Tag Archives: make yourself small

Cultural Appropriation

This week I want to explore the idea of cultural appropriation . In the linked article, cultural appropriation is defined as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” This definition provides a useful starting point, but it begs a couple of important questions I want to address.

I intend to approach cultural appropriation from two different directions. I begin with a story I wrote years ago for oral telling. The story was inspired by the wonderful children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle . He wrote and illustrated several books, among them ‘Draw Me a Star’. As a parent and librarian, I’ve bought, recommended and read aloud his books hundreds of times. You can look at ‘Draw Me a Star’ here .

The Artist

“Sing me a star …”
And the Artist sang a star.
It was a shining star.
“Color me a sun,” said the star.
And the Artist colored a glowing sun, a golden lion, a hillside of orange poppies, a burning fire, and a feather.
It was a red feather.
“Weave me a tree,” said the feather.
And the Artist wove branches and leaves and pieces of sky into a tree, and She wove fields and forests and deep, invisible roots, and a spider’s web.
“Build me a fence,” said the spider.
And the Artist built a fence and sculpted rocks and ice and sand and snow into a world.
It was a glorious world.
“Tell me a story,” said the world.
And the Artist began, “Once upon a time …”
It was a wonderful story.
“Tell me some more!”
So the Artist made all kinds of people to share all kinds of stories.
They were strong people.
The people said, “Teach us what love is.”
And the Artist said,
“Sing me a star …”

Now set your burdens down for an hour and dance with me. Here’s the sound track I made for our community dance last Monday evening.

Symphony of the Forest and Mysterious Island, by Kitaro ,a Japanese artist.
Maryam, by Hamza Shakkur, from the soundtrack to the movie Bab’ Aziz , a Tunisian foreign film.
Aye Lon Lon Vadjro, by Angelique Kidjo , an African artist.
Kozuma, by Professor Trance and the Energizers , who perform multicultural Trance Dance music.
Stars Align, by Lindsey Stirling , an American violinist.
Mwari, from the album World of Rhythm.
Pinguli Pinguli Giuvaccinu, by Savina Yannatou , a Greek artist.
Barcelona Nights, by Ottmar Liebert, a German guitarist.
Symphony of Dreams and A Drop of Silence by Kitaro.

I wouldn’t steal a pencil or a nickel. It’s easy to make a distinction between concrete objects that belong to me and those that don’t. Trying to define intellectual and cultural property, however, is another thing. Part of my integrity as a storyteller includes rigorously reporting the origins of my material to my audience. Part of my integrity as a librarian and a researcher includes investigating roots and versions of old stories and communicating that information to my audience so they get a glimpse of the amazing historical journey of human creativity and experience. Part of my integrity as a writer is to be open to the world of human beings around me in all its rich history, language, symbol, tradition, spirituality, expression, art, ideas and feelings.

Anyone who creates art or delves into old oral traditions realizes that cultures are not so easy to distinguish from one another, and the farther back we trace certain artifacts, oral material, symbols and traditions, the more blurred the boundaries between cultures become. Part of my motivation in becoming a storyteller is to become a link in a long, long chain of humanity that reanimates old stories. Oral tradition survives because it speaks to the culture of human beings. Themes of love, birth, death, war, change and power engage everyone. The repeating horrors of colonization, genocide, slavery, plague and pestilence, massacre and religious persecution are embedded in the history of every culture on every continent.

It would be convenient to simplify the history of mankind into good/bad, victim/oppressor and black/white literally, as well as figuratively, but that’s an intellectually lazy and ignorant point of view. The fact is that science teaches us life is a complex, nonlinear, dynamic, holistic system, and every culture changes every other culture just by existing. Every species impacts every other species. Every organism impacts every other organism. It’s inescapable.

Culture is defined geographically, ethnically, politically, by religious belief, by shared history, by language and by physical types. All these factors and many others weave cultural definition. I define some of my cultural aspects and others also define me, sometimes accurately, sometimes ridiculously. Defining culture is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands.

Who is authorized to speak for their culture, and what gives them that authority? Who controls the sharing or withholding of cultural information? At what point do we qualify for inclusion in a culture? My own ancestry is a polyglot of Irish, Norwegian and German, at least. Am I Irish enough to be allowed to tell an Irish traditional tale? Does the fact that my skin is white prohibit me from dancing to African music and introducing others to artists like Anquelique Kidjo?

We have ample evidence that cultural purity is a fast track to cultural death. It doesn’t work in breeding animals, it doesn’t work in the plant world and it doesn’t work any better with humans. Life is not about maintaining divisions and isolated islands of purity. It never has been about that. Successful life that persists is about biodiversity, cooperation, adaptation and hybridization. The attempt to maintain cultural purity is an attempt to restrain change, which is an attempt to harness life itself. Human beings, thank goodness and all the manifestations of divinity, are not that powerful.

What human beings are is creative. We are sensual. We thrive on expression and ritual. We hunger for spiritual nourishment. At our best, we’re observers, recorders, problem solvers, explorers and synthesists. We’re curious. As in the old stories, we go out into the world and seek our fortunes, our mates, our place, our families, our passion, our destinies and ourselves. Yes, there are plenty of madmen/women, megalomaniacs, destroyers and other pitiless, power-hungry, dangerous, destructive people out there. Entire human cultures have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but artifacts and fragments of language. Many, many other kinds of life have vanished as well, and many more are at risk. Yes, there are people who steal real property as well as intellectual property. There are people who would gladly wipe out whole groups of humans and other life, given the power. It’s happened before and it will no doubt happen again.

Have you noticed, though? Life–human, animal, plant–goes on. No one can really steal our heritage or our identity, because those things reside within us. Plagiarism and duplication are sterile things. Culture persists. It might go underground for generations in order to survive, but it persists and eventually shows itself to the world again. Stories, music, traditional arts and crafts, religious rites, dance, clothing, jewelry, language and tools are all seeds of culture. When someone with cultural seeds in their pockets reaches across boundaries to another culture, powerful, life-sustaining, magnificent collaboration happens, the kind of collaboration that allows an ordinary person like me to create a multicultural dance track and lead a small group of people (all kinds of people) in dance, which is a human cultural tradition from the dawn of man/womankind. The mingling of cultures creates new cultures, as well as sustaining the original parent cultures. If one person reading this discovers new music to add to their lives and pass on, a long history of cultural tradition goes with it and is preserved. I’ve succeeded as a link in the chain that goes right back to the first humans.

Eric Carle has had a hand in shaping my life, along with hundreds of other authors and illustrators. His books were read to me when I was a child, and in turn I read him to other children, including my own. He’s a unique and beautiful artist. My appreciation for his work inspired my own creativity. I was also inspired by my brother, who is a gifted musician, and I dedicate ‘The Artist’ to him, out loud, every time I tell it. I take my copy of ‘Draw Me a Star’ to every telling to pass around. I’ve told ‘The Artist’ dozens and dozens of times to all kinds of audiences, children as well as adults.

The story tells my truth. The act of creation is an act of love, appreciation and respect. Creation never happens in isolation. It’s never pure. It’s always a maelstrom of conscious and unconscious influence, memory, and inspiration from things seen, heard, read, felt and experienced. Culture is not static. It adapts, adjusts, persists, learns, discards, incorporates, borrows and contributes, or it dies.

Last week I wrote about making ourselves small. Cultural eradication makes the family of man smaller. Plagiarism kills creativity. Appropriation shrivels our souls. The threat of tribal shaming limits our joy in discovery and exploration outside our cultural boundaries. Choosing rigidity, hoarding and withholding our beautiful languages, our nourishing spiritual wisdom, our rapturous music, our skills and traditions, impoverishes us. Refusing to experience, explore and appreciate other cultures and their richness also impoverishes us. Sterility and isolation in, sterility and isolation out.

The greatest honor I can give the countless musicians, authors, artists, dancers, storytellers, photographers, sculptors, weavers, gardeners, mystics, filmmakers and all the other creators who grace the world is to see, to listen, to be touched, to weep, to laugh, to dance, to receive, to learn from, to be inspired by, and to commit the daily crime of adding myself to the culture of humanity and passing it on.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

 

Make Yourself Small

I’m getting ready to turn over the manuscript of my first book to a developmental editor. Getting ready means I’m doing one final read through and combing out overused words and phrases using the search (and destroy) feature in my word processor. Over the months and years I’ve been working with my book and mastering the mechanics of writing, I’ve learned a lot about language and my own personal tics and patterns. The biggest problem I’ve found in my writing is unconsciously using passive voice.

On the face of it, the process of cleaning up a manuscript is straightforward and occasionally mind-numbingly tedious. Looking at 4000 plus occurrences of the word ‘was’ throughout 1000 plus pages is not filled with giggles and takes a long time. I entertain myself with battleship noises every time I eliminate ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘had’, or ‘have’. I also come up with amusing similes for the process. My favorite is that editing is like combing nits out of a child’s hair.

On the plus side, this practice opens up a lot of time in which to notice my unconscious language patterns and think about how my word choice reflects my choices in every other aspect of life. Editing word by word in this way is also a great habit breaker. When I write ‘had’ or ‘have’ now I notice it and I stamp on it immediately.

In the past, I’ve also overused ‘gently’, ‘lightly’, ‘quietly’, ‘a little’, ‘went’ (that’s a common one), and ‘softly’. As these patterns become visible to me, I ask myself with some annoyance, why not ‘fiercely’, ‘loudly’, ‘a LOT’ or ‘strode, galloped or dashed’?

I’ll tell you why not. Because I’m female and my culture has successfully taught me to make myself small. That lesson is so central and ubiquitous that I’ve only recently been able to identify it and begin to organize resistance. The message is impossible to see until you see it, and then you can’t unsee it.

Do you know the old French fairy tale of Bluebeard? A serial wife killer instructs his latest victim to refrain from opening a door in his castle, the door a particular little key opens. Then he leaves her alone with his keys (of course). In his absence, Bluebeard’s young wife and her sisters explore the castle, opening every door, and (naturally) the wife is persuaded there’s no harm in just peeking behind that last forbidden locked door. In the room they discover a row of headless bodies and a pile of heads belonging to Bluebeard’s previous wives. They exit the room (as you might imagine) and conspire to pretend they never unlocked the door. The only problem is the little key that unlocked the door begins to weep drops of blood and nothing they can do makes it stop. Bluebeard returns, discovers the infraction, and … I won’t tell you what happens, because different versions of the story end differently. This fairy tale is embedded in my own book, The Hanged Man, as well. The point is, once some things are understood and seen, they can’t be unseen. There is no going back.

The Roaming Gypsy Angel

So, consider this commandment with me: Make Yourself Small.

  • Adhere to the arbitrary cultural ideal of acceptable attractiveness. If you can’t, hate your body, torture it, starve it, distort it, color it, shave it and beat it into compliance. Make yourself conform.
  • Let the media, social media, experts, professionals, your favorite news channel or radio host, your religious leader or the men in your life tell you what to believe and what to think. Don’t you bother your pretty little head trying to understand anything.
  • Make your sexuality, passion and lust small. In fact, make them invisible (you slut).
  • Make your intelligence nonthreatening.
  • Tame your creativity.
  • Don’t ask questions. Don’t search for clarity and truth. Don’t do your own research. Restrain your curiosity.
  • If you must have needs, make them as infinitesimal as possible. Your needs are dust in the wind compared to the convenience, habits and preferences of others.
  • Be silent! You are disqualified from having an opinion. Don’t tell your truth. Others are speaking. Censor your voice.
  • Capture, restrain, cage, shackle, chain and abandon your dreams. Who do you think you are?
  • Deny, belittle, smother and minimize your feelings. Control yourself!
  • Shame on you! Cringe, cower, hide your head! You’re bad and wrong!
  • Be self-contained. Be self-sufficient. Don’t take up too much space. Move lightly. Don’t spend too much money. Don’t be too dramatic. Don’t be too sensitive. Don’t order dessert. Don’t attract attention. Don’t breathe too much air. MAKE YOURSELF SMALL!

You get the idea, I’m sure. This list goes on and on. The message is everywhere, and we’re all affected. It cuts across social, racial, economic, political and gender divides. Failure to toe the line, whatever that line is, results in harsh social and professional consequences, up to and including death. Show me a headline and I’ll pick out this theme. I trip over it a dozen times a day in my own life. Spend five minutes on Facebook reading any thread on any subject and you’ll find this underlying message.

The surrounding cultural mandate to make ourselves small is toxic, but it’s not the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is that we internalize the mandate before we’re even aware of it, and then it becomes so woven into the fabric of our experience we no longer discern it.

Ironically, stubbornly pursuing my passion for writing and my determination to be bigger is what reveals to me the outlines of my self-sabotage. My habit of making myself small has trickled all the way down to the words I choose. Editing my manuscript has become editing my thoughts and choices, and noticing the words I write and think in has helped me notice my feelings.

My feelings contain a lot of fury and a lot of rebellion, far more than I was aware of when I created this blog last summer. Minor friction with my partner about planning a day or how we utilize counter space taps into a deep vein of lifelong rage and pain about allowing and participating in my own repression and oppression. I have systematically colluded in my own erasure. I’ve agreed to make myself small. I’ve agreed to abdicate my power.

No more. I opened Bluebeard’s chamber, and saw what it contained. The key that unlocked the door was writing, and I’m deleting all the blood-stained words that make my art small. If I fail as a writer, I’m not going to do it softly, gently, lightly or a little. I’m going to do it thunderously, monumentally and profoundly.

Original art by David Wyatt

It’s time to make myself big.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted