Black Progressives who decry cultural appropriation might want to remember that a white woman’s empathetic rendering of slavery helped spark the Civil War.
The Los Angeles Review of Books published an anguished rumination from Arthur Krystal (a white, Jewish guy), wondering if cultural appropriation ever has merit or if it is always an original racist sin. The genesis for this guilty meditation was the fact that he had written a screenplay about a most fascinating man: Tom Molineaux, a freed American slave who showed up in Regency England, a time and a place in which men were obsessed with boxing, and then proceeded (literally) to knock the socks off the British boxers. (As an aside, Molineux’s rise followed that of England’s other great boxer — Daniel Mendoza, a Jew.)
Because Molineaux’s story is fascinating in its own right, and because Krystal has worked the story up into a six-part British historic drama, he did get a big agency to shop it around. Unfortunately, there’s a problem:
Nothing unusual about this, but this time something new had been added to the mix. As one well-known producer put it, the fact that neither the director nor the writer is black is “a huge red flag.” People in the industry, he said, are going to be wary of green-lighting the project.
Yes, it’s true, I am engaged in “cultural appropriation,” which, according to some moral custodians, makes it both unseemly and illegitimate for a Caucasian, however well-meaning, to depict a person of color. I, quite literally, don’t have the bloodlines to portray Tom Molineaux, at least not in a creative or fictional format.
From this starting point, Krystal works his way through Lionel Shriver’s brave challenge to the censorship that cultural appropriation places on creative people, only to land upon, and spend most of his essay with, William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, which James Baldwin (a black man) encouraged him to write. Even back in the 1960s, Styron, who was white, caught flack from the Left for writing a story about blacks, but the broader culture was more forgiving.
Ultimately, despite his manifest (and, I think, wrong-headed) sympathy for the cultural appropriation movement, Krystal concludes that there’s nothing wrong with an author delving into his imagination and our common humanity to write a convincing and sympathetic portrait of another’s experience. I think the guts of it are in these three paragraphs: [Read more…]