Sunday, February 12, 2012

African-American History Month - a Perfect Time to Talk about Cultural Appropriation

February is  African-American History Month. That makes it a great month to talk about my most recent picture book, Juba This, Juba That. The book is adapted from an African-American slave chant for contemporary audiences, and includes a toe-tapping rhythm, lighthearted rhyme, and gorgeous illustrations by GG Award-Winner Ron Lightburn.

On more than one occasion, I’ve been party to discussions on the topic of “cultural appropriation.” Those who oppose “cultural appropriation” believe that people can only write about their own experience, first hand, and that those who write from outside their own experience, are somehow stealing from their subjects. To do so would make you a bad, bad person: an opportunist without sensitivity or moral standing.

As you might have gathered from the above paragraph, I do not agree with this position. In fact, I find it one of the most pernicious bits of racist claptrap I can imagine.

A fiction writer’s job is, quite simply, to write from other people’s point of view. Our mission is to get into another person’s (or object’s – we can become flying carpets, or toasters, if we wish) skin and try and recreate their experience. How well we do this job is the mark of our craftsmanship - whether we succeeded or failed as a writer.

So when people have suggested to me that I shouldn’t have written Juba This, Juba That because I am not African-American, I got angry. Right down to the bottom of my pale pink toes.

I wrote the book because I had uncovered a great story that wasn’t being told. I adapted it using the very best of my abilities, as a writer and as human being, to create a book that is beautiful, moving, and delightful. The final result is a book I am proud of, and a book I hope will introduce children of all colors to an aspect of African-American history that they night not have learned about otherwise.

To be told I should not write this book because I am white is galling in the extreme. It considers my skin color the deciding factor in what I can and cannot do. It judges my output not on its quality, but on the color of my skin.

Is this anything other than racism?

Read the book. Review it based on what is on the page, not on what I look like, where I come from, or what sex I am.

And don’t even mention the term “cultural appropriation in my presence, unless you're ready for an argument!

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