Friday, September 13, 2019

Cultural Misappropriation Is Easy To Do: The Accidental Appropriator Part 3

Helen Bannerman
In  1899, a Scottish woman named Helen Bannerman published a little book for her children. Her husband was a physician and officer who worked in the Indian Medical Services. At that time, India was part of the British Empire. Helen's book was set in India and involved a fantasy about a child overcoming a dangerous situation. In 1900, the book was published in America.

The story concerned a boy who was out walking in his fine clothes when he was accosted by a team of tigers. The little boy climbs a tree, but the tigers will not go away. The boy ends up throwing his fine clothes and parasol down to the tigers. The tigers fight amongst themselves and then run around the tree until they turn into ghee - which is clarified butter. The boy climbs down, gets dressed, and takes the delicious ghee home to his mother. She makes pancakes for everyone.

That's a fun story.

When it was first published, the western world praised the tale as a positive book for children about black people. Most children's books of the time showed black people as brutish, violent, and stupid.

This black child defeated tigers.

The name of the book? Little Black Sambo.

Sambo is depicted as a pickaninny. This is a racial stereotype of a black child who is associated with idiocy and violence. It was a dehumanizing way to think of black children. The fact that he defeated tigers was considered a step forward.

Why did Bannerman pick the name "Sambo"?

It would surprise nobody to know that the word "sambo" is an ethnic slur that means you have "Indian Blood". That's how the English referred to this group of "lesser" people in their empire.

"Black Sambo" was also a slur. It meant that not only was your blood of Indian origin, there was also some African somewhere in you.

Anyone reading the book at the time understood that the hero of the tale was an "other" in the way the white Europeans thought of others. The idea that somebody black would either read this book or have some thought about how they were being depicted didn't cross anybody's mind.

Most people in the dominant culture of the western world had absolutely no problem with ethnic slurs. In fact, they didn't think of them as slurs. They thought of them as the truth. The language was created to make sure that those who deserved to be held higher in esteem got to determine what the lesser people were going to be called. Otherwise, how could you make sure they knew they were lesser?

In the late 1800s, none of this was problematic. It was an accepted way to think about this story, those people, and how society worked. It was lauded as a more humanizing depiction of blacks.

I spent a morning learning about Little Black Sambo. I had no interest in it before I started my research, but now I am fascinated!

1) I was told Little Black Sambo was based on an Indian Folktale. It is not. It came fully formed from Bannerman's head.

2) Bannerman misappropriated things from two different cultures to create this tale.

3) People have been trying to save this story for some reason for a couple of generations. I'm not really sure why.

4) Bannerman wrote a number of these little stories, and except for one, all of them start with "Little Black" and then a name. I am almost interested in finding out more about these other "Little Black" books.

5) Why was she so hot to write these odd books with African Americans engaging with animals and items native to India? Did she know any black children? What was her motivation other than amusing her children? Did she have any motivation?

6) This story should be used not to talk about the racist pictures (they are really bad), but to talk about what happens when you just throw things together without giving the slightest thought to the people or cultures from which they are misappropriated.

7) To be fair to the society that spawned Little Black Sambo, what did a white, privileged woman know about black people? Besides, she was championing a better image of black folks, right? She didn't mean any harm, right?

Cultural appropriation was not a thing in the 1800s. If you doubt it, go into a British museum. They spent the 1800s pillaging every culture they came across without a shred of concern!

The Great Maya Angelou

How many Little Black Sambo moments have you had? How many times have you blithely walked down a road and into a buzz saw you didn't even know was there?

Add caption

I was lucky enough to see Dovie Thomason tell when I was still in my tender years as a storyteller. I don't recall just where, but I know it was in the first five years. She said something that set me back on my heels.

"I am telling these tales, but you do not have permission to tell these tales."

I sat there in confusion for a handful of minutes before she started telling the stories. As she told them, I saw them as they were; beautiful, powerful, personal, and hers. They belonged to her at some level that they could not belong to me. I was fascinated.

So, I insinuated myself next to her at some meal and proceeded to ask about her stories. I received what has got to be the most eye-opening lecture about stories I had ever had. That woman took me to school. By the time she was done with me that afternoon, everything looked very different.

I made some decisions about what I would and would not incorporate in my work. I made some decisions about how I would go about collecting stories, and I would be really careful about stories that were an active part of any religion whether I belonged to it or not.

So. All solved, right?  No.

I keep learning more about cultures, ideas, people, and subjects. I discover that there are tales I should purge or learn something about before I go further. I learn that some words no longer work or apply. I learn that often I have had a backward idea about a thing in history and I have to rethink a whole bunch of ideas and assumptions.

I learn, and learn, and learn and re-imagine, and re-imagine, and re-imagine.

What have I learned?

1) You are human. You can't know everything, so learn when someone points something out to you. They could be right. They could be wrong. Look into it.

2) When you encounter new information, consider it. Look into it. It might be right. It might be wrong. You won't know until you investigate.

3) You are human, failable and forgivable. If you get it wrong, correct it. Don't keep committing the same foul over and over.

4) Don't be afraid to learn. Don't be afraid to be wrong.

5) Adjust. The best thing about folklore is that it travels and speaks to people. See how many versions of the story you can find. If you discover that this tale comes in many versions, either create your own based on the elements of the story or pick a version that does not have serious cultural issues.

You have only the language you know in which to tell a story. When you are telling it, you could be using images and language to talk about a culture that is insulting, belittling, and damaging.

You wouldn't be doing this on purpose. The language you are using was created by the dominant culture. That culture often uses language to discriminate against the surrounding cultures by naming and categorizing the people.

It is a difference so slight you might not even realize it.

For instance -

When referring to the state of bondage African Americans lived in prior to the abolishment of slavery, it is more accurate to refer to the people as "enslaved"  as opposed to "slaves"

Enslaved is something someone has wrongly done to you.
Slave is a thing you are.

When referring to the state of people who are here in America without paperwork it is more accurate to call them "undocumented" than "illegal"

Undocumented refers to the status of your paperwork. There are all sorts of people in this country who were invited to America who are undocumented. Migrant workers are a good example of that.

Illegal suggests that there are two types of people: Legal and illegal. If you are illegal, you are lesser. You deserve less. You can be treated as less. Your needs and concerns are less.

What about this story?

Welfare Queen!

Think about the way our society tells stories about people. What language do we use when we want to dehumanize? What language do we use when we want to make people sound scary or dangerous? What language do we use to throw blame away from ourselves and onto victims or oppressed people?

Language is a tricky thing.

Stories can always be used to spread darkness. Sometimes this happens completely by accident.

Our presuppositions are invisible to us unless we hunt them down.

Happy Hunting

Part 1 - Cultural Misapproriationis A Better Term: Some Thoughts
Part 2 The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility
Part 3 - Cultural Misappropriation Is Easy To Do: The Accidental Appropriator
Part 4 - How Do You Know If You Don't Know Enough?
Part 5 - What Does It Look Like to be an Ally in Your Own Work?

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility - Part 2

In 1946, Walt Disney released Song of The South.

Apparently, Disney paid Joel Chandler Harris' family ten thousand dollars for the rights to the Brer Rabbit stories in 1939.

This movie with the Zip-a-dee-doo-dah song has gone missing from the American landscape.

I can honestly say that I do not recall much about this movie. I remember this song. I remember some of the animated stories, but I don't recall anything of the plot.

I read the plot of this movie on Wikipedia and I was really amused.

This movie was about a little white boy who is helped by the black characters in the movie both animated and real to deal with his problems on the plantation. This is not shocking. Who was making movies for and about black folks in 1946? Most films that had black characters were full of racial stereotypes and very specific images of what white people thought black people were like. How many black screenwriters were around in 1946? Heck. A big chunk of the nation was still segregated.

All the same, I can see why Disney was attracted to the Brer Rabbit tales.

Folktales exist because the folk need them. Their messages are universal and they run through our lives and touch us in lots of ways.

I have no doubt you have heard a story from another culture that touches you or moves you. You've read books or watched films from other cultures that touch you or move you. You've encountered festivals, practices, or celebrations that speak to you.

If I had my way, Jolabokaflod would be a major American tradition and we would do it four times a year.
The Christmas Eve Book Flood

Come to think of it, my family members often end up spending part of Christmas Day like this because one thing my family definitely does is give each other books.

I am considering instituting this in our household officially now that I am no longer dealing with really little children from various siblings.

That's neither here nor there.

The point is, there are stories and traditions that appeal to all of us for different reasons.

The issue with the Song of The South is not that Disney decided to use the stories that Joel Chandler Harris heard in his childhood to make that movie. The issue is that Disney had absolutely no idea what those stories were about or what they were used for in their own culture. Joel Chandler Harris probably didn't know either. Not because he didn't know the stories, but it is unlikely any of the black folks who told them to him would have let him into the deeper secrets behind the stories.

In the first clip, Brer Fox and Brer Bear are shown as lumbering, foolish stereotypical sounding African Americans. If Disney had any understanding of what these stories were about, that fox and bear would have been presented as extremely foolish southern white characters.

All of Brer Rabbit's stories were about how important it was for enslaved Africans to be smarter, more resilient, stronger, and more determined than the enslavers all around them. Brer Rabbit is the only trickster who cannot be ultimately caught and punished. He is the only one who always walks free after thinking his way out of trouble. Fighting makes things worse. Thinking solves everything. Being cunning keeps you alive.

One would not guess that is the point of the Brer tales from Song of The South.

When you remove the people who created the stories from the equation of sharing the stories, tales can lose their purpose and power. It can even make the characters who are behaving in certain ways seem immoral, stupid, or mean. If the question, "Why are they doing that?" comes up at the end of a tale, and you don't know the answer, then something has gone awry in the telling.

Even though the stories can mean different things to different people, it is important to understand why they were told.

When you take a story out of its context, tell it without understanding the why of the tale, you make the people who told that tale invisible.

You mask the purpose of those tales.

You make their voices silent.

You cover up their need.

You ignore their truth.

You transfer potential wealth out of a community. Wealth in the form of both money and cultural richness.

Defining a group of people based on your lack of understanding of who they actually are will create misunderstandings.

When Disney took those tales, repurposed them, profited from them to the tune of millions of dollars, and at no point gave any voice to the people who originated those stories, they silenced Brer Rabbit in an odd way.

Nobody has put out another big national Bruh Rabbit project. Why?

Because Disney tainted the idea of Bruh Rabbit. The images they used, the language, the whole plot of the tale is considered racist and insensitive.

Instead of thinking, "Disney did it the wrong way," the Bruh Rabbit tales themselves are now somehow racist and insensitive!

I've seen librarians and teachers get nervous when they realize I'm about to tell one!

I get these questions from people:

Is it okay to tell them?
Is it okay to share them?

I was working with a business that was interested in southern folklore, but they were leery about using even a generic rabbit for fear someone would think it was Brer Rabbit and they would get "in trouble".

There is nothing wrong with telling Brer Rabbit tales.

I go into schools all over the country. I sometimes ask if anyone has ever heard of Brer Rabbit. Hardly any of the children have. Most of the adults haven't heard of him either.

I give the explanation for who he is and what he did. The audiences love the tales. Who wouldn't? They are fabulous!

Here is a good place to start

The reason why Bruh Rabbit stories were told is uncomfortable for some people.

The reason why they persist is that they are wonderful fun and speak to the downtrodden or those treated unjustly. They can certainly be used for that.

Just don't forget why they were told and where they came from. When you are telling these stories, don't let that part of it go. It speaks to a time in our cultural history that still shapes policies and procedures in our nation.

I know there are those reading these words and thinking that I am making too much of this. How can you make a culture invisible by misappropriating their stories? Honestly, one would think stories are everything!

What happens if you effectively misappropriate? Well, you get things like this.

Steve King, a representative of Iowa in 2016 had this to say about non-white non-Christian people.

“I would ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people you are talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

I would like to say that this man is alone in this foolishness, but he is not.

The misappropriation of stories and images and ideas distorts them. If the people who have worked to disinherit "others" define how those "others" think, feel, behave, and look at the world, they control how that group can be treated.

This is where stereotypes are born.

What are the images we have gotten historically of people we don't want to think of as decent or worthy human beings? How have we defined them? I won't post any of those images here. You can find them if you like. Distorted images of the Irish, Italians, Jewish people, African Americans, Polish people, Muslims, Hispanics, people from Asia, and homosexuals are still with us and are still being passed around in some communities.

The way we tell stories about people matters.
The way we think about them...or don't think about them also matters.

Ask yourself some questions:

 Are you living on land that was appropriated from an earlier nation?

What First Nation People used to inhabit the lands around where you are now living?

How did those First Nation People live?

Where are their descendants today if there are any?

What are the circumstances around which your land was transferred from First Nation People?

To not see someone's stories is to not see their contributions.

To appropriate their stories is to make them invisible.

To make them invisible can impoverish them in the mainstream culture and drive them further away from either being seen or appreciated.

The Storytelling Component:

Why are you telling this story?

Do you know where this story originated or why it originated?

Who are the people behind this tale?

Have you changed the tale to fit a thing you want to say despite the tale saying nothing of the sort? Do you know if you have done this?

Can you truly tell this story and honor the people who told it?

Not every story has a strong cultural lens that needs to be confronted, but some do. Doing your homework helps.

 Next Up: I only know this because I've stepped into wasps nests: Learning From Our Mistakes

Part 2 - The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility 
Part 3 - Cultural Misappropriation Is Easy To Do: The Accidental Appropriator
Part 4 - How Do You Know If You Don't Know Enough?
Part 5 - What Does It Look Like to be an Ally in Your Own Work?

Happy Telling!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Cultural Misappropriation Is A Better Term: Some Thoughts Part 1

Understanding People Means Understanding How They Live

The question of cultural appropriation regularly roils the storytelling community.

I had planned to do one post about this, but it got long. This will be a series.

What is cultural appropriation?

To begin with, let us acknowledge the elephant in the room for the United States...

We appropriated the architecture of the Greeks


American Christmas? 
 Christmas has gone through some serious changes over the course of American history!  Click on this link to find some fun facts about Christmas                                   

Even when we are celebrating lovely American things we tend to have culturally diverse elements like fireworks. The world has China to thank for those.

Most of our cuisine is Americanized food from other parts of the world. Our language is a compilation of grammatical structures and words that we have taken wholesale from other languages.

Culture is fluid. It moves and changes. Ideas that apply across large swaths of people get incorporated into the main culture. We see something we like that someone else is doing and we start doing it. Influencers make a living getting the people of the world to follow them around and behave as they behave.

  1. a person or thing that influences another.

      a person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the items on social media.

That is just how it works. That is how it has always worked. There is no other way to explain this outfit.

Nobody just had this look in the closet. Someone purposely did this.
What, you might wonder, does any of that have to do with cultural misappropriation?

Why, if we live in a world where we are constantly bumping up against ideas, cultures, images, and thoughts are some of them not up for grabs?

Easy. It has to do with how those images or ideas interact with our history.

There are two different stories of The United States of America. One is patriotic, it makes your heart swell, and it is the tale of a scrappy nation that built itself on the foundations of liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness!

Then there is the other story of America. The history that makes some people upset if you start trying to tell it. The history that gets people accused of being unAmerican if they want to learn about it or share it. 

America is a country founded by people who came from other places, dispossessed the people who were already here, butchered them, and appropriated whatever they wanted.

America is a country founded by people who imported people from other lands, enslaved them, reaped the benefit and wealth from them for generations without any compensation, and then systematically oppressed them for generations after the practice of enslavement ended. BTW, this is still an ongoing problem.

America is a country that is built off of the blood, sweat, and tears of immigrants with the promise that if they work really hard and struggle, they too can become part of the American collective. In the process of letting them work really hard, some of the richest families in our country exploited them to a criminal degree. BTW, this is still an ongoing problem.

The history of the practical effects of what the country has done to minority cultures has had a profound effect on how we think about, treat, and represent images in the mainstream of our culture.

Because we are a multi-colored, multi-cultural nation we tend to have a very privileged view of other people's stuff.

In other words, we don't have a good idea about what constitutes "not mine". This translates into all sorts of really inappropriate things.

Americans be like:

How come we can do this?

Oktoberfest America!

But not this.

Really Victoria Secret? Really?

This is perfectly fine.

St. Patrick's Day Fun!

This? Absolutely not!

This image comes from an interesting post worth the read: The Al Jolson Story Click here
What is wrong with Blackface? Click the link.

To me, the answer to why some of these images are perfectly fine and some are not is obvious.

What I have discovered is that for some folks it is not.

Ask yourself some simple questions.

Is the image honoring the culture in question or completely divorced from the culture out of which it comes?

Is the image in question celebrating the culture or mocking it?

What significance does the image have to the culture out of which it comes?

Are there any ramifications about this particular image in our culture? Why or why not?

What does the person who is in the image know about the culture they are presenting?

What is the purpose of using the cultural elements in this image? Why was it picked?

Cultural Misappropriation? Storytelling questions:
Where did I get this story?

What do I know about the culture out of which this story came?

What is the significance of this story in that culture?

What other sources for this story do I have?

Is this story sacred to someone?

Is this story so culturally specific that it will lose meaning if it is taken out of its cultural context?

First Rule Of Thumb:

If you are using an item or portraying a cultural image, and you are completely divorced from the actual people for whom that item or image means something such that you might very well be presenting that item or image in a way that is not only inappropriate but bone shakingly insulting to the people for whom it does have meaning...stop. Do not pass go. Do not collect 100$. Stop.

You don't get to decide what another culture finds offensive. You get to learn what is offensive and adjust yourself accordingly. That is your job as a storyteller.


The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation:

Yeah, it might hurt someone's feelings, but it doesn't actually hurt anyone right! That is absolutely wrong.

Happy Telling!

Part 1 Cultural Misappropriation is A Better Term: Some Thoughts
Part 2 The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility
Part 3 - Cultural Misappropriation Is Easy To Do: The Accidental Appropriator
Part 4 - How Do You Know If You Don't Know Enough?
Part 5 - What Does It Look Like to be an Ally in Your Own Work?

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Required Essay For The First Day Of School: I'm glad summer is almost over!

What I Did On My Summer Vacation
by Donna Washington

The 2018 - 2019 school year in NC was a bit funky. 

Spring break didn’t happen until very late, and it was staggered in such a way I didn't actually get a chance to have a break.

The David assured me that I had a light summer schedule, which to me meant that I was going to get lots of writing done, and I could get recharged from the strange season of gigs.

The Raliegh Durham Airport where I spent far too much time
Technically, he was right. I did have a light summer in some ways. It was not the work that killed me; it was the traveling. 

My light summer started with a retreat up at Wildacres with some friends.

I got home in time to repack and head out to New Hampshire with The David.

We drove up there and then took a ferry out to an island that was ten miles off shore.

Star Island, NH was beautiful
I was there for a week teaching adults for about an hour and a half each day, staying in a dormitory with The David, and watching barn swallows teach their newly fledged chicks how to hunt. I also did four other storytelling sets just because I didn’t think it was fair not to work with some of the kids. That was on me.

I got home from New Hampshire. Slept in my own bed for twenty-four hours and then drove to South Carolina for work.

Home for twenty-four hours drove to Georgia for work; got home and The David graciously drove me to my show in High Point.

By this time, I was wrung out, but things were just getting started.

I had a series of single shows, then flew out to California for the Storytelling Summit. I saw so many good friends!
The Fabulous Carrie Sue Ayvar

Diane Ferlatte!
Tim Ereneta - One of my friends from college
Mitch and Mary

Charlotte Blake Alston and Brenda Wong Aoki

I was home for twenty-four hours and then flew to Montreal Canada to consult with a business for a couple of days.

I was home for two days and then flew to Nashville, TN to sit on a panel at the National Conference of State Legislators Summit about using storytelling in politics.

I met the hosts of The Road To Now podcast Bob Crawford and Ben Sawyer. They recorded our panel discussion and aired it on their podcast.


The day after I flew home I was recording two CDs in a studio all day.

One day to rest, and then I did the United Arts showcase.

The summer is almost over.

The fall is going to be busy, but not summer kind of busy. I’m looking forward to being in one spot for more than three days at a time, and sleeping in my own bed on a regular basis.

Oh, and if you guessed that I didn’t actually get much writing done…you would be correct!

Happy Summer!