Ok so I have not read the book. I am working off of the marketing materials, so this is not a review of the book per se.
On the other hand it is not often one gets the double dip of quoting Elvis to make an intellectual point AND being asked for an encore.
From the website (and this whole thing including capitalization and grammar is directly quoted): BLACK IVY: A Revolt in Style charges a period in American history when Black men across the country adopted clothing seen by many as the presence of a privileged elite and made it their own. From the Oxford button-down shirt, the hand-stitched loafer, the soft should three-button jacket, and the perennial military repp tie – these otherwise conventional clothes are instilled with an approach so revolutionary that you’ll never be able to see them in the same way again. … From the most avant0garde jazz musicians, visual artists and poets to the most influential architects, philosophers, political leaders, and writers, BLACK IVY explores, for the first time ever, the major role this particular style of clothing played during this period of aspiration and upheaval and what these clothes said about the people who wore them.
There are things I object to – strongly – about the represented premise of the book, and we can walk down that road (gulp) in a second, but first this. YES. This is exactly what the style was intended to do. By the subjects of this book, but also by the Cornell Freshman, ’55. You can remove the word “Black” from the title and still make a very cogent point. Ivy was a revolt in style, period. I love that Black men were able to catch the wave, that is what the wave was created for. It does not in any way diminish the cultural revolution that the subjects of the book led, and led bravely, some at risk of their lives, to say that one of the tools they used was a style that had that mojo to begin with.
That point made, the subjects of the book help us get our head around what cultural appropriation is, and what it isn’t. Here, from the book:
Is this appropriation? Hell no. This is brilliant. There’s a difference between appropriation and brilliance. Appropriation is theft of that which does not belong to you and the subsequent use of whatever you stole without the application of dignity. Brilliance is adopting a style that allows for both contemplation, action, and performance, and using it as part of your message. I cannot speak intelligently to the precise message that the subjects of the book were sending, you would have to ask them. Or maybe read the book. Again, haven’t read it, not recommending it, not not recommending it. But while I cannot speak precisely to the message that the subjects of the book were sending, I can speak very precisely to the message that I received when I see these images, think about this movement. That message is:
I respect myself, and I smartly, peacefully, but with insistence ask that you respect me too. These clothes look good on both of us because guess what – there is no difference between us at the root. We are one, we should be acting like one, we have not been acting like one, so I will start with myself and treat myself with the dignity and respect that I insist you treat me with. I will earn your lasting respect through delivery of my gifts be they what they may, but I will start the conversation on no less than equal footing.
If all that the style that we love ever did was help that message pass itself along, we will have accomplished great things. The passing of that message is not appropriation, it is deliverance.
Appropriation is another matter entirely. I am so so so so bored of the I-know-it-when-I-see-it means of definition, so I will take a stab at defining cultural appropriation. To me, it is the use of the product of a culture without respect or dignity to make profit or point.
The nature of culture almost prohibits appropriation, but we in our Constant Big Ask have found a way to mangle that. Culture is the kitchen door of a restaurant – it swings inward so that we bind, unite, relate, and commune. It swings outward so that we represent, expand, express, and improve.
Bustle.com uses this image of Baby-You’re-A-Firework Katy Perry to illustrate cultural appropriation:
From that same article, Dr. Kelly H. Chong, professor and chairperson in the department of sociology at the University of Kansas,defines cultural appropriation as, “The adoption, often unacknowledged or inappropriate, of the ideas, practices, customs, and cultural identity markers of one society or group by members of another group or society that typically has greater privilege or power.” In fashion, for example, cultural appropriation, as explained by actor and activist Amandla Stenberg, “occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.”
Ok, but that is not what Katy Perry is doing. Cultural appropriation is not simply “dressing like.”
But here is the thing that makes me the craziest about cultural appropriation and its misuse. It steps on self-expression. I tell you a joke, you laugh. You go home, tell your husband the joke. Maybe you are funnier, maybe you aren’t, maybe you are just making dinner conversation because maybe you just like the joke. Culture is a means for us to become more ourselves, and restricting its product to its inventors diminishes its glory. Of course when used in a power struggle, or even in the representation of a hierarchy, or without earning its meaning , cultural appropriation is the product of a weak mind. And it happens frequently (this poor fellow didn’t make the war this headdress was the medal from):
Culture is meant to be given, not taken. But since you rarely wrap and unwrap culture, LIKE IVY, it requires a value system to develop discernment. I’m a Buddhist. I couldn’t care less if Steve my Greek Orthodox doorman wears prayer beads because he likes the way they look or it makes him think he has a chance with the Bikram instructor who lives on 4. But those are my sensibilities, derived from sitting on a mat for hours a day until the crazy got in a box. Cultural appropriate isn’t the sole province of the creator, but the creator has a voice. Which is why cultural appropriation is so difficult. The creator has a voice, but so does the user.
What’s the answer? Well, not to get all Ivy about it, but the answer is values. For me and my life, Ivy values. If culture, in the case of Black Ivy it is fashion, is used with dignity and a righteous message coupled with excellence in thought and result, it is nearly impossible for anybody to accuse anybody of appropriating anything.