Thieving Black Man(liness): When cultural appropriation becomes entirely necessary

Our third guest contribution is from Will Nyerere Plastow, a scriptwriter and filmmaker, currently working at the BBC.

I stepped out of the ring my brain aching and my mouth tasting of blood. For the final round I’d had tunnel vision, trying to beat down my rapidly tiring opponent. But I hadn’t done enough. I had lost.

As I walked to my changing room, a professional boxer from the audience stopped me to talk. “Don’t get down you took a huge shot in the first. Most would have given up there but you fought through. He was almost gone at the end. You’ve got the heart to go pro with this, all the lads were saying.”

I still probably think about this small moment of recognition at least once a week.

I was brought up by my posh white single mum, in a lower middle-class suburb of Leeds. I was one of about ten non-white kids in a high school of fifteen hundred. The dickheads at school soon made clear what was wrong with me; I was too posh, not manly enough, and not sufficiently black (for my appearance).

The message was clear. I had to become less posh, manlier, and blacker. To me, all these things were clearly linked. A half millennium of racist mythologizing means they’re probably linked for you too. Think about the words Black Man and let an image form in your mind. Is it posh? Or at some deep level do you code that working class is manlier than posh, that black is more hypermasculine than white?

My problem was that I was posh, I hardly knew any adult men, and I literally knew no black people my age.  As you might have guessed by this point, my Tanzanian dad wasn’t exactly a big part of my childhood. If I wanted to become someone manly and black, and therefore in my mind the opposite of posh, I was going to have to improvise.

We usually talk about cultural appropriation as something big, and something bad. It’s black and white minstrel shows, it’s the Washington Redskins refusing to change their name, it’s Scarlett Johanssen playing a character called Matoko Kusananji. Cultural appropriation is an idea that is very useful when we see someone powerful messing around with the culture of someone less powerful and we want to say, “that’s fucked up”. It’s also an idea I’ve got some pretty big problems with. Because when you don’t know any black men and want to (are inevitably going to) become a black man, you’re going to have to appropriate.

A truly frightening amount of who I am has come, consciously or unconsciously, from films and music. This ranges from the innocent; buying Hip Hop CDs with my pocket money and studiously checking the words I didn’t know on urban dictionary so I could use them myself, to the not so innocent; like the deep founded belief in the connection between the capacity for violence and manliness that I will never be rid of. One trait I picked up that caused my friends endless amusement was my ‘black voice’.

“Ayiiit girl, what’s happening yeah? Me I just been chillin with my girl cousin innit.”

My ‘black voice’ was how I spoke to my few black acquaintances at sixth form. It used to make my close (white) friends laugh when I switched my accent from one moment to the next. My black acquaintances didn’t laugh, even when my ‘black voice’ was (see above) pretty unconvincing. I guess they must have seen me as another black person. If I said some dumb stuff sometimes, and I did, it wasn’t dumb enough to be all that interesting.

Samuel L Jackson small
Samuel L Jackson. I like to think I learnt from the best.

My point, is that a large part of who I am comes from me appropriating other people’s cultures. This isn’t an innocent process. The people whose lives I mined to recreate myself as someone masculine and black were, overwhelmingly poorer, blacker people than myself.  My cultural appropriation was as much about class as about race. With poshness and effeminacy linked in my mind, I wanted to steal a bit of macho glamour from people who really faced danger in their day to day lives. At different times in my life I tried a pretty wide range of strategies to do this, from taking up boxing and training at an inner-city gym, to practicing saying “motherfucker” in the mirror until it sounded natural enough to use in casual conversation.

This is my problem with the idea of cultural appropriation…

“Appropriate –  Take (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.”

                – Oxford English Dictionary

To appropriate culture, culture has to become a thing, that can be owned. For culture to have owners there must be a core group of people who are the authentic bearers of that culture, either because they made it, or have a long term personal or family connection with it. But this vision, where an in-group of authentic culture-owners must protect their culture from outsiders who want to steal or undermine it has always felt, to me, very close to nationalism – something else I don’t really understand.

If you don’t really fit in where you grow up, and mixed race people are the misfits par excellence, you notice the work it takes to belong anywhere.  Despite my presumably equal mix of genetic material from my mum and dad, in the UK people are more likely to categorise me as black/other rather than white/same. Since childhood, I’ve travelled around East Africa quite a lot. It was pretty sobering when I got old enough to realise that there most people see me as Mizungu – white/other.

We are born into a place in society, but we are not born with identities – crying, drinking milk, and not being able to sit up does not count as an identity. Identities have to be created, borrowing bits from the people we encounter both in real life and in fiction, and then redrafting ourselves to accommodate these new bits until hopefully we create someone we can live with being.

These days I spend a lot of my spare time on (hopefully) creative writing.  This has made me think a lot about the similarities between the ways in which we create ourselves and writing a story. The basic parameters are set before you begin, there will be a beginning, middle, and an end, with a central character who will (hopefully) learn something over the course of events. The creativity comes in how you fulfil this basic outline, and, to a large degree, the way you fulfill it, is by stealing other people’s ideas. The skill is adjusting these ideas to your purposes and bolting them back together in a way that is hopefully too subtle for anybody to see the joins. If you’re really, really good at it, you might even create a tiny sliver of something original as you go along.

If you think I’m just saying this because I’m a hack it’s worth remembering nearly all Shakespeare’s plays are re-writes of pre-existing stories. So even if I personally am a hack, I’m in good company here.

Gender, race and class are identities that are often violently imposed on people from the outside, but they are also identities that we creatively improvise and project outwards. I am about the millionth person to the party to say identities are performances. For a huge number of people, especially people who, for whatever reason, struggled to fit into the local culture they grew up in, some of the elements of that performance are going to be stolen. And sometimes that can give people space to express themselves and create things which are brilliant…

freddie-mercury2
Freddie Mercury. The most famous Tanzanian-Briton mix and man who borrowed ideas from everywhere and made them awesome.

And sometimes not so much…

Vanilla Ice

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