Everyday Use: Who’s Passing for Who?

Alice Walker’s sly and perceptive narrator in “Everyday Use” reminds me of my grandmother, though the woman in the story is poor and African-American while my grandmother was white and, by the time I knew her, rich. Maybe it’s simply because a relative of mine snatched away an old dulcimer to hang on a Minnesota wall, one that grandmother had promised me because, well, I did love playing it (though I wasn’t much good). For Walker’s narrator’s daughter, too, “heritage” has become an item of display (quilts to be hung as art), not a part of everyday life.

Who, I asked, really has the right to “own” either dulcimer or quilt?

One of my favorite stories is Langston Hughes’ “Who’s Passing for Who?” The owning of heritage plays a role here, but not of things. Still, the point is related to Walker’s. Ancestry is what is put on and taken off in the Hughes story. People are passing for all sorts of different things: white, black, intellectual, artist. Near the end, Hughes’ narrators complains of “not knowing now which way we’d been fooled.”

Few of us do.

Last year, Rachel Delezal of Spokane, WA was “outed” as being white, though she lived completely within the African-American community there. She was made a fool of, perhaps rightly. No one that I have ever heard of, however, has criticized Johnny Otis (of Greek ancestry) for taking on the African-American culture he grew up within and developing a successful career as a rhythm-and-blues band leader (best known for “Willie and the Hand Jive”).

But these things are touchy: In 1954, the black doo-wop group the Chords released a song called “Sh-Boom.” It became something of a hit, but it was soon covered by a white group, the Crew-Cuts, who had an even bigger hit with it.

In those days, “covering” a song had a specific racial meaning. It was exploitation, pure and simple. Sometimes it did happen, white on white, when a regional hit (or a foreign one) was quickly re-recorded and rushed out to beat the other to the national American market. But that was exploitation, too.

The word “cover,” however, has lost its sense of something nefarious and racist, now simply being a new version of another song. Something like Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” is considered a cover today, though Rucker is black while Old Crow Medicine Show, which originated the song, is white. There is no sense that Rucker has exploited anyone by doing his version of the song. Though he has never really been a cover artist, Eminem has been criticized for exploiting music that is not his own, as while blues musicians long have been.

Though I am no musician, I can still remember the shock of discovery on first hearing Lead Belly’s 12-string guitar almost sixty years ago. The music was immediately mine. Should it not have been, given that my skin color and background are distant from his? Alpha Blondi, of Côte d’Ivoire, shares little, culturally, with the Jamaican Reggae musicians who so influenced his music. Does his skin color give him a pass to play it while a white person should not? Fellow Ivoirians Jess Sah Bi and Peter One are known in their native land as “country” in part because of their use of the slide guitar. Should they be restricted from it? Maybe it’s the country musicians (and Duane Allman) whose RC Cola bottlenecks should be confiscated… after all, it was black blues musicians who first applied them to their guitars… which maybe should be restricted to the Spanish, anyhow.

Of course, questions of exploitation and inappropriate appropriation deal more with disparities of power than with antecedents, but it is impossible to deal with the one without examining the other—and this is where problems begin to arise and questions start to get really complicated.

Recently, novelist Lionel Shriver spoke in Australia, saying she hoped “that the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.” And she’s right, of course.

But it really isn’t that simple.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an advocate for “empowerment of youth, women and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds,” walked out during Shriver’s talk, later writing that Shriver’s attitude “lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide.” She’s right, too.

Though also wrong. The barriers she wants to see in place also shore up that foundation she decries. Resentment, after all, often comes from denial of access.

Hughes writes:

Then everybody laughed. And laughed! We almost had hysterics. All at once we dropped our professionally self-conscious “Negro” manners, became natural, ate fish, and talked and kidded freely like colored folks do when there are no white folks around.

The white couple had admitted to be blacks passing for white (though that, they later claim, was a lie). At the end, Hughes’ narrator says, “Whatever race they were, they had had too much fun at our expense–even if they did pay for the drinks.” And that may be the heart of the matter.

Imbalance is fluid and affected by perception, location and position. At the end of Walker’s story, the narrator (who has two daughters, the slower stay-at-home Maggie and the bright and now urban Dee who has taken on an African-sounding name and whose mother refers her as “Miss Wangero”) says:

When I looked at her [Maggie] like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I’m in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout. I did something I never had done before: hugged Maggie to me, the dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s hands and dumped them into Maggie’s lap.

The story ends where it should: “the two of us [mother and Maggie] sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.”

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