“We know your hearts are good, but even with good hearts you have done a bad thing.” – Leo Quetawke, Head Councilman in charge of law and order for the Zuni people
Cultural appropriation is a difficult concept to understand for those of us who belong to the majority culture. We see the world as one unified whole. We measure the sun by Greenwich Mean Time, the seasons by the calendar of Pope Gregory XIII. For us, an African mask in a shop is a decoration, divorced of cultural significance. We congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment and modernity because we can recognize its beauty.
This state of affairs does not make us bad people. It does not make us responsible for colonialism or slavery, any more than African American or Indigenous American genes make their owners victims or losers. On the contrary, it presents us with an opportunity to rise above our past, to forge a new global fellowship built on trust and open communication. As with any educational pursuit, this requires hard work.
While studying creative writing, I wrote a story using an African mask as a literary symbol. Inanimate objects make great literary symbols, the more charged with cultural energy, the better. The symbolic meaning of the mask, my intent as author, was just a mask, a defense mechanism, a failure to communicate. Most people in the workshop understood. The professor, an old white guy, wrote one comment on his copy. “This is done. Publish it.” One of my fellow students, on the other hand, verbally commented during the workshop that this symbol is racist.
Here’s the full text of the story:
Anna had a small brown mole under her left eye which she secretly hated. That may have something to do with what happened to her. She was fragile and young. It wasn’t an ugly mole by any stretch, and Edward was quite fond of it, or so he told her. Yet sometimes she would stare at it in the black of the microwave, the glass of a revolving door, and she would wish it gone. She was in love with Edward and often worried about growing old. Perhaps in some way she blamed the mole for his failure to propose. Once she asked “Do you ever think about children of your own?” and he responded “I broke my toe,” which he had, by stubbing it at that very moment, not an auspicious omen to Anna’s way of thinking.
Edward bought a small wooden mask in the African style from the incense shop on 125th street. It had a wide mouth smile beneath a shallow nose and tragic eyes. He balanced it on two nails above the TV. The apartment was a collision of art plundered from lost civilizations and sleek modern furniture. The mask looked so appropriate smiling down on the chaos that Anna did not notice it the first week. All she said was, “Bet it collects dust like a maniac,” when she did. Anna spent most of her time at home watching the squirrels, as well as the birds and insects around the apartment. Much of the time she suspected that they were actually surveillance robots sent by persons unknown.
“Look at this praying mantis on the balcony,” she said from the bedroom. Edward was ransacking the kitchen drawers for a missing chopstick. The chopsticks normally hung in their individual holsters in a diagonal pattern on the kitchen wall, but they had been used earlier in the week and now only seven could be found, which meant he would be using a fork. This sort of thing bothered Edward.
“Do you know where the chopsticks are?”he asked.
“Probably in a drawer somewhere, come and look at this thing. I almost didn’t notice it. It’s one of those machines.”
“You don’t notice lots of things.”
“How would a mantis get seven stories up? They can’t fly.”
“They climb. Help me find the chopsticks.”
“You can’t find any?”
“I’m missing one.”
“Don’t worry about it. Are they bringing the box wine? Are we having the taste challenge?”
“What’s that in your hair?” The chopstick was peeking out from behind her head whenever she moved.
“I used this to put my hair up,” she said plucking it out, “here you go.” She walked back into the bedroom to study the robot mantis. The people arrived. The wine tasting started. The delivery man rang. Edward went to get it. When he came back Anna was standing on the glass table, black hair flowing, holding the mask in front of her face and pointing in a frenzied manner at the surveillance insect that was now in a jar on the bookshelf.
“What’s going on?” Edward said, and smiled, fearing he would be misunderstood. He was. Anna jumped off the table, put the mask back on the nails, crossed the room and kissed him. She smelled of old incense. The Chinese food went on the table. Everyone else was talking about surveillance animals they had never noticed before. Pigeons are especially obvious. They don’t even fly like birds.
Later, when everyone else had gone, Anna said, “I’m sorry about tonight Eddie.”
“Sorry for what?” he said, thinking about the heel marks on the table.
“For getting drunk,” she said. “I know you don’t care, but I won’t be doing it anymore.”
“Why not?” he asked, noticing that her heel was now tapping rapidly on the wooden frame.
“Because I’m pregnant,” she said.
This was something of a shock to Edward, who had no plans to start a family. So he faltered and didn’t say anything at all for a few moments, during which time Anna caught a glimpse of her mole reflected in his square framed glasses. She stood up and stomped out of the room, snatching the mask off the wall as she went. Edward finished a box of Tanglewood California Red, picked up his cigarettes off the table and went for a walk.
Anna locked herself in the bedroom, put the mask on the desk and began rummaging through drawers of paper clips, ink cartridges, unread directions, and broken staplers until she found a small plastic bottle at the bottom of a shoebox full of stationery. She began to write a long letter.
In the meantime Edward bought a small diamond ring from the pawn and took it back to the apartment. He knocked gently on the bedroom door, and receiving no answer, he spoke:
“Anna, I know you’re in there. I know you’re scared, but I have something to give you. It’s a ring, Anna. I want you to be my wife. Please open the door and tell me that you will.” Anna opened the door but she did not say anything. The mask was firmly attached to her face even though both hands were at her sides. He put the ring on her finger and said “Take off that ridiculous mask so I can kiss you.” He grabbed the mask but it did not move. Instead her whole head jerked with his movement. He stared down the gruesome wooden smile, asking, “What have you done?” She did not speak, but pulled out of her pocket a letter and a bottle of crazy glue.
They restarted her heart with the defibrillator in the ambulance, but she immediately began tearing at her face and they had to sedate her. Doctors later removed the mask in a four hour surgery, but the psychological damage was irreparable. She will sit for hours looking in the mirror, searching the scarred left side of her face for her mole. Edward still goes to visit her at State Hospital. He lives alone in a sad little apartment where he keeps the blinds closed all the time, in case of surveillance rodents.
Is the description of the mask racist? “A wide mouth smile beneath a shallow nose and tragic eyes?” No. That’s an accurate description of an actual mask in an actual shop. Is the description of its use racist? “Standing on the glass table, black hair flowing, holding the mask in front of her face and pointing in a frenzied manner?” No. That’s an accurate description of an actual drunk person at an actual party. What is racist? The casual description, “in the African style.” It reduces the host of African cultures to a single “style.” It treats whole civilizations like fringe dangling from the essential. It assumes that there is one culture and all other cultures are simply variants thereof.
No one is questioning freedom of speech. You and I and J.K. Rowling can say anything we want without fear of government reprisal, unlike the people of China or the people of Turkey. We are the European wizards who first developed wands, which the muggles call guns, and which have guaranteed us hegemony during the last few centuries. At this point we have unbelievable magical weapons, including lasers that can deflect ballistic missiles. Our right to rule is not being questioned on technical grounds. The question is whether we will use our powers for good or evil.
A person I trust told me my short story is racist because of its mis-appropriation of African culture. That is why I never published it. I do so now only in the hope that it helps one of my heroes, J.K. Rowling, to understand that her words have power far beyond her authorial intent. It is my sincere hope that she will use that power wisely.