On ‘Maybellene’ and General Tso’s Chicken

March 28, 2017

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Chuck Berry, cultural appropriator?
Black musicians like Chuck Berry invented rock ’n’ roll, which fused elements from rhythm and blues and other African-American traditions into a fresh cultural form. Then white musicians such as Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones appropriated the new genre, ripping it away from its black roots.

Right? Wrong. There’s no denying the enormous influence of Chuck Berry, who died this month. But Berry himself borrowed from white musicians, not just from black ones. And the farther back we go, the more we see that everyone — and everything — has multiple roots, sources, and inspirations.

That’s not something you’ll hear from the critics of "cultural appropriation," which has again become a source of angst on college campuses. Latina students at Pitzer College, in California, recently chastised white women for wearing hoop earrings, an allegedly Hispanic fashion. At Hampshire College, a student was charged with assaulting a white member of an opposing basketball team after insisting that the player’s braids appropriated minority hairstyles.

And there was the protest over General Tso’s chicken at Oberlin College in 2015, when students denounced the allegedly inauthentic preparation of Asian dishes in the cafeteria. "When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, … you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture," one Oberlin student explained. "So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative."

There’s just one problem: General Tso’s chicken was actually developed by a Taiwanese chef who altered an old Hunan recipe to appeal to American palates. It’s a mishmash of cultural ingredients, just like the other things we eat and wear.

Take hoop earrings, which date to ancient Assyria. In Nimrud, located in present-day Iraq, there’s a depiction of King Ashurnasirpal II (884-859 B.C.) wearing thick hoop earrings. The ancient Greeks and the Romans wore them, too; so did pirates in many parts of the Western world, who believed that hoop earrings contained healing powers or would protect them from drowning.

And, yes, hoop earrings were eventually adopted by Latinas in the United States. Starting in the 1980s, young working-class Hispanic women in Southern California donned wide earrings — alongside baggy shirts and nameplate necklaces — as symbols of pride and struggle. They didn’t "invent" hoop earrings; instead, they invested the earrings with a new set of meanings.

Yet we continue to imagine that every current-day practice descends from some kind of cultural Garden of Eden, where each ethnic or racial group existed in unalloyed form. But there’s no singular "Latina" culture, anymore than there’s a singular "American" one. 

Indeed, the mostly left-wing quest for cultural purity bears an eerie echo to the right-wing fantasy of national purity, which peaked during the so-called 100-percent-American campaigns in the early 20th century. Condemning "hyphenated" identities, white Protestants demanded that immigrants shed their old habits and adopt "real" American ones. 

But those habits were themselves amalgams from other nations, as the anthropologist Ralph Linton noted in a wry 1936 rejoinder to 100-percent Americanism. "Our solid American citizen," Linton began, "awakens in a bed built on a pattern which originated in the Near East but which was modified in Northern Europe before it was transmitted to America." Then the American removes his pajamas — "a garment invented in India" — and washes with soap, "invented by the ancient Gauls."

Carrying an umbrella, devised in southeastern Asia, he walks to a restaurant where he eats an orange (from the eastern Mediterranean), a cantaloupe (from Persia), and waffles (a Scandinavian dish made from wheat, which was first domesticated in Asia Minor). He washes it all down with coffee, which — like hoop earrings — descends from the Abyssinians.

Later he smokes — "an American Indian habit" — and reads the a newspaper, which superimposes characters invented by the Phoenecians upon a substance invented in China. And at the end of the day, "if he is a good conservative citizen," he will "thank a Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language that he is 100 percent American."

Get it? "American" is a hodgepodge of disparate elements, not a uniform entity. Fighting 100-percent Americanism, people like Ralph Linton helped pave the way for ethnic and racial minorities to assert their own identities. But these new identities are themselves mixtures, which borrow from everything that came before.

Just ask Chuck Berry. His first big hit, "Maybellene," adapted an old melody that had been recorded by country-music performers like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Berry combined the "hillbilly" sound of white country with the African-American rhythm and blues that he imbibed in his native St. Louis.

We continue to imagine that every current-day practice descends from some kind of cultural Garden of Eden, where each ethnic or racial group existed in unalloyed form.
Some white listeners didn’t like hearing old songs sung by a black man, especially one who exuded such an unabashed and forthright sexuality. But some of Berry’s black fans didn’t appreciate his hillbilly tempo, either, heckling him when he appeared at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1955. Yet it was from those mixtures — and many others — that rock ’n’ roll was born. Berry’s next big single, "Roll Over Beethoven," gave tribute to the white guitarist Carl Perkins’s hit song "Blue Suede Shoes."

Indeed, Berry never claimed to be the sole originator of anything. "Chuck Berry’s style … is only back to the future of what came in the past," he wrote in his 1987 autobiography. "And you know, and I believe it must be true, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ So don’t blame me for being first, just let it last."

Rock did last, even as it gave birth to punk and rap and hip-hop and much else. They’re all part of the great mixtape of America. No one owns any part of it, so no one can "appropriate" it. It’s a lesson that all college students should remember, as they remember Chuck Berry: There is nothing truly new under the sun.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2016).