Nov 27, 2011

Inspiration vs. Appropriation

Earlier this week my family was packing up to head out of town for Thanksgiving. My kids were being goofy (a regular occurrence) and somehow the word pelvis came up. My youngest giggled wildly about the word pelvis and asked if there was anything that rhymed with it. "Elvis used to be called 'Elvis the Pelvis' " I told her.

"Why?" she asked. And so I found her a YouTube video of Elvis performing on the Milton Berle show in 1956. While she watched and imitated Elvis' famous pelvic moves, I scrolled down the list of videos to see if there were any other good examples of Elvis the Pelvis. In with the Elvis footage was a video of Big Mama Thornton singing "Hound Dog." I played it for my kids who asked, "Which one came first: Elvis' version or Big Mama Thornton's?" My husband and I gave an impromptu little lesson about the history of black music, explaining that a lot of popular music has roots in black culture but didn't become popular until a white, mainstream artist performed it.

Then at my parents house over the holiday, a similar conversation occurred. My mom and dad recently watched a documentary about famed songwriters Leiber & Stoller, who incidentally wrote the song "Hound Dog." Leiber grew up surrounded by black folks in Baltimore. He was not just influenced by black culture, he was in it. He went to schools that were predominantly black, and helped his mom run a store that was in a black neighborhood. He said it was his experiences in black culture that allowed him to write music for black artists. Leiber and Stoller's first big hit was "Hound Dog," which they originally wrote  for Big Mama Thornton; but it didn't become popular until Elvis sang it.

Were Leiber and Stoller inspired by black culture? Or did they appropriate a style of music from black culture that didn't belong to them? Were they paying homage to a culture by popularizing black music? or were they profiting from a culture that wasn't theirs to profit from?

I've been thinking about the notion of inspiration vs. appropriation for several months. Conversations about the movie The Help over the summer, an interesting read on Racialicious, a spirited chat on the podcast Is That Your Child? about Halloween costumes, and an interview on the Mixed Chicks Chat podcast all left me thinking about the difference between honoring a culture and stealing/profiting from it. How do we decide the difference between inspiration and appropriation?

Image Credit: Flickr/brittany0177
The book and movie The Help stirred up a lot of controversy because of the fact that it is a story about the black experience written by a white woman. Many negative responses to both the book and the movie centered on the question, "When do people of color get to tell their own story?" The author, Kathryn Stockett, states that her story is based on memories from her own life. Is she inspired by the black women from her past? Or is she appropriating the story of black women, telling a story that isn't necessarily hers to tell?

Mixed Chicks Chat (a live weekly podcast about the mixed experience)  episode 225 featured a man by the name of Phil Wilkes Fixico (read a story about him here.) His mixed experience involved an amazing story: at age 52, Fixico discovered through research that he is a descendant of the Seminole Maroons-- slaves who escaped in the 18th and 19th century to live in Spanish Florida near the Seminole Indians. Their cultures intermixed, creating an African-Seminole cultural experience. Fixico discussed the fact that Seminole Maroon experience is a story that needs to be told, that more people should learn about this intersection of African and Native American history. His mission is to share this history, and he suggested that the best way to spread the word is to get someone from the dominant culture (i.e. someone white, European-American) to write about it. He argued that more people will listen if the story is told by a member of the dominant culture.

Image Credit: Flickr/ronocdh
Since that episode aired, I have been thinking about his statement.

Will the dominant culture only pay attention to a story if it is told  by one of their own?  

Both Leiber & Stoller and Elvis brought a lot of attention to black music. Without their inspiration/appropriation of black culture, what would music sound like today? The Help started a lot of conversations about race that weren't happening prior to its release. Many white women in particular who read the book/saw the movie are seeing issues of race from a perspective they had never before considered. Without that inspiration/appropriation, would those conversations have occurred? Will more people learn about the story Phil Wilkes Fixico wants to share, the story of Black Seminole Maroons, if it is told by a white/European-American?

I don't have answers here, just questions. In fact, the more I think about it the more questions I have. When I talked to my husband about the concept of cultural appropriation he told me a story about walking to work and seeing a group of Japanese college students dressed in hip hop attire. He asked: are they appropriating black culture? Or is their expression of hip hop culture not considered cultural appropriation because they aren't members of the dominant European-American culture?

What do you think? What constitutes cultural appropriation? What is the difference between inspiration and appropriation? 

Will the dominant culture listen to a story that comes straight from the source? or does it need that inspiration/appropriation to happen before it can learn to appreciate other cultures?


  1. This is a really thought-provoking piece Jen.  One thing that struck me reading your piece is that fact that because white supremacist culture devalues and minimizes the experiences of marginalized people, our voices are often erased and ignored.  It's sad to me that Mr. Fixico feels that the only way people will pay attention to the story of Seminole Maroons is if a white person tells it.  Holding onto that notion it seems to me allows white supremacy/white privilege to remain in place.  White people only have to value, pay attention to, recognize the stories of marginalized people if other white people instruct them to do so. That's a messed up status quo to uphold.   

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Michelle. I agree that it is sad that Mr. Fixico feels the need to have a white person tell the story of Seminole Maroons. He is now in his 60's and for a while I was wondering if his age has something to do with the perception that the story must be told by someone other than himself. But then I think about popular culture (The Help and Eminem come immediately to mind) and wonder if much has changed in his lifetime. I have to wonder: how do we challenge and change that messed up status quo? (And am I upholding it by being a white woman who is talking about his story?) 

  3. I am Phil Wilkes Fixico. I believe that my ancestors story, can best be told through the life of :Congressman Josha Giddings, who was the Abolitionist, who entered their plight into the Congressional Record.The movies: "Avatar" & "Dancing with Wolves", have both,  set undeniable precedents for the use
    of thisproven Hollywood Formula for Success.w

  4. Jen, I love all the thoughts going on here...this is such a great discussion.  I love the way that you linked all these examples together too, it really shines a new light on this topic.  

    I think there is definitely a huge problem with this in our country...but the biggest problem is that we're not even aware that it's happening.  Like Michelle stated above, it's upsetting that someone would actually ask for their book to be written by a white author in order for it to get the attention that it deserves.  It's ridiculous that authors of color feel this way and yet somehow, the rest of the world seems to be "colorblind" to the issue.

    There has been a lot of talk about this recently and I'm glad that you brought up "The Help", because the biggest thing that upsets me about it is just what you said above...when will people of color get to tell their OWN stories!?

    So much is appropriated that I think we've come to see it as normal.  Just disappointing all around...and how do we end it?

  5. Phil, thanks so much for stopping by to comment! Your story has really stuck with me for many reasons. I work with kids who have seen hard times and your life is as inspirational to me as theirs. Your resilience amazed me. I am honored that you are having this conversation with me.

    I totally agree that there is a Hollywood formula that works for selling stories. I just wonder if there is a way that we can start to shift the paradigm so that the story is both about and told by people of color. Dances with Wolves told a Native American story by focusing on white people. Why can't that same story be successful and popular if it is told by Native Americans? How do we change the formula? What can we do to include people of color in Hollywood's Formula for Success?

  6. Part of me can totally see Mr. Fixico's point. If he wants the story to gain attention and sell, there is a proven method for doing that--tell the story from a white perspective. But as you said, it's sad that it has to be that way. The only way to change it is to tell more authentic stories and to boycott those that are inauthentic. 

  7. I agree that his is right.  It absolutely IS the best way to have his story told...but it's so disappointing that this system continues.  It shouldn't have to be that way, but I get where he's coming from...

  8. The story that a small group, of formerly enslaved Seminole Maroons with the help of their Indian Allies, self-emancipated themselves ,25 years before
    Lincoln's proclamation through direct combat with the US Army/Navy and Marine Corp is in the : Congressional Record. It was called the : Negro War
     by Gen. Thomas S. Jesup.

  9. Jen, the honor is mine ! Since Culture is :Traditions, Customs and Habits that govern our Behavior, we have to change the American Culture.Unfortunately,many descendants of this documented history, don't know or revere it. Others will find it hard to believe. A dominant voicemay help.

  10. Jen, a historical coincidence is that , as a young local musician, I played behind :Big Mama Thornton a couple of times, in :L.A.'s "Chittlin' Circuit" Nite Club district, in the 70's. She was still a powerful Performer and her "braggin' rights"  was that she made :"Hound Dog" first. Look into ;Johnny Otis her producer on HD he was a Greek racially and Black Culturally

  11. Thanks for posting links to the websites containing historical documentation! The material there is fascinating. I hope I have more time to look at it all soon. My husband is very interested in history and for the past several years has been working on a project related to the Civil War. I believe you are right--this is an interesting story that needs to be told. Why is the Negro War/slave rebellion such a secret? Interesting stuff...

  12. Phil, now that is fascinating! I am tickled to hear that you played behind Big Mama Thornton! I love that you describe Johnny Otis as Greek racially and Black culturally.  My mom was telling me about an interview she saw with Jerry Leiber. He shared a story about someone looking at him and telling him, "you know--your'e not black." He said that it was the worst insult he'd ever heard in his life! That story reminds me of your description of Johnny Otis. Leiber was Polish/Jewish ethnically, but Black culturally. Fascinating. Sounds like you've had quite a life, Phil! 

  13. Hi Jen, The Negro War/ Slave Rebellion countered the desired perception that : Negro Slaves were docile. Slave Owners wanted to use Slavery as a: sure thing investment.
    Not as an opportunity to manage desperate Black Militants.Say Hi, to your husband and ask him to look intotheFirst Indian Home Guard. A Tri-racial Civil War Unitthat my ancestors were a part of. America in that era was a  Slavocracy. Ten of the :first twelve Presidents enacted treaties or directives aimed at controlling the Seminole Maroons.                                                                                                                

  14. You're nice to say that .Kevin Mulroy,Ph.D. UCLA who was my :Smithsonian Institution Researcher for the "indiVisible": book and exhibit, offered to do a book on my life but, I declined, I felt that the story of my ancestors was much moreimportant.By the way,Dr. Mulroy's wrote two books that tell my ancestors stry pretty thoroghly.They are entitled :"freedom on the Border" and "Seminole Freedmen".When I say that this story needs to be told through the" voice of the right Dominant Culture Person", I am specifically talking about the film. I worked in 3 films during the Blaxpoitation era and I learned that , movies that just slam the Dominant Culture, are not enduring works of Art.  People don't return to see themselves humiliated. This is why I suggest ,the story of : the Great Abolitionist; Josha Giddings and his tireless efforts to be a part of the  solution. 


  16. Hello Mr. Fixico, 
    You have a tremendous life story and the history that you want to bring to the mainstream audience about the Seminole Maroons is vital.  While I am more clear about what you mean w/ regard to creating a film version of the story, it still saddens me that stories about people of color and other marginalized people are not valued in the way that they should be.  You, for example, should have several movies, books, plays, etc made about your life by now!  I do hope someone makes the Seminole Maroon story.  Would you consider a filmmaker like Chris Eyre? 

  17. Hi Michelle, Thanks for sharing, on this topic. Mr. Chris Eyre is a: Giant among film makers. For Mr. Eyre, to have any connection with such a project would add enormous credibility to it and ensure it's completion and future box-office success. An American Indian of stature adding their creative expertise to  a film about African-Native Americans, legitimizes the concept of ;Black Indians.  

  18. What can we do to bring Mr. Fixico's story to the attention of someone like filmmaker Chris Eyre? I looked to see if he has a Twitter account and was overwhelmed by the number of people who share his name. I would love to bring the story to the attention of some filmmakers who could pursue the project, it is just so far out of the realm of what I do that I don't know where to begin. Any ideas about how we can take action, to get Hollywood to notice that Phil Wilkes Fixico has an extremely interesting story to tell?

  19. I actually used the Mixed Race Studies sight to learn more about you, Phil, after listening to you on Mixed Chicks Chat. Thanks for the other links. I really want to try to spread your story more and hope that we gain the attention of someone in Hollywood. You've been speaking at public venues and I've seen articles about you published. What else can we do to help spread the word?

  20. Many interesting comments here.  I've read the book The Help, and I have to say I found the Skeeter character incredibly contrived, and the storyline that went with her character.  I thought the actual subject matter of the book could have been made more interesting, but found the a lot of the characters one dimensional which I found troublesome.

    One reaction to the book I heard that the story was not at all about the black maids....but more of a coming of age character for the Skeeter character.

    As for inspiration vs. appropriation, I certainly think Kathryn Stockett has a right to write any sort of book she likes...I'm not sure that I see this as appropriation.    I don't think she did a very good job.

    I can't say I know much about Lieber and Stoller.  The history of American music is full of many influences, from many cultures.  I think it is difficult to say that one can't be inspired artistically by a broad culture..and then profit by it.  If Lieber grew up surrounded by black culture, at one point does that become his own culture, even if he isn't ethnically black.

    I don't know if you are familiar with Marcus Samuelsson.  He was born in Ethiopia, moved to Sweden as a toddler, and eventually became famous as a chef in part by becoming an expert on Scandinavian cuisine...would we also say that he was "appropriating", since he is not ethnically Swedish?  the situation isn't exactly the same as Lieber's but if you grow up surrounded by a certain culture at what point do you have some right to claim that as part of your own culture?

  21. Jen, You are the perfect example of what I mean a :Dominant Culture person who sincerely wants to HELP.
    It has been written that at the height of the  era of Slavery in the USA , that there was always at least 3% of the pop. that were dedicated ABOLITIONIST. You of corse, now have an agenda since your 3 children are Mixed Race. Which is a GOOD THING. I believe that you, personally have more than done your part , by writing about it and EMPATHIZING with
    the story. Your family , I'm sure, is very Proud of you. In behalf of my Ancestors and all current Descendants , I thank you : Jen Marshall Duncan for giving us : HOPE ! I will say your name and that of your family when I pray for those who strive to bring "GOOD MEDICINE TO THE WORLD". Have a great life." Through Warm Tears Of Gratitude" Phil Fixico,Seminole Maroon Descendant

  22. Jen, Thank you and your fellow Bloggers for any  help or suggestions that you and they have. This will  be a tough nut to crack but, not impossible. I should explain the concept of : Maroons. Maroons were those enslaved people who would not accept slavery , they escaped  to Indigeous people  and formed alliances . They then turned and fought their former enslavers/opressors to remain FREE. In textbook Marronage, they won their freedom and it was evidenced by a document recognizing this fact.
    There were: "Maroon Societies" all over the New World  (see Dr. R.Price). The most famous examples were in : Jamaica,Haiti & Brazil . I'm descended from the North American Maroons who were allies with the Seminole Indians. In truth the N.A.M. were fewer in number but actually fought a greater number of adversaries: Spanish,English, Americans, Indians, French and Confederate Troops. In many cases, they later formed mutual alliances with their former enemies (except for the French & the Confederacy). One of my goals is to see that they are entered into the" Hallowed Halls of Americana" just like : Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett. Their fight for freedom was no less noble.
    Thank you one and all,for your time and interest.

  23. Flor, you raise some really interesting points that are exactly why I get so confused about inspiration vs. appropriation. Chef Samuelsson is such an interesting person to add to this discussion--now I am wondering about acculturation/assimilation and how it fits in. I, personally, wouldn't say that he is "appropriating" Swedish culture because he grew up there. Are there Swedes who resent him for being an Ethiopian who is culturally Swedish? I don't know enough about Swedish culture to know the answer to that question, but I know that in the U.S. we have issues with anger and resentment over culture.

    I get really confused on this issue, especially because it seems like there are people in the world who are bestowed this sort of "honorary" title. Many bloggers I follow have been described as an "honorary Latinas" even though they have no ethnic heritage. They are culturally a part of the Latina experience. Are there Latinos who resent them for sharing in Latino culture? 

    In my experience, I have never met any "honorary" black folks. Mr. Fixico's comment about Johnny Otis is the closest I have ever heard: "He was Greek racially and Black culturally." In my lifetime, any time a non-black person of any color (not just white) becomes so involved in black culture that they seem to be a part of it, the black community reminds that person "You aren't black." This happened with Jerry Leiber, too. It all seems to come down to skin privilege: if you are not black you can enjoy black culture, food, music, etc.; but when it comes down to it you will never know how it feels to walk in the skin of black folks or to feel the history of slavery reflected in the way you are treated by society. That seems to me to be what is different from other cultures, what leads many black folks in particular to feel angry about black culture being "appropriated" when the non-black world might see situations as being "inspired by" black culture. 

    Would Chef Samuelsson's story be different if he were a white Swede who grew up in the U.S. in an all black neighborhood, and ended up being a gourmet soul food chef? You ask a really great question when you ask "if you grow up surrounded by a certain culture at what point do you have some right to claim that as part of your own?" 

    It is such a complicated issue...I still don't have any answers...just a lot more questions. Thanks for commenting and making me think critically, Flor.

  24. Hi Jen, Thank you , for these penetrating perspectives. Early in my JOURNEY of SELF-DISCOVERY. I contacted the : Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. I was looking for relatives based on my family's genealogy research. I spoke to the :Historical Preservation Office, Mr. Pare Bowlegs.                                                                           I was Thrilled because  one branch of my family's tree were the :Bowlegs from Florida . I naively , asked him if this documented fact meant, that we were related ? He aswered, " No, you were our Slaves". "There is no such thing as a: BLACK SEMINOLE" ! OUCH ! This was the last thing that I expected to hear. Mr. Bowlegs was ,however, very nice to me, sending me important links and an attachment
    that explained what happened to my FULL-BLOODED (Dinah Fixico)  ancestors group in the Florida. I was so new to things, at this time I still hadn't learned how to open an attachment. So, for years I didn't fully appreciate what he had shared with me. So, this is an example of ,current Native Americans ,telling Freedmen Descendants..."You're Not Indian and Your Demand for Indian Rights and Benefits is just another way to Plunder US" ! My Seminole Maroon ancestor
    Caesar Bruner helped translate and negotiate the : 1865 Truce at Fort Smith, I.T. that formed the basis for the 1866 Treaty, which, did guarantee full and equal rights to the legitmate Black Tribal members. I have the documented lineage, to join the Nation on the : By-Blood Rolls. However,
    I believe in :"Transcendce" ,which is ,described in : "Esteluste Marginalization" by Dr. R. Von Robertson. In response to the 4 reactions of Blacks who are rejected by
    Indians ( they being: (1) Return, (2) Poise,(3) Assimilation,(4) Transcendence) I remain in solidarity with those African-Native Americans who only have family history ,therefore ,they can't join a Federally- Recognized  Nation. I say that ,there is approximately ;26 millon African- Americans who believe that they either have :Indian Ancestry or a Shared-History. I say, let's form our own : Indian-like groups, of people of ALL RACES/ETHNICITIES  who want to CELEBRATE their lives by living it, using :the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas as role models. I intend to start by lobbying for an ;"Indigenous Peoples of the Americas" street festival.  It could prove to be good for the local economy. Remember , the one product that has consistently exported for America is, it's CULTURE. Ethnogenesis, has shown us that : New People and Sub-Cultures are emerging everyday. Again, it's not about's about... Culture.

  25. OUCH! is right, Phil. Wow, Mr. Bowlegs didn't mince any words there...  

    As social scientists begin to expose the myth of "race" I think we all need to take up your words as a new motto, "It's not about's about CULTURE." That sure would solve a lot of our world's problems.

  26. Hi Jen, I've literally said these words ,hundreds of times, from Elementary School classrooms in Watts to the great halls of the Smithsonian Institution's: National Museum of the American Indian Iindian                                                 in Wasshington, DC. I will say them ,again."It's not about Race...It's about CULTURE". "Hitler, proved that ,we cannot advance  Mankind, by using RACE.His was a tragic failure, at an unimaginable cost ,in treasure and Human Lives. However, since Culture is : Traditions,Customs and Habits that govern our Behavior, we CAN find
     "Common Ground" with other people, who
    don't look like, talk like or think like ourselves. When we, take the TIME to do this, we then, can design : New Common Ground imperatives, that will be mutually beneficial and that, bring us together. When my family moved into the :Nickerson Gardens Projects in Watts, the buildings were :brand new and the grass was green. However, when: the man was killed, and bleed across our back porch, we were told to :"step over the blood" and when the young girl was raped in front, early one evening , we were told to : "close the door".
    Our Culture in those few pivotal moments became , a Culture where the: "Predators were in Charge". So, what is the lesson here. the lesson is that when you put :poor people on top of poor people and only supply their basic needs, this is what quickly happens. There were no professional : Community Organizers working at the "grassroots" level. This would have helped the people and protected society's investment. We were to weak and had no middle/upper class role models for the; truly downtrodden to emulate. After, the Watts Riots of 1965, by early 1967 I was sent into the Community as a :"Soldier in President Johnson's  War on Poverty". What we did, worked because, we were working at Ground Zero. The Viet Nam War however, took precedent over the War on Poverty ...
    and the rest is ...HISTORY.  

  27. I'm going to be chewing on this post for a while, Jen. I don't know which way to turn with all the issues you raised. Think of what it means to be an American. How many cultures did it take to make this dominant culture and which ones were destroyed in the process? We try so hard to cling to bits of our ancestry but what really happens over time? I'm saddened by the messages threaded throughout here because they speak volumes about us as a people. Where do we go from here? What individual contributions can we make to change the status quo in a positive way so we don't get swallowed by it. Or is it inevitable?
    Great post.

  28. Ezzy, I agree that this discussion of inspiration vs. appropriation leads right into another discussion about acculturation and assimilation; they seem to be directly related. For some people a joining-together of cultures is beautiful, but for others it's a loss of identity that is mourned. The messages are very conflicting and confusing. More questions. And I'm with you--where do we go from here? 

  29.      Hi Jen, Thanks, for all your help in assisting me to get the Seminole Maroon story out. Check out the link below. you'll see me in my :URBAN SEMINOLE MAROON DESCENDANT REGALIA with the : Mayor of Los Angeles , Antoino Villaraigosa. I was invited to attend ,this years : American Indian Heritage Month Celebration as a :Seminole Maroon Descendant and the "FIRST BLACK INDIAN" to participate at city hall in the history of the event. Thanks, to people like ; Steven Riley, Glen Robinson, Mixed Chicks Chat, all those who commented and of course Jen Marshall Duncan.                                                                                                                                  

  30. Jen, I am fascinated by this discussion about inspiration vs
    appropriation. I write for young adults and I know that some of the finest
    works of children's literature are written by people telling the story of their
    own culture.  The winner of the National
    Book Award for Young People's Literature, Thanhha Lai, came from Vietnam to
    live in the U.S. and tells her story in her novel, Inside Out and Back Again.  She is just one example of many new voices
    telling the story of their own culture. 
    I am personally interested in the exploration because I have crossed
    cultural boundaries and written about immigrants and refugees from many
    cultures who are making their homes in the U.S.

    My newest book that will come out in the spring, The Good
    Braider, is the story of a young girl who survives the war in Sudan and begins
    to find a home in Maine. My experience in my youth was in working for the Red
    Cross in Vietnam during the war and I continue to write about girls and women
    who have been affected by war.


    I am a member of the dominant American culture. Here's one
    thought I have about people from the dominant culture writing about people in non-dominant
    cultures.  Could it be seen as not
    appropriation, but as a hunger to understand. 
    And for writers, it is through writing that we can begin to understand
    our communities, our humanity, and, in this case, our multicultural country.  Is this only an apology?  I don't think so.  I think it would far worse if white people
    only sought to understand other white people, only wrote about other white
    people.   What if we lived in a world in
    which each ethnicity only wrote or created art about its own and no bridges were built
    between cultures by people trying to understand.  I do think it's my responsibility to honor
    Sudanese writers and work to support the development of their skills of young writers. 

    I'd love to hear your ideas about this.  
    Terry Farish

  31. Hi Terry! Thanks so much for your comment. You made me think a lot more about this topic, which has been niggling in back of my mind for about half a year now. It is not at all an easy or short discussion, so this morning I put together some of my more recent thoughts in another post. You can read it here:
    I hope you have time to read and comment. 

    I briefly looked at your website and plan to see if your books are at my local library... I am very interested to learn more about your work. It sound like you write from a very interesting perspective and have a lot of interesting experiences.

    Hi Jen, I found the person that I was looking for !
    Thanks, for all your help and well wishes.

  33. Thanks for sharing this interview, Phil! I will make a point of listening to the podcast this weekend!


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