understand better what reality was like to them, but never, like, truly part of that world either.
That was an awful lot of lead-in, I know but there's a point to this: I really and truly *do* think that there is a vibrancy and, for the lack of a better word, authenticity that comes from art forms that spawn from the underprivileged that other art forms just do not possess. I feel like we as Americans have this subconscious acceptance of this that permeates our culture: what we do for the most part is not so much create our own thing so much as we take that incredible, almost magical art created by the less privileged both from within our own subcultures (jazz, the blues, rock and roll, gospel, R&B, hip hop... but also, lest we make this an entirely black vs white thing, country and folk music too) and from without (Tex-Mex food, salsa music, the inclusion of Cuban and Brazilian music in particular into American pop). This is, like, what we do, and we're not particularly ashamed about doing so. At our best, we syncretize this art with our own and kind of revitalize both (jazz to me is a great example, combining some of the most avant garde of Western classical music with the improvisational style and rhythm that, if "we" white Westerners ever had in our history, was almost completely forgotten) or create spaces where some of these subcultures can get together and make their own syncretizations (rockabilly springs to mind), but I feel like all of this comes out of this general feeling that poor-person art is, if not "better"***, at least markedly different and amazing in its own way that is just worlds apart from how "classically" white/Western forms are good.
I feel like an awful lot of what we refer to as cultural appropriation is getting at this: it's easy to say that everyone who cares to can "get" jazz music now, 50+ years after it was absorbed into the mainstream culture and the ambassadors of the original "vibrant" form taught its rules to the culture as a whole, but go back to even Charlie Parker in the late 40s and those white kids listening to him, slamming their hands on the stage, losing themselves in the crazy new rules that bop imposed on melody... did they fundamentally "get" what they were listening to? Was it *possible* to "get" Charlie Parker in particular of bop in general if you weren't a young African-American man who learned and helped to create a brand new form of music, music that you chose to in many respects sacrifice your life and well-being for, in the grips of such poverty that it was actually cheaper for you to get addicted to heroin than it was to get your ulcers treated, all the while butting up against this huge, monolithic white culture that simultaneously loved and hated (adored and resented, dismissed and cherished) what it was that you were doing with your life and with your music, but never *quite* loving you or your music to actually do anything to help you or your people? I'm white (obvs) and not a product of that age so my account of it is far from perfect, but isn't there a piece of truth in there - truth that is only I think made clearer by the fact that my decades-later, informed by learning about Parker and his friends and bop take being still only covering a tiny fraction of what it must have been like to have been in a guy like the Bird's shoes - that those white "boppers" had, like, no fucking *idea* what it was that they were listening to? And if you're in a guy like Charlie Parker's shoes, or for that matter Amiri Baraka writing about it 15 years later, isn't it natural to feel a lot of resentment about this? I mean, isn't that, like, the sanest fucking opinion in the room?
I guess at the end of the day you could say that music is just about notes and dynamics and rhythm... but it's really not, is it? Cooking isn't just about mixing foods together and chemistry. Writing isn't just about putting words together in the right order. There is this other, greater thing that influences art, that brings it together and makes it something larger than the sum of its individual parts. I'm not saying that it's God or it's supernatural or anything like that, but it's definitely greater than the person who is performing it and if that's true, it sure as hell is greater than the person who is consuming it at any given time. Once we accept that, don't we, like, have to accept that an awful lot of the art that we love, we love for reasons that we are never, ever going to understand, much less be able to imitate? Shouldn't we then also accept that this also means that a lot of the time, in our attempts to ape some of this stuff - which I am not even condemning per se - that we will do something that is offensive to the original creators? We don't get what it's about in the first place; how can we *not* accidentally step on toes while we attempt to create our simulacra?
This is especially rambly, I know, because while there's a core of... something I want to get at and write about, I'm finding it exceedingly hard to figure out exactly the right words, so, like, excuse me and stuff. I also wish that I had a "people should be more like X" kind of conclusion but I really don't. I just... wanted to explore this idea that a skeptical part of my brain kind of rejects but which a... different part that for the lack of a better term I'll call spiritual but I'm not fond of that word thinks has a ton of merit.
*I've talked about this elsewhere but long story short, I know first-hand what it's like to be on welfare, to have to go to food banks for years, and to not just be appreciative of but to flat-out depend upon the kindness of strangers to get fed, not get evicted, and so on for years at a time I am *sure* that there are people on this board who had it worse than me growing up and I don't wish to engage in a "poor-off" here; I'm just establishing where I'm coming from when I talk about how this issue resonates with me.
**This is the kind of thing that I'm talking about...http://www.democraticunderground.com/10023754347
Sociologist Melvin Kohn argues that working-class values emphasize external standards, such as obedience and a strong respect for authority as well as little tolerance for deviance.This is opposed to middle-class individuals whom, he says, emphasize internal standards, self-direction, curiosity and a tolerance for non-conformity.
***Another thing I wish I could get into but this is already novel-length: all of the insults levied against that poor-person art right up to the very minute it's accepted into the larger American culture. Remember when people whinged that rap "isn't really music"? Or, if you're older, how "trashy" and generally inferior R&B or funk was compared to [older, now accepted forms of art]?