Appropriation isn’t just the assumption that a work is for our benefit, it’s the active claiming of another group’s cultural artifacts by a privileged group. It might be for pleasure or danger. The less privileged group might bend to that commercial demand and actively offer their culture, if it’s lucrative. Langston Hughes reflected on the social situation of 1920s Harlem, after the fact, in his The Big Sea,

“White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage, unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles…So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community. Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after Sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers – like amusing animals in a zoo.”

The blacks weren’t even allowed in the white clubs, they couldn’t have done the same. “But they didn’t say it out loud – for Negroes are practically never rude to white people. So thousands of whites came to Harlem night after night, thinking the Negroes loved to have them there, and firmly  believing that all Harlemites left their houses at sundown to sing and dance in cabarets, because most of the whites saw nothing but the cabarets, not the houses.”

He wonders whether this didn’t cause the end of the Renaissance. Whether all that pandering didn’t leave the “fine things” to disappear, “like snow in the sun.”

Blacks still had their own whist parties “in small apartments where God knows who lived – because the guests seldom did – but where the piano would often be augmented by a guitar, or an odd cornet, or somebody with a pair of drums walking in off the street. And where afwul bootleg whiskey and good fried fish or steaming chitterling were sold at very low prices. And the dancing and singing and impromptu entertaining went on until dawn came in the windows.”

Appropriation can the theft of painting, poetry, and sculpture, or the subtle elements of a style. But 20s Harlem, in some cases the people themselves became a spectacle to be consumed.


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