If cultural appropriation had existed in 1852, blacks might still be slaves

Black Progressives who decry cultural appropriation might want to remember that a white woman’s empathetic rendering of slavery helped spark the Civil War.

Cultural Appropriation Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe — a white novelist

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:

The history of racial relations in the United States is, of course, appalling. Between 1880 and 1940, around 4,000 black Americans were lynched, sometimes in front of hundreds or thousands of spectators. Segregation was about more than exclusion; it reflected deeply held beliefs and fears about genetics, sexuality, intelligence, and social hierarchies. So when black people marched in 1963 and 1964 in Alabama and Mississippi — and were pummeled and injured and killed — it was because they sought to realign a moral universe, a universe unwilling to budge. It takes guts to face down people who hate you, but it requires a profound commitment, perhaps even grace, to oppose not just the Man but a history in which love of country is equated with the separation of the races. And out of respect for that experience, alien to me in a way that prejudice and suffering are not, I would hesitate to write from the point of view of a black man or woman involved in the Civil Rights movement.

That said, time has a way of, if not modulating events, allowing the common humanity of very different experiences to emerge. The fact that Tom Molineaux lived at a time when conventional thinking dictated that black people were genetically inferior to whites is reason enough for people of all races to write about him. One isn’t so much trying to get into the skin of someone else as endeavoring to show the absurdity of racial assumptions. And though young writers are enjoined to “Write what you know,” it’s not especially useful advice when one doesn’t know much. Because it’s not experience, but what one does with it that makes someone worth reading. Clearly, I don’t know what it’s like to be black or white in 1810 and fight for the championship of England, but, then, who does?

The more salient point is that Nat Turner was allowed to tell his story before he died, whereas Tom Molineaux’s story consists only in what British journalists said about him; and in both cases, a certain skepticism is advisable. Molineaux’s story, however, begs for amplification, and I, for one, believe I can speak for him as well as I could for a Jew who lived in Spain around 1600 AD or in Italy in 1935. No doubt there are any number of people who know more about the Regency than I do, and a smaller number who know more about the free black community in London around 1810, and a smaller number still who are familiar with the London Prize Ring, but I’m pretty sure that none of them knows as much as I do about all three subjects. Does this make me qualified to write about Molineaux? In a word, yes. Whether I do a good job, of course, remains to be seen.

I am a simplistic thinker, so I lack Krystal’s sense that he has to apologize before taking a principled stand on the lunacy that is cultural appropriation. To my way of thinking, nobody has global ownership over culture or ideas. And to claim some rigid artistic striation bounded by race, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever else, is plain dumb.

But there’s a very good practical argument for rejecting this censorship (which is what cultural appropriation really is), which is that you may silence voices sympathetic to you, voices that have an audience large enough to give that sympathy practical effect. So let’s talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Born in 1811, Harriet Beecher Stowe came from a long line of Northeastern Presbyterian clerics and intellectuals. Her family was “liberal” in the truest sense of the world, insofar as their belief system held that all men are children of God and deserve equal treatment under the law. Nothing offended Stowe’s family more than slavery.

In Stowe’s youth, there was an active abolitionist movement, but it was confined to people like the Stowes: upper middle class, northern, urban intellectuals. While others outside the South (and even some in the South) believed slavery to be evil, there wasn’t a lot of energy behind that belief. Other things, such as earning a living and raising a family, invariably took precedence over challenging this dehumanizing institution.

Then Harriet Beecher Stowe sat down and wrote a novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, and it shook America to its core.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin today (which I have) is a painful exercise. Stowe is a terrible, leaden, treacly, mid-century moralist. Her depictions of black people make ones skin crawl. There’s the sweet, but idiotic, Topsy; the brave young mother, Eliza, who escapes with her son over frozen lakes, chased by the wicked Simon Legree and his slave-eating dogs; and Uncle Tom himself, a deeply moral, Christian black man, who provides both physical and spiritual succor to those in need.

Poor Uncle Tom. Although he is the moral center of the book, his name lives on in the 21st century only as an insult to those blacks who believe — and act on that belief — that whites and blacks can live together in harmony. Rather than being seen as Martin Luther King’s intellection descendants, they have viewed as racial sell-outs.

While we may struggle to see what it was about this specific book that so galvanized the American public, the fact is that it lit the spark that let to the Civil War and from there to the 13th Amendment, which finally freed America’s slaves. By the end of 1852, the book had sold 300,000 copies, an unprecedented number in a nation of only 23,000,000 people. Although sales slowed down after that, it kept selling.

Even those who hadn’t read Uncle Tom’s Cabin knew of it. The book entered the popular consciousness — and the popular conscience. For many, its empathetic portrayal of slaves was the necessary ingredient to take them from disdaining slavery in the abstract to holding a red-hot, activist hatred for slavery’s reality. This, then, was the energy that enabled Lincoln to take the country to war — and that led thousands of young man from all over the North to march off to battle to free the slaves and bring true meaning to America’s founding.

No wonder, then, that when Harriet Beecher Stowe traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1862, and met President Lincoln, he is reputed to have said, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” That quotation resonates because it was true: Stowe forced Americans to see the evil in their midst and then to be willing to spill their own blood to fight against it.

Now imagine if, when Stowe shopped her book, first to the newspaper that serialized it, and then to the publisher who put it in book form, she had been told, “Sorry, the fact that you’re white is a huge red flag. The critics will destroy the book. And anyway, since you’re not a black woman living in slavery, there’s no way you can have anything worthwhile to say on the subject.”

In 1852, cultural appropriation would have meant no Uncle Tom’s Cabin, potentially no Civil War, and just as potentially no 13th Amendment. The descendant’s of yesterday’s slaves are very lucky indeed that a little white lady in America’s northern-most states exercised her imagination and wrote about the indignities and pure evil rained down upon America’s enslaved blacks.