It kicked in early, my confusion: When is cultural appropriation appropriate? By the age of six, I owned three good puppets. Those being gifts, I had not made them. My mother boasted a Master’s degree in education; so Christmas brought me a cardboard marionette theatre. It was red and gold. My arbitrary players? A yellow fur lion, one ancient Austrian woodcutter and a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. Having only these actors might seem limiting; but, odd, all my plays about the world fit them exactly.
The character-puppet I did not need was one representing a sensitive freckled white boy with bangs, seersucker shorts, and his own National Geographic subscription. He would have bored me very much. It was others, always others, I pursued. The less like me, the more I needed them. What I didn’t know, they were. By asking them, by moving them around our little stage, I farmed my life toward theirs. I kept trying to understand them from the inside out. My strings lifted their hands and paws. Manipulation, you say? Don’t puppets require that? Isn’t all art manual labor in the service of certain truth-telling tricks?
True, as a child of the ruling class and race, I was possibly an unconscious colonial power-broker seeking to bend a population of cloth and plaster to my imperial will, you think? But, by enlivening these inanimates, I myself was being puppeteered by the dire need: to know what it meant to be a lion, a very old man, a powerfully beautiful woman.
Child’s play only seems caprice: it is always half-labor. It is us practicing for daily life then Carnegie Hall. And, in a world dark and undermining as ours today, that mix of determination, curiosity and whimsy—that interest in sonar projection and the interpretation of returning signals—has kept me avidly interested because properly scared—these seventy years.
By age eight, I understood: marionettes rigged with just four strings can’t simulate gestures precise enough to seem specifically human. I somehow knew: only by approximating voices might I fully inhabit these little bodies and giant wills. By choosing a timbre and an accent, I might invent-invest some subtler hint of soul. But I’d need one distinct separate pitch for each figure in my theatrical alphabet. Each must sound singularly unlike me while still vocal-corded, umbilically my own. I craved the textures of those voices readiest to argue.
Ventriloquism is a low-tech stunt. Technology very early ran this ancient skill through its shredder. The term “ventriloquize” grows from Latin meaning “To Speak from the Stomach.” It stems from an ancient belief that the spirits of the dead communicate through our belly rumblings. It was once thought these could be repeated then translated by oracles. Only in the early nineteenth century were dolls brought onstage. Till then, the goal had been to make ventriloquized voices seem ghostly projections sent from afar. Clear from the next world.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, the British Actors’ Equity registered 400 ventriloquists. In the 2000’s, that fell to 15. But in 1953, I asked for and received a child-sized Jerry Mahoney ventriloquist dummy. Jerry came with his instruction book. Its title? “How To Throw Your Voice.”
“Throw” is a big, male, steroidal and exciting verb! True, my arm as a Little Leaguer lacked much of the Maris-Mantle gristle. But I imagined I could someday, with practice, with something like empathy, eventually send my voice into a certain emotional strike-zone that would make others swing, three times at least.
I understood: a ventriloquist’s own voice had to be both duller and different from the tone he was throwing, from such diction as he pitched. Appropriation seemed a compliment.
So, call me a funky practicing Ventriloquist since 1953. True, I could never say “Bottle of Beer” without moving my lips, unless I pronounced it “Vottle of Veer.” But, faking some new amalgam of speech based on another’s character and wants and education—that’s what I still keep daily throwing at the page. I exist as a dependent of my own invented ones—a PT Barnum providing his employees slightly better health care but with that showman’s same appetite for freakish exceptions. My star players include the fifty one percent of humanity that is female; and the twelve-point-six percent of our nation’s populous that is African-American.
This very fascination might seem to place me squarely in the cross-hairs of those bent on policing the purported crime of cultural misappropriation. It makes crude sense that an abused nation or race— having been exploited for centuries—wants alimony. Problem is—most groups rightly feel singled out for reparation—The Irish, The Chinese, The Queer, The Untouchables.
Indigenous Australian aborigines, sick of seeing their religious symbols usurped by Caucasian copyists, recently petitioned for copyrights. They would monitor native artworks. How? With the suggested label “Authenticity Brand.” But, however earnest that phrase is, doesn’t it offer us a contradiction in terms? We know authenticity—as we recognize pornography—the second we see it.
I’d suggest that such ethnic guardians—advocating enforced cultural monopolies—are accidentally practicing their own form of one-voice one-note puppetry. To say that six-year-old black children should be issued only puppets depicting six-year-old black children—that backs us into an enslaving literalness. I grew up in the south of water fountains marked “Colored ONLY.” To willingly re-nail that sign onto any human replenishment as essential as Narrative, that repeats a tragic mistake for tricky new reasons.
Must all creations be mere replicants of their makers? Is that not the haiku for totalitarianism? Such a quota would surely disqualify from love and art my beloved mangy lion (he enjoyed a different taxonomic pedigree). Re-installing genetic tollgates in art or life echoes the eugenic stringencies that cost millions of lives last century. Please don’t tell me women can’t write as men, gays as straight, blacks as whites, little boys as giant cats.
I would suggest that such re-segregation is anti-imaginative, a reversal of the limited social progress we made before hitting the wall-building craze of our present ludicrous age. Speaking as a Tyrolean wood cutter, or a pretty blond lady in red, taught me what I was—and was not. And was not yet.
Refining motions and vocal tics for each of my hand-held Mercury players added a luster, depth and pity to my consideration of others. It enriched my sense that our human tribe is—while never interchangeable—certainly permeable to forces of consideration, to depths of sympathy, to the redemption of comedy across world cultures.
Everybody knows Star Wars lifted elements of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress which had already subsumed that Japanese genius’s reverence for Shakespeare’s wizardry, which had long-ago had its larcenous way with Thomas Kyd, Kit Marlowe, ersatz royal histories, plus tumbling fistfuls of protein hoisted from Chaucer, Boccaccio, Plutarch and Ovid. And every snatched appropriation? It did not dilute Shakespeare. It strengthened his future skywalking implications.
To “throw” the human voice is a strenuous yet honorable activity. By lovingly imitating others we are not stealing souls, we’re re-anointing, reinforcing them. Throwing a voice boomerangs it through both space and time. I fear that the more we say “One voice per customer, one language per race,” the more we seek to claim some aspect of human experience as the purview of a single class, a single religion, a single sexual outlook, a single historic tragedy. And this narrowing shrinks our chance at understanding how immense and godlike is the human imagination in its fullest flower.
Can something as holy and universal as literature have a ‘Colored Only’ and a ‘Whites Only’ drinking nozzle? Instances of bi-cultural pan-gender trans-racial cross-pollination include the non-menstruating males who gave us Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Mrs. Bridge. Writing past one’s drivers’ license descriptors awarded us those strangely hyper-mortal men—Casaubon and Bulstrode—engendered by a wonder named Mary Anne Evans who had to call herself ‘George Eliot’ to get published. Or how about Abel Meeropol who wrote Billy Holiday’s anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit”? And what of the Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish Gershwins’ version of a black-blues song called “Summertime”? Whenever you say a person of this color or that sex cannot do something, one of them will at once do it so frigging brilliantly. I would further argue that the farther a voice is ‘thrown’ the greater its possible velocity and force, the richer its paradoxical originality.
“Us being us"—stuck with only those like us. That bricks off more of those gated communities to which our races and classes and nations are once again retreating, brothers and sisters. Something there is, everything there is, that does not like a wall. And a voice? A voice can be ‘thrown'—a borrowed voice—can be thrown right through one wall, all walls. We must keep playing, praying, in and through each other’s voices.
The first voice I remember came to me in song from a black woman named Lizzie Smithers hired to tend me as a little pink baby about the size of a puppet. Lizzie Smithers’ song: "If you haven’t got a penny, a ha-penny will do, if you haven’t got a ha-penny, God bless you.” And God bless cultural appropriation. My first English language was Lizzie Smithers’, the African American variant I’d call my mother-tongue. I sought to pay homage to its richness and cadences in my first book, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. I further tried to tap the wit, the rightful fury, the quantum kindness of this woman who minded me for minimum wage while teaching me the maximal beauty of human speech. When Toni Morrison praised my novel’s major black character Castalia Marsden for “not having put a foot wrong in 718 pages” I sobbed as only a liberal puppeteer probably should, even in private. When Cecily Tyson won an Emmy playing Castalia, I was reassured the character had never been mine, but a given, always largely “ours.” The mystic chords of memory so soon entwined with the snagged strings of childhood puppetry. I pull one cord and the opposite limb lifts. I try summoning the battle cries of my ancient Welsh ancestors but their drums and war-chants sound only fully African. While the blue-black nursemaid Lizzie Smithers lullabied a 20th century child with news of London’s seventeenth-century street beggars.
When authenticity lives ethnically unbranded, when we put the First Amendment in its deserved first place, we’ll know again that all culture is world culture. It was “ours” before and after it became briefly merely “mine.”
Named for an attractive string-pulling species that loves to make things, it is, all of it, “Folk” art.