Cultural Appreciation

Mexico recently accused certain clothing manufacturers of cultural appropriation.

Undoubtedly, in a world where divisiveness and rage are accepted behavioral norms, someone will be furious at me for saying this, but I simply don’t comprehend the concept of cultural appropriation. All of us, we humans, have been borrowing on one another’s creations, discoveries, customs, culture, and traditions since the earliest rising of humanity. The current century, with its instantaneous transmission of information and knowledge, photos and videos, has simply made that sharing all the more rapid and simple.

Think on it: most of us in the Western world live in democratic societies—the political development of the ancient Greeks. Did we then culturally appropriate democracy?

Have you ever worn linen? Thank the prehistoric humans of 36,000 years ago who developed the process of extracting and weaving flax fibers, and the Babylonians who mastered the process, which was then taken over by the ancient Egyptians, who raised the activity to a high art form. The wearing and use of linen is already a cultural appropriation, millennia old and through multiple civilizations. Should it happen as well that you wore that linen cloth with embroidery upon it, remember that the oldest surviving examples of embroidery were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, so embroidery, too, was appropriated from that ancient civilization.

Slightly closer to home, how many of those reading this have taken a yoga course? Have you not then culturally appropriated a religious practice of Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India, one observed for over 5,000 years? Or were you just getting in some stretching and calming exercise, unconcerned about how and where the practice originated?

Have you ever put up a Christmas tree? How dare you appropriate a German holiday custom! Worn a plaid skirt or shirt or tie? You have culturally appropriated a traditional Celtic form of weaving– which is, by the way, actually called tartan, not plaid; it is a plaid only if you’ve slung it over your shoulder as a giant rectangular scarf. That, you probably haven’t done, so you may be excused from that precise form of cultural appropriation—but if you’ve worn a kilt, and are not of Celtic descent, then, shame on you!

Think back to studying poetry in elementary school. Were you instructed to write a haiku? It is shocking, shocking, that you have culturally appropriated a centuries old form of verse native to the Japanese.

Did you celebrate a national holiday by attending a fireworks show? You and others for all the long centuries since approximately the year 900 have stolen that custom from the Chinese Song dynasty. You are a cultural thief.

Perhaps you’ve strolled down the sidewalk satisfying your hunger by munching a hot dog purchased from a street vendor’s cart. Again, cultural appropriation from the Germans, who developed the frankfurter from which that hot dog was derived. Foods are themselves an entire classification of the supposed crime of cultural appropriation, so you might consider giving up your tacos and burritos unless you are of a Latinx nationality. Stop purchasing your Chinese and Thai takeout, ditto. Of course, anyone of Italian descent may well jib at giving up spaghetti, despite the fact that the long noodles themselves were unknown until Marco Polo returned from his travels in the far east. But at least Italian Americans can enjoy pizza, especially if their ancestry derives from ancient Naples.

Caftans come and go in popularity, but are owed to ancient Mesopotamia, not the fashion houses of New York. But you may be easily excused from an accusation of cultural appropriation for having braided your hair, which is a traditional form of hairstyle so ancient that the oldest statue ever found, the 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, shows a female with braided hair. Various cultures from Africa to ancient America to Scandinavia may have developed different methods of braiding, from multiple thin beaded braids, to two plaits at each side of the face, but the hairstyle itself is basically so old that it might be best described as a cultural activity of all humanity, not any one national group.

And, considering hair, I hardly think anyone would deny a chemotherapy patient the right to a nicely-styled wig, despite the fact that it, too, is an Ancient Egyptian development, and therefore a cultural appropriation of an archaic African hairstyle.

Can music be culturally appropriated? If so, all current humans who haven’t been determined to show a few Neanderthal genes in that DNA swab they took should stop playing any music, for the oldest musical instrument known is a Neanderthal flute. Like a percentage of modern humans, I myself carry such genes, but, sadly, do not play any instrument. Nevertheless, bearing a few Scottish genes, I can still thrill to the skirl of the bagpipes; don’t you dare, unless you, too, carry Celtic DNA!

By now, I am sure you are shaking your head, or wryly twisting your lips, or perhaps even chuckling as you grasp, even if you do not concede, my point: there is no such thing as cultural appropriation. We humans have been borrowing from and improving upon one another’s customs and traditions and inventions and creations for the entirety of our history on this mangled little planet.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. There is and never has existed any such thing as cultural appropriation. It is all, as it has always been, cultural appreciation.

If you appreciated this essay, you might find “A Cultural Heritage”, from February 10, 2018, interesting. Or you might hate it! But scroll down to the Archives link to find it.

What the Very Best Memories Are Built On

§  Pleasant childhood memories come from the most unexpected sources.  §

While talking with a friend not long ago, something I said triggered a pleasant childhood memory for her.  Reminiscing, she told me that her father had been a salesman, on the road sometimes for a week or longer.   Each time he returned from a sales trip, he brought small, inexpensive gifts to her and her brother—things that cost him little or nothing, but simply delighted his small children.  My friend particularly remembered the little paper parasols from fancy drinks (what little girl doesn’t just love those silly things?)

But time passed and she and her brother grew older.  Cheap little mementos no longer sufficed to entertain them, and Dad probably didn’t want to spend his hard-won cash on more expensive keepsakes.  Finally, her Dad warned the two of them, “Don’t ask me what I brought you, or you won’t get anything!”  Of course, my then-young friend didn’t ask…but the parade of little souvenir gifts stopped, anyway.  Such is life as we grow up. But even though there were no more small presents to be had, my friend never forgot the pleasure and excitement of the special things her Dad had brought home from his travels to his young  daughter.

My friend’s memories triggered recollections of my own, things I hadn’t thought about in years.  When my brothers and I were small, I remembered, Dad would often come home on Friday nights bearing a handful of comic books for us.  Probably he had stopped to fuel up the car, and in that era, an attendant would have run out to pump the gas, clean the windshield, check the oil…  In any case, my Dad had time to run inside and grab a pack of his cigarettes, and then a handful of comic books for his children.  But he always chose the good comic books—not just Superman and Wonder Woman, Adam Strange, or The Legion of Superheroes, but many issues of the Illustrated Classics series; even comics that described fascinating times and events in history, such as the rise of the Viking culture.  I loved these beautifully illustrated “serious” comic books, and read them over and over.  Years later, I would be astonished to meet in actual book form the  stories that I’d enjoyed so much in my comic books, when I finally discovered H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I remember, too, that when we had moved to the then-unpopulated far south suburbs of Indianapolis, there were nearly no restaurants in our little corner of the universe—or so it seemed to my disappointed 10-year-old-self.  There were certainly no movie theaters, and even the local grocery store was a far slog from the house. But there was a Dog ‘n Suds drive-in a couple of miles from our new home.  The Friday night comic book fest changed to the thrilling adventure of sitting in the car, devouring a delicious meal of hot dogs and fries and root beer after Dad got home from work.  (More than half a century later, I still love hot dogs and root beer, and be damned to how unhealthy a meal it is!)

Vacations, too, held memories for me that had little or nothing to do with the actual trips.  Of a childhood vacation to meet all of Mom’s relatives in Kentucky, I recall nothing at all about the people to whom I was introduced  except for one memorable incident with my distant cousins, when they and my older brother and I were chased madly down a country lane by an enraged sow after we’d gotten too close to her piglets.

And the long three-week trek my parents took us on one summer covering most of the American southwest, seeing supposedly-memorable scenery and monuments, still does not bear a candle in my memory to the year that we spent our summer vacation trekking from one State park to another, hiking the trails and feeding the wildlife, riding in surreys and marching cautiously across swaying suspension bridges, picnicking and stopping at country restaurants to eat huge platters of fried chicken served family-style, topped off by rainbow sherbet for dessert.

The most precious memories that children carry away from their childhood may well have nothing at all to do with what we, their parents, hope to have created for them.  The simplest of events and seemingly-inconsequential occurrences, totally forgotten by the adults in their lives, stand out limned in a brilliant halo of shining light in the mind of each once-child.  It is those incidents which become the bricks and mortar from which children build their most precious memories. As the adults in their lives, all we  can do is to provide them scraps of building material, and watch in wonder what they create from that offering.

Happy Almost-Birthday to you, Morrigan Lynn!
I hope the memories that we, your family, are helping you build will be glorious.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Dance At My Daughter’s Wedding”, which can be found in the Archives from May 11, 2018.