Cultural Appropriation and Fair Use

When the 2015 collection of Best American Poetry came out this September, the poetry world erupted into controversy. At the crux of the matter was a poem titled “The Bees, the Flowers, Ancient Tigers, Poseiden, Adam and Eve” by Michael Derrick Hudson. Why all the fuss? Because Hudson, a white man, published his poem under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson claimed that he was unable to find a publisher for his poem until he began sending it out under an Asian pen name (1). Asian poets and writers were understandably upset when the anthology came out and it’s sparked a discussion among academics and poets about the nature of cultural appropriation and the myth of reverse racism. Editor Sherman Alexie responded to the controversy in an article posted on the Best American Poetry blog. His thoughtful essay addresses the tension between the literary world’s desire to showcase diverse voices and the necessity of remaining faithful to aesthetic principles:

“If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.

And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.

But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity. (2)”

My own experiences as a queer woman and my friendships with people of a variety of races and nationalities have sensitized me to the issue of cultural appropriation. So what is cultural appropriation? It’s overwriting the voices of the voiceless with narrative constructed outside of the lived experience of a person who is a member of an oppressed class. Since there are many kinds of oppressed classes and since one person can belong to more than one of them, the issue can become complicated. The litmus test for me goes back to the question of lived experience. Does the person telling the story have the right to tell it? Is it his story to tell? As with many questions, there is no one right answer, but there are definitely some wrong ones.

Continue reading “Cultural Appropriation and Fair Use”

In Memoriam: Trayvon Martin

I’ve been largely silent regarding the issue of Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. As a white woman living in Boston, I don’t see the ongoing effects of racism in the same way that I did when I was living on the north side of Poughkeepsie, or growing up in a housing project in Stamford. But racism still affects me and those I love. I’d like to take a moment to honor the friends and loved ones whom I know deal with racism on a daily basis — and the friends and loved ones I never met or never got to know well because of the racist and segregated society in which I live.

From a New York Times editorial published July 14, 2013:

While Mr. Zimmerman’s conviction might have provided an emotional catharsis, we would still be a country plagued by racism, which persists in ever more insidious forms despite the Supreme Court’s sanguine assessment that “things have changed dramatically,” as it said in last month’s ruling striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act.

Dear Dad

Dear Dad:

Just a few days after you came to visit, we elected our first black president. Some people call him bi-racial, some people call him African-American, but we all call him Barack Obama. His father was born in Kenya, his mother was born in Kansas, and he was born in Hawaii.

Grandpa told me a story once about a time when you brought one of your college professors home to dinner. He was a black man, and I got the impression that Grandpa and Grandma weren’t too happy to be having a black man over for dinner. Grandpa may have actually called him “colored.”

This is what Grandpa said:

He kept talking about how money would solve everything, money money money. So I turned to him and I said, “I’m going to take this knife and cut your hand with it. Then I’m going to slap a hundred dollar bill on it.”

I never got to talk to you about that story. It’s one of the many things I never got to talk to you about, because you died in 1989. But I’d like think that you’re proud of our country right now. And I’d like to think that you would have voted for Barak Obama, too. And against Proposition 8.

 

Don’t Just Vote. Vote for Obama.

This year I’ve come to realize something so important, so fundamental, about the way people vote, that it’s going to sound stupid when I say it out loud. The decision for a candidate is not made in a rational way.

Not usually, anyway.

People vote with their hearts as much as with their heads. People–myself included–respond much more strongly to irrational calls on their fears, their prejudices, their own personal and subconscious leanings, than they ever do to the realities of policy, or issues.

How else can you explain the thousands of Hillary Clinton supporters who have decided to vote for John McCain? The only thing the two candidates have in common is skin tone. What self-respecting feminist could possibly vote for a man whose record on women’s issues is abominable as McCain? Regardless of what he called his wife (that’s his second wife the hieress, not his first wife the disabled woman), just take a look at his voting record.

And take a look at McCain’s economic policy. Is it the folks making more than $250,000 a year who really need help in these tough economic times?

People come up with all kinds of reasons not to vote for Barack Obama, but the main one, the one that no one wants to talk about, is the one that AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka pinpointed in a recent speech. In his words:

Continue reading “Don’t Just Vote. Vote for Obama.”