Cultural Appropriation: Arrogation or Irrigation?

Roundtable at the 2018 MLA Convention, New York, NY


The CLPC’s roundtable on Cultural Appropriation and the various ways it can be conceptualized (including cultural appropriation and plagiarism, inspiration, sampling, influence, satire, sharing, contamination, hybridity, usurpation, dispossession, de- and reterritorialization, routes or roots) was a great success. Approximately twenty-three people were in attendance on Thursday, January 4, in the early evening. Cristine Soliz, Professor of English at Arkansas Baptist College, CLPC chair, and co-organizer of the panel made some preliminary comments about how people of color have been affected by cultural appropriation in the past.

Co-organizer Paul Devlin, Assistant Professor of English at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and CLPC member, discussed Percival Everett’s 1996 short story “The Appropriation of Cultures,” in which a young African American man in South Carolina appropriates the Confederate flag, which in turn starts a movement to appropriate the flag. Devlin discussed the story’s merits, cleverness, and good classroom value, as well as its limitations for thinking through the complexity of cultural appropriation, namely its elision of the culture industry and mechanism(s) for the distribution of culture.

Josh-Wade Ferguson, doctoral candidate at the University of Mississippi presented on Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues (1983) by George Elliott Clarke—who identifies as an Africadian (African-Acadian-Canadian). Ferguson locates adapted African-American cultural traditions within what he calls a “blues diaspora”—a way to map the blues form as it is appropriated by non-African Americans since the 1970s. The blues provides a communal and individual voice that offers respite in an oppressive world, but also codifies a series of tropes connected to African-American cultural expression. Ferguson puts Clarke’s poetry at the center of transnational cultural adaptation to deconstruct how cultural appropriation is understood and theorized.

Sean M. Kennedy, a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, presented on Rihanna’s reception in South Africa.

Laura Vrana, postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University, was to have presented on Kenneth Goldsmith, Yi-Fen Chou, and Appropriated Identities in Contemporary American Poetry, but could not attend because of a severe snow storm affecting the New York metropolitan area.

With the storm taken into consideration, the panel’s attendance was outstanding. A lively question and answer period came next, with all of the panelists participating. One major theme emerged from the question and answer period is that discussions of cultural appropriation often omit or occlude questions of political economy.


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