In the current debate about “cultural appropriation,” I would offer these premises: everything is mixed, mixing is good, having your culture borrowed can give you more power, and demands for authenticity are problematic. Although I recognize exceptions and complications, we should start by welcoming “appropriation.”
I have not seen anyone complain that the recent royal wedding was an example of appropriation, and I’m interested in why not. After all, very rich white people incorporated African American culture into their ceremony, literally bringing it into their castle. It seems evident that Black American Christianity arrived in strength and confidence and made the whole ensemble much better than it would otherwise have been. That shows that you can’t judge an act of borrowing without looking closely; and often you will find it admirable.
The wedding was a mashup of English or British traditions with African American culture, the latter in the form of Bishop Michael Curry’s magnificent sermon and the music (“Stand By Me” and “This Little Light of Mine”). But, like everything human beings do, it’s much more mixed than that. When Rev. Curry read, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, / as a seal upon your arm,” he was sharing his patrimony, a great text of his tradition. He chose the New Revised Standard translation, which subtly echoes the King James Version (particularly prized by African American preachers), which was commissioned by Prince Harry’s eponymous ancestor, James I of England. That Bible was basically an appropriation of the translation by the heretic/martyr William Tyndale, who knew Greek and Hebrew but seems to have read the Song of Songs in the Latin translation by St. Jerome (an Illyrian), who had translated the Greek Septuagint version (made in Egypt), which–in turn–translated the Hebrew original songs, which have parallels with Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry of the same era. The songs are attributed to Solomon, who loved the daughter of Pharaoh and “women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites” (1 Kings 11). Solomon sang for all these nations.
In other words, it’s all borrowing, as far as the eye can see. And not just on Rev. Curry’s side. Prince Harry is a British royal. If you trace his paternal line back a millennium, you reach Elimar I (1040-1112), the Count of Oldenburg in Saxony, from whom also descend the royal families of Russia, Greece, and Denmark, among others. Windsor Chapel was founded by a King of England of Viking descent whose motto was the Middle French phrase Honi soit qui mal y pense.
I can’t resist noting that if you discuss “appropriation,” you are using a word derived from the Latin appropriare, which is first attested in the medical work of Caelius Aurelianus, who was an African man, a subject of Rome, best known from translating from Greek.
But doesn’t borrowing a cultural product mean taking it from the people who rightly hold it? Isn’t it therefore an act of power that benefits the taker?
Not necessarily, because culture isn’t zero-sum. Everyone can draw from the cultural commons. Jefferson said, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
Power is relevant, and it’s not OK to steal other people’s patrimony, like Napoleon carting off 695 Roman sculptures to fill the Louvre. But culture has power of its own, even when it’s set against guns and money.
Again, consider the juxtaposition of English aristocrats and African Americans at the recent wedding. There is no doubt that Black Americans face structural as well as intentional racism, in a pattern that extends across the Atlantic; Britain is implicated in it. White English people who are invited to a royal wedding are far more privileged than Americans of African descent.
But not more culturally powerful. Surely in our world of 7.6 billion, the 40 million Black Americans have some of the most “soft power.” Influence is currently flowing from Black America to places like Windsor Castle in a mighty stream.
One of the reasons is sheer excellence. I don’t think you can properly assess cultural transfer unless you are attuned to quality. Perhaps we should appreciate all the cultural traditions of the world for what they are, but there are great peaks as well as modest hills. The African American church is one of the mightiest ranges. It contributes theology, rhetoric, music, a political repertoire, and a distinctive moral vision to the whole world. Of course, it is made from a mixture of elements: so is everything human. But this mixture is particularly powerful. In the exquisite setting of a late-Gothic royal chapel, representatives of the traditions of the Black church added their unique voices and made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. There are excellent reasons not to call such moments “appropriation.”
See also: what is cultural appropriation?; when is cultural appropriation good or bad?; cultural mixing and power; Maoist chic as Orientalism; everyone unique, all connected; Jesus was a person of color.