Over the past several decades, an important and much-needed effort has been made to expand the Western canon to reflect the contributions of non-white artists and writers. This brings a richer, deeper understanding of our cultural history to the fore and helps us to better understand our society. Last week a terrible step backwards away from these efforts was taken by the Montreal Jazz Festival, when it abruptly cancelled its production of the musical “SLAV,” in which slave songs from the nineteenth century played the central role.
Anyone paying slight attention to the art world in recent years will easily guess what the controversy was. White artists were singing songs that black American slaves originated. As the kids like to say, this was “cultural appropriation.” After a few dozen protesters shouted at attendees at an early performance of the work, the festival bowed to the pressure and cancelled the show.
The star of the show, Betty Bonafassi, who is best known for her work in the film “The Triplets of Belleville,” has a history of exploring the songs of slavery. In fact, the title, “SLAV” instead of “slave,” is a nod to her Serbian heritage and the centuries of slavery her people endured. This kind of cultural connection is essential to understanding how art and history intermingle, and how both can point the way to all our shared humanity.
The Language Of The Outlaw
In one of the most famous (and readable) sections of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” a book at heart about cultural mixing, an Irish nationalist gives a speech in which he compares the Irish to the Israelite slaves in Egypt. He is arguing both for self-rule and for rejecting the English language in favor of Irish. The former wins, the latter loses. He imagines Moses as a boy being told how powerful Egypt was, how futile it would be for the Jews to defy it. Then he writes:
“But, ladies and gentlemen, had the youthful Moses listened to and accepted that view of life, had he bowed his head and bowed his will and bowed his spirit before that arrogant admonition, he would never have brought the chosen people out of their house of bondage nor followed the pillar of the cloud by day. He would never have spoken with the Eternal amid lightnings on Sinai’s mountaintop nor ever have come down with the light of inspiration shining in his countenance and bearing in his arms the tables of the law, graven in the language of the outlaw.”
The language of the outlaw becomes the law. The songs of the oppressed become the anthems of equality. Not only were black slave songs also steeped in the stories of the Old Testament, they were also in many cases illegal. Many of the songs contained codes to help slaves escape, a grave crime at that time. Others helped to educate a group of people for whom education was forbidden.
The idea that all men are created equal is mentioned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, but it is enshrined in the blood and courage of black Americans who refused to be enslaved. Their songs played a powerful role in that fight, and as such are a profound and essential cultural legacy, not just for all Americans but also for all human beings.
We Need To Centralize Black Culture
The irony of the insistence that only black artists should perform artwork created by black people is that through this segregation black cultural achievement is decentralized and denied its deserved place in the common cultural canon. While artists of any kind are free to engage the work of Ludwig van Beethoven and Francis Poulenc, most artists are being told not to engage with slave songs or Chuck Berry.
This is folly. In its most literal sense, “canon” means a collection of sacred books or works, widely accepted as important and genuine. When a work enters the canon, not only is it immortalized (or the closest thing to it) it also becomes universal. The idea that black people have a proprietary right to the artistic contributions of people who lived more than a century ago has become almost unquestioned in the art world. But what a disservice that is to the creators of these works, which speak to us through time, and have earned the right to be a part of all of us.
Every culture is eventually subsumed by new ones, but the question is, how much influence does it have over the new ones? The contributions of black Americans, including their refusal to accept slavery, a central story of all Western culture, should play a central role in all Americans’ understanding of themselves. That can’t fully happen when those contributions are siloed behind cultural border walls.
It’s Time To Fight Back
Over the past few years in the academy, organizations like Heterodox Academy and outlets like Quillette have begun to fight back against a campus culture they find illiberal and stifling. It is time for the right-minded people in the arts to find ways to challenge norms that restrict the ability to engage in the cultural output of ethnic groups.
Tellingly, had this show had an all-black cast and crew, there would be no objection to its content. The 8,000 or so theater-goers who are now getting refunds would have experienced these powerful songs and their stories. There would have been reviews, perhaps recordings, and the knowledge and awareness of these vital songs would have been greatly expanded.
That spreading of the word is how the canon is established. Those who seek to deny artists the ability to do that important work based on the color of their skin are working at cross-purposes. On the one hand they rightfully want the contributions of black Americans to sit equally alongside the Old Testament and “Ulysses,” but on the other they are silencing attempts to do that very thing. It almost seems as if these protestors are profoundly more interested in what they have to say about today’s world than what the great black artists of the past had to say about theirs.
Artists and audiences need to explicitly reject these attempts to silence past voices, even if arts organizations fold under the pressure. They must pursue and support a truly diverse view of the arts in which every artist is not only free, but urged to take on the stories of any culture, to better understand them and bring them into the fold of the cultural canon.