By Amy D. Clark
My husband and I are on a plane to Key West, where I am participating in this year’s Key West Literary Seminar as a Teacher and Librarian Scholarship winner. The theme is “Writers of the Caribbean,” and we will be joined by writers like Jamaica Kincaid (born in Antigua), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), and Marlon James (Jamaica.)
I went to Key West with the understanding that I was learning and thinking from a position of white privilege, having grown up in a culture seemingly far-removed from those represented in the literature of this seminar. But I was also seeking a connection-however tenuous-between my rural Appalachian culture and theirs. Later, I realized that very connection may be the question of appropriation, and whether it can be both theft and tribute.
During the flight, I take a break from reading James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings to watch an episode of Dave Chappelle’s new standup series on Netflix. Some in his audience may think him crude, but social justice issues are often at the core of Chappelle’s monologues. In this particular episode, Chappelle tells the story of Emmet Till, a 14 year-old black boy from Chicago who visited his cousins in Money, Mississippi in 1955. He was brutally murdered by four white men after a woman accused him of whistling at her outside a store; many years later, she admitted to having lied. Till’s mother demanded an open casket funeral to show the world what those men had done to her son.
Chappelle credits this event for being one of the sparks that ignited the Civil Rights Movement. That moment in history, he says, is likely one of the reasons he is able to live the life he chooses to live, particularly as an artist.
Later that evening, Jamiaca Kincaid, a native of Antigua, stands in the San Carlos Institute of Key West, to a standing-room only audience. Her keynote is titled “Let Me Appropriate You… and You Can Appropriate Me, Too.” Coincidentally, she opens with an image of a controversial painting by white artist Dana Shultz… a painting inspired by Emmet Till’s funeral. It is aptly titled “Open Casket.” Shultz was heavily criticized for the painting, with some even calling for her to destroy it.
Kincaid’s goal is not to join those who have vilified Shultz and her work in the past year but to thank her, she says, “for making me think about things.” She points out how the work keeps Till’s story alive, a story that might otherwise be lost. She also praises Dave Chappelle’s monologue about Emmet Till, the same monologue I watched on the plane, as one that “brilliantly” honors Mamie Till’s brave decision.
In the cases of both artists, one black and one white, Kincaid has re-conceptualized what some would call appropriation as “tribute.”
My first visit to Key West was for our destination wedding in 2007, a stop on our way to Mexico. We were dropped in the middle of touristy Mallory Square. Nearby Duval street is a bazaar of pulsing music and lights, of merchandise that packages the Caribbean in its trinkets. Key rings with bottle openers (because “everyone drinks here”) and flip-flop refrigerator magnets (because “no one wears real shoes here.”) As my husband and I walk around, I point out that Duval Street is the Pigeon Forge of Key West; it reminds me of the Smoky Mountain main drag where millions of tourists come to experience Appalachia. If you are not from Appalachia, and you expect to see images of barefoot hillbillies in overalls and moonshine stills, they can all be found on the same street (and much more.)
In places that depend on tourism, this is what sells.
When Haitian-born author Edwidge Danticat takes the stage at the San Carlos Institute, she says that there is pressure on writers of the Caribbean to “show the beaches” in their work. In other words, paint the portrait that everyone expects. When I finally meet Danticat, I explain that writers from Appalachia face a similar problem. We work hard to explore complexity, to remove ourselves from the singular images people have gathered from media.
I worry, though, that my attempt to connect is feeble. While I am not trying to compare Appalachia’s issues to those facing writers of color, I can identify with some of what they say. When the writers talk about their vernacular dialects being disparaged, about not seeing themselves in the literature they read as children, their words resonate. I want to tell her that I felt the same way as a rural Appalachian child.
Dandicat asks me what I think of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir set in Appalachian Ohio and Kentucky. While it has sold well since its publication, it has been quite controversial among residents of the region. Vance has been accused of appropriating a culture that is not rightfully his and a word he cannot rightfully claim.
I tell her that for many in Appalachia, Vance’s bestselling memoir about his childhood seemed to package all of the elements of the hillbilly image and everything associated with it into one sensational bootstrap narrative. Many worry, now that Ron Howard is making a film of the book, that the complexities of the region are missing from Vance’s work, and that his story places too much blame on the people and not those who have historically exploited them.
She nods. “That’s what I thought,” she says.
People expect the “pearl,” Dandicat later says from a panel discussion during which she talks of her native Haiti. The paradise. Not everyone appreciates writers who explore a culture’s complexities, warts and all. For those of us in the Appalachian region, it is the opposite. No one wants the pearl. They want hillbillies (or their idea of what hillbillies look and sound like.)
To truly know a place and its culture is to explore its history and its graveyards. Key West’s historical archives, housed in the Monroe County Public Library, reveals what you won’t find in its touristy areas: maps of the city from the late 19th century (consultation required by homeowners who want to renovate), a clutch of family recipes (the original “Conch Chowder” and Key Lime Pie, collected from estate sales and church cookbooks), Hemingway’s galleys and a zoology notebook. The Key West cemetery, just a couple of blocks away, quietly tells the stories of the city’s migration patterns, its religions, its influences, its maritime disasters.
On my walk to the cemetery, I notice a large, ornate building that appears to be abandoned. It looks as though it could have been a hospital or a school at one time. A for sale sign is nearly hidden among the weeds. Back at the historical archive, I ask the librarian about it.
“It’s up for 15 million,” she says, her eyes sweeping the tiny room filled to capacity with Key West’s history. Just that morning they had avoided a near-catastrophic leak in their vault that could have ruined some of the delicate artifacts in storage there. “We would love to have that building. We could use the space.” But at that price, Key West’s history will have to stay in the vault a bit longer.
I happen to be reading Joan Didion’s essay “Notes from a Native Daughter,” about her home place of Sacramento. In it, she writes about the Sacramento she knows in sharp contrast to the one people think they know, or perhaps the only one they care to know. “What matters is the feeling,” she writes, “the knowledge that where the green hops once grew is now Larchmont Riviera, that what used to be the Whitney ranch is now Sunset City, thirty-three thousand houses and a country-club complex.” She wonders how generations beyond hers, who do not care to look past the main drag, will ever find its history. “They will have lost the real past,” she says, “and gained a manufactured one.”
Perhaps this is cultural appropriation at its worst, selling a manufactured version of a people or place that outsiders will believe is the truest version. Poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips says that a place like the Caribbean is about “movement…the movement of the natural world [and] when you commodify it, it’s suddenly in stasis, no longer moving, which is a confusing thing for its residents” whose identities may be bound up in a place, its food ways, its dialects, its music.
Cultural appropriation may, as Jamaica Kincaid points out, make us “think about things.” It drives us look into historical events, into cemeteries, hole-in-the-wall eateries, the places and people you’ll find just “a few miles out of town,” Didion says, that may otherwise be lost to history.