“In Defense of … “: Historical Thinking and Cultural Appropriation

By Andrew Nurse

This is the second essay in a three part series on historical thinking and cultural appropriation. For the first part in the series, click here.

One of the key characteristics of the commentaries that defend cultural appropriation is that they come in the guise of history. A friend sent me one today that referred back to Elvis and so looks, on its surface, almost history-like. The problem, of course, is that references to the past don’t constitute either history or historical thinking. Instead, in this case, it involved more a conscription of the past into the service of an argument about the present. The author concluded that Elvis’ popularity demonstrates that cultural appropriation is good.

Historians, of course, don’t ever make such arguments and we spend a great deal of time warning our students, the general public, and just about anyone who will listen, against this type of thinking. As anyone who has taken History 101 knows, the historical question is not “is Elvis a good singer?” but why did Elvis become popular? What does his popularity tell us about the development of modern music and culture? What led people to think he was good in, say, comparison to other musicians who were playing the same type of music?

This was one of the points I tried to make in my previous post about historical thinking and cultural appropriation. In it, I tried to argue that the tools of historical thinking are not some sort of golden key that solves all problems and resolves all controversy. Instead, I tried to show that historical thinking provided a series of tools that allowed us to deepen our understanding of the debate surrounding – and the issue of — cultural appropriation and, ideally, to redirect the discussion.

This post is the second in a series on this same issue and in it I will pick up on the argument I made in the last one. Here I will ask: how would an historian approach the issue of cultural appropriation? Different historians will develop different perspectives, but if we were to take historical thinking seriously and use its tools to explore and analyze this issue, what would that exploration/analysis look like? 

As with my last post, I won’t strive for comprehensiveness. Instead, I’ll put some ideas on the table and invite you to contribute to the discussion here at ActiveHistory.ca. Let me make two points:

First, the tools of historical thinking lead us to focus on real people. I will confess that this is one of the problems that I have with a lot of the current discussion surrounding cultural appropriation, particularly defenses of it: it is too abstract. For instance, in a current defense of cultural appropriation, we read that Elvis was a good singer and that his borrowing of “black music” was one of the things that made him good and should be celebrated.

But, we don’t really learn anything about the real people who lived in the 1950s. We don’t learn, for instance, about why black Americans who sang the same music were ignored by mainstream radio. We don’t learn anything about what led middle-class youth to embrace a form of music that was viewed by some as radical. We learn nothing about the divisions in American society and nothing about the effects and results of those divisions. Instead, all these points are erased from the discussion as if they were not important.

Focusing on the human element of history relocates our consideration of an issue. It ceases to be abstract and instead becomes an issue that affected lives. Such relocations suggest a reconsideration of easy generalizations. Instead of simply celebrating, say, the music of Elvis, historical thinking pushes us to ask other questions of an evolving popular culture. We might ask, for example, who benefited – and who did not – from this cultural development? For historians, this is not an idle question. Periodically, I hear people say that musicians like Elvis (as an example) helped address racism in America by making use of African American music and introducing it to a white audience. This is, more-or-less, the point made by the movie Hairspray, a film set in pre-Civil Rights Baltimore. But, did this actually happen? I would argue that racism in America is far from dead. And, I hazard a guess that most of my historian colleagues would argue that discussing anti-racism while neglecting the Civil Rights movement makes for pretty bad history.

Second, historical thinking would, I think, ask us to be attuned to the complexities, ironies and, potential absurdities of the past. It would ask us to see cultural appropriation as part of an historical process. Consider the uses and appropriations of Indigenous culture in post-Confederation Canada as an example. The history of state policy oriented toward the assimilation of First Peoples is well known. What is interesting is that at the same time First Nations were menaced by the federal state and Settler society, Canadian museums, intellectuals, artists, musicians, and tourist promoters, among others, expressed renewed interest in Indigenous cultures in Canada. As Douglas Cole explained in his classic text Captured Heritage, there was a “scramble” on the part of museums and other institutions to accumulate “authentic” Native culture before it supposedly disappeared. The idea that Indigenous cultures were moribund was the basis upon which anthropologists like Marius Barbeau established their authority. They knew, they said, Indigenous culture better than Indigenous people. Museum displays marked the supposedly lost authentic culture of a “dying race” while copyrighted collections of music and legends drew First Nations culture into the matrix of modern consumer culture and accorded others legal rights over it.

The ironies here are appreciable and the story is not simple, but it is intricately tied up with – and part of the same cultural process – as residential schools, reserves and broken treaty obligations. Said in other words, cultural appropriation was part of the same cultural, political, legal, and economic processes that marginalized First Peoples in modern Canada and subverted their autonomy. Is a museum display the same as a residential school? No. It is not. But, it is built on and around the same historical processes. It illustrates a cultural process by which the authority to speak with authority for and about a culture is contested and appropriated. It illustrates the fact, I think historical analysis would tell us, that there are important issues involved in a consideration of cultural appropriation and that its history is connected to – and built upon – historical processes that are deeply disturbing.

In this regard, history – as a discipline, practice, and system of cultural authority – has its own issues to address. Those are matters I’ll consider in a future post. When we look at the history of cultural appropriation, however, we can gain a different perspective on it. That perspective may not – and likely should not – give us easy answers to contemporary problems, but it can show that these are problems that involved (and, historians would argue continue to involve) real people (as opposed to abstract points of principle) and which are connected to a history that Canada, and other nation-states, look to transcend.

Andrew Nurse is a professor in the Canadian Studies Program at Mount Allison University

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2 thoughts on ““In Defense of … “: Historical Thinking and Cultural Appropriation

  1. Lindsay Gibson

    Thanks for these timely articles Andrew. I wonder if it would be helpful if you more fully articulated your conception of historical thinking. Obviously many people are aware of Seixas’ conception of historical thinking (i.e. The Big Six), but it seems that many academic historians in Canada articulate it differently.

  2. Andrew Nurse

    Lindsay, sorry for a slow response. I will confess that I am not thinking in terms of sophisticated models but almost the basic History 101 stuff, context, multi-causal analysis (avoiding essentialism), and the like. Remember that stuff you learnt in your first university level history course … that stuff.

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