Multiculturalism, Appropriation, and the New Media Literacies

Liz Losh, a friend of Project NML, attended our recent conference which showcased, among other things, a Teacher's Strategy Guide we've been developing around "Reading in a Participatory Culture." I've written about the project here before. Though the activities are designed to be adaptable to a much wider range of books, the guide uses as its starting point Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and its appropriation by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, an African-American playwrite and director, who has staged a contemporary, multiracial version of the classic novel. At the conference, we were able to bring together some of the teachers who have been field testing the guide this year through school and after-school programs, share some of the war stories, and lay out some of the premises guiding this research. Losh wrote a thoughtful piece in her blog about her perceptions of the opening presentations at the conference, which included some reservations she had about how our approach would play out in a multicultural classroom. Jenna McWilliams, who was a key collaborator in developing the Teacher's Strategy Guide, has responded to many of Losh's core concerns. In the spirit of healthy debate, I wanted to focus on what Losh says about our deployment of the concept of appropriation and in the process, share with you some of the ways that our work does factor in issues of multiculturalism.

First here are the two key issues Losh raises:

I find myself overcoming my hesitation to ask if certain kinds of remixing, recontextualizing, and mash-up might be problematic for multicultural classrooms, based on what I heard from the group's introductory overview for the day. For example, quoting Henry Jenkins' line that "by being conservative in content, we can be radical in approach" could be read as a defense of the conservative canon that has excluded many from literary recognition and their place in the historical record. This impression might be further supported by the group's assertion that they were emphasizing "multidisciplinarity" rather than "muliculturalism."

My comment about "conservative in content" is taken a bit literally here: what I meant was that given our belief that the new media literacies represent a paradigm shift in how we teach the entire curriculum rather than an added on subject, we were going to start by modeling new ways to approach subject matter already in the curriculum. If we teach these traditional subjects differently in a participatory culture, then it will help people to understand the changes which are taking place in our media environment. Approaching these topics also makes it easier for these materials to get into schools and provides some cover for teachers who are fighting the good fights in the trenches, trying to change schools from within.

As Jenna notes, this last statement is a misinterpretation of a single sentence on one of McWilliam's slides during the opening presentation. In fact, while I think we need to reframe what we mean by "multiculturalism," I see multiculturalism as an absolutely central concept to the work we are doing around "Reading in a Participatory Culture," though as you will see, I see it not as a static concept but rather one which is also undergoing some significant changes at the present moment.

Furthermore, although appropriation may be celebrated in remix culture, there may be some forms of appropriation that represent and potentially reify the exploitation of people of color and the repression of their calls for social justice. After all, even the most racist minstrel shows claimed to be appropriating aspects of black culture that white performers had observed. When Elvis and other white singers popularized material from the "colored" entertainment spectrum, the lack of compensation to the original creators of that music stung many black musicians badly.

In fact, both of these issues were ones that concerned us deeply as we developed this project. While I understand why Liz read Jenna's comments the way that she did, the selection of Moby-Dick was not simply a product of my belief that we could push further methodologically if we started with materials which are already part of the traditional curriculum. Indeed, if that were the case, we probably would not have started with Moby-Dick, which because of its length and complexity, has been systematically pushed out of the high school classroom.

Rather, the decision was inspired by the growing body of scholarship which looks at Moby-Dick as a representation of the whaling ship as a multicultural society where sea men of many different ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds came together and worked towards a common goal. As Wyn Kelly, my collaborator, points out in our guide, Melville does not depict a world without conflict but he is honest to the multiracial composition of 19th century American culture.

The focus was also inspired by the imaginative and transformative interpretation of the book constructed by our creative collaborator, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, and his passionate belief that Moby-Dick and some of the other classics taught through schools have something to say to current generations of readers and offer resources through which minority students can make sense of their current experience. Certainly there is an ongoing debate about which novels should be taught in schools, but the result of that debate should not simply be the replacement of Melville by Morrison. Ideally, both would be taught in dialogue with each other so that we have a richer understanding of how debates about race run through the American literary tradition and ideally, multiculturalism doesn't just shape which books we teach but also how we teach them. Someone like Pitts-Wiley can teach us to read Moby-Dick through new eyes and in doing so, help us to better understand what it means to live in a multicultural society.

While Losh picks up on our use of M.C. Lars's "Ahab" video in one of our activities, she seemingly misses the fact that the central example of appropriation in this guide is Pitts-Wiley's own remixing and rethinking of Moby-Dick. Early in the guide, we share with educators some of Pitts-Wiley's own concerns about the history of white appropriation of minority culture and his sage advice to educators about the politics and ethics of remixing. What he has to say is worth sharing at length here:

When I came in contact with the new media literacies, many of the concepts were new to me, like the fascinating concept of remixing and appropriation. That's an incredible choice of words to use in this new field: appropriation. I have spent much of my creative life trying not to appropriate things.

I write a lot about African-ness -- African culture and black people and this country's relationship to Africa. I've never been to Africa, but I have a sense of its culture and its people from things I've read and seen. I believe in spiritual villages, villages of connection. If you write a poem it's a key to the village of poets. It'll let you in. Once you're in, all the poets are there. It doesn't mean that you are going to be heralded and recognized as great or anything like that. All it means is you have a key to the village. I've always felt I've had a key to the village of African culture. But I was very determined to never, for instance, write a play in which I said, "I am a product of the Mandinka people," or, "the Zulu people," or I'm going to use their language as if I truly understand it. No, I don't. But I had a sense of the humanity and the cultural connection, and I had to go to the village of the elders and say, "I have this word and I think it means this. What do you think?" Sometimes in that spiritual place the elders would say, "It's a good word, you may use it." Sometimes they would say, "It's not a good word, it has no value."

So when I came across the word "appropriation" in the new media literacies I thought to myself, I'm a product of a black culture where so much of what we've created has been appropriated and not necessarily for our benefit. The great jazz artists were not necessarily making money off of jazz. The record companies were making money. Our dance forms, our music, our lingo, all of those things have been appropriated many, many times and not necessarily in a way in which we profited. So when I saw the term used I had a lot of concern about it. I still have a lot of concern about it, because does that mean that everything is fair game whether or not you understand its value? Can you just use whatever you want because it's out there? Before you take something and use it, understand it. What does it mean to the people? Where was it born? It doesn't mean that it's not there to be used. It's like music in the air: it's there for everyone to hear it. But don't just assume because you have a computer and I can download a Polynesian rhythm and an African rhythm and a Norwegian rhythm that I don't have a responsibility to understand from whence they came; if I'm going to use gospel music I have a responsibility to understand that it's born of a people and a condition that must be acknowledged.

Of course, in writing my adaptation of Moby-Dick it became very important that I didn't appropriate anything that wasn't in the novel from the beginning. People ask me, "Why Moby-Dick?" Because everybody was there, so I didn't have to invent any people. It would have been different if I had to invent a whole race of people where I would make a decision that I'm going to set it in South Africa in 1700. I don't necessarily understand South African culture so I wouldn't have done that. On the other hand, I had a real concern about appropriating hip-hop culture and putting it into what we were doing because I'm not a product of the hip-hop generation. I'm very much an admirer of it. There I really had to go the source and ask the young people, "This is what I'm thinking. Is it appropriate? Is it real? Is it based in any kind of truth, in any kind of reality? What are your thoughts on this?"

If I could make any contribution to the new media literacies, it would have been to say to the appropriators, "Find the truth. Find the people. Go ask. Go talk to somebody. Do not count on a non-human experience in order to make a complete creation of anything." So in remixing I was concerned also with who had access to appropriate things. If you're media savvy, if you're on the whichever side, left or right side, of the digital divide, you have access to unlimited knowledge. But does that mean that you know how to use that knowledge and you are respectful of its source?...

The first step in remixing novels is to stay honest to the original text. Put a value on that, understand it, appreciate it, and then start the remixing process. Edit down to the big questions. Why? What? Why is it important now? And then take the reins off, take the leash off, take the bit out of the mouth and let imaginations run wild, and be careful not to censor too harshly. I think censorship for respect, not necessarily of the original text, but censorship for respect of the reader so you don't write in a vacuum. You write for things to be read, and I read things, "Well you didn't care about anybody but yourself." That's not the purpose. This novel that we are working from was written to be read by others.

Somehow you have to create, not for yourself, but for others, and allow the students to find their own honesty. Encourage them to always go back to the original text, keep going back to the original text. That's where the message is, that's where there's a certain amount of the truth. Otherwise all you've done is written your own story. You haven't studied; you haven't learned necessarily; you've just written your own text, and there's a place for that, too. That's important, to keep going back to the original text. There's great stuff in the original text. In Frankenstein, Moby-Dick, Invisible Man, you keep going back and you'll find that those people really had an idea about what they wanted to write about. Don't copy them.

This video is one of a number we've produced which explore Ricardo's own creative repurposing of Melville's original novel. Here, the emphasis is both on the need to respect the integrity of the original work as well as on the creative and expressive use of language which Ricardo discovers through his interactions with his young multiracial castmembers.

At every step along the way, we were shaped by Ricardo's ethical concerns, using Moby-Dick as a way of asking about how what we mean by multi-culturalism has changed over time, seeking to create a context where teachers can discuss remix culture with their students with a sensitivity to the historical contexts from which the appropriated materials emerged and with an awareness of the obligations that we owe to creative artists who came before us. Our activities call attention not simply to Melville's representations of race, but also to the gender politics of the book: Ricardo's stage production featured an Asian-American woman as Ahab's contemporary counterpart.

That's why I was troubled by what I see as Liz Losh's misperceptions of our project, which rest on too easy assumptions that Moby-Dick can be dismissed as a dead text by a "dead white male" or that remix necessarily involves the exploitation of minority culture by white artists. My hope is that just as we are rethinking how and why we teach Moby-Dick, we may also rethink what multicultural education means in contemporary culture, rather than simply inheriting our categories from older identity politics movements. Here's part of what I wrote about multiculturalism in the "Expert Voices" section of the guide:

The concept of "multiculuralism" emerges from an era of identity politics: In the 1960s and 1970s, each ethnic and racial group within a multi-racial nation began to recognize and insist upon the value of its own cultural traditions, began to push aside decades of racism and assert the dignity which came from being a member of a particular cultural community. As a result of these shifts in racial politics, schools increasingly broadened the range of literary texts being taught so that each member of the class would have a chance to encounter something which reflected her own heritage and background, could read about "someone like themselves," and could see herself as someone who might make a valuable cultural contribution. This notion of multiculturalism, however, often starts from essentialism, assuming each of us belongs to one and only one group and that this historic identity should predetermine how we position ourselves in contemporary society.

Yet, a growing percentage of Americans come from mixed race, mixed religion, and/or bilingual families; they grow up within multiple cultural traditions, sometimes moving back and forth between them, sometimes creating their own mixed sets of cultural practices to reflect their "hybrid" identities. Recent cultural and political figures, from Tiger Woods to Barack Obama, have put a new face on race in America. Such figures invite us to move from a conception of multiculturalism within society towards multiculturalism as part of each individual's construction of identity; rather than negotiating between groups, we are increasingly negotiating amongst competing, sometimes conflicting identities within ourselves.

As Frank H. Wu notes in his book, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, race is increasingly situational: "Race is meaningless in the abstract; it acquires its meanings as it operates on its surroundings....The same words can take on different meanings depending on the speaker, the audience, the tone, the intention, and the usage." Sometimes, racial differences matter greatly; sometimes they matter very little, depending on the context. Sometimes, Wu notes, he is perceived as Chinese-American, sometimes Asian-American, sometimes simply Non-White. And the same will be true for many students in the class. In that sense, race is continually being negotiated moment by moment through interactions with other people.

As Ricardo Pitts-Wiley explains, part of what drew him to Moby-Dick was the fact that "everybody was already on the boat." As Wyn Kelley comments, Melville depicts the Pequod Crew in particular and the whaling community more generally as multi-cultural on a social level. Each of the harpooners represents a different racial and cultural background: Queequeg, the South Seas islander; Daggoo, the African; Tashtego, the native American; and Fedallah, the Asian. Certain moments in the novel -- especially the opening scenes where Ishmael finds himself in bed with Queequeg -- heighten our awareness of racial difference, even as Moby-Dick suggests the ways that inter-racial taboos may be overcome through the bonding between men at sea.

There is a lot we can see about the history of race in America by studying how different illustrators have depicted these characters: sometimes exaggerating their differences, falling into crude stereotypes, and accenting the shock of an encounter between the "primitives" and the westerners. Sometimes they have been depicted with greater dignity or with an anthropological attention to the markings of their cultural backgrounds. An interesting exercise would be to bring in multiple editions of the book from the school library and to look at the ways these figures are depicted in the illustrations. You can encourage your students to ask questions about how the illustrators dealt with cultural and racial differences in the book and how they depicted the attitudes of the white characters towards their minority crewmates. You want to look for those moments where race matters most in the images and where, if ever, race seems to recede. Given that our dominant understandings of race are based on what people look like (that is, on recognizable visual differences), illustration is a place where it is difficult to escape from a consciousness about racial difference. A novelist can accent our awareness of racial difference or make us forget it for a period of time, much as one's race may matter or not in the digital world depending on the consciousness of the people participating in a particular exchange.

On stage, race is also always visible, yet choices in casting may make race more or less central to our understanding of a particular character. So, for example, we might imagine a minority performer confronting a particular set of racial stereotypes. The actor might challenge those stereotypes either by working against them, portraying a character very different from our prevailing assumptions, or may create tension and discomfort by playing into the stereotype, exaggerating the cliches so that we become more aware of their implications, or the actor may accept the stereotype as the basis for the character and try to give it as much dignity as possible.

One could argue that race functions differently in the two stories being told in Moby-Dick: Then and Now: the adult version accents racial differences. The performance marks off each minority character as embodying a distinctive cultural tradition through the costuming, music, and other aspects of the characterization. The youth version defines its characters more through their relationship to each other than through their racial and cultural differences. In both cases, the crews are racially diverse, yet there is a different level of consciousness about racial difference in the two stories. Queequeg is defined by his race in ways that Que is not. This is not something that emerges from the script of the play, but it is very much what we experience in watching this particular performance...

All of this points towards the importance of negotiation as a social skill and cultural competency young people need to acquire if they are going to successfully operate in this modern context: they need to be increasingly aware of the nuances of their interactions within and across a range of different groups; they need to become more reflective about the identities that they embody and perform in their daily lives and about the social dynamics that emerge as they interact across cultural differences.

This is only a small part of what our materials have to say about multiculturalism and the racial politics of appropriation. It is not a question we ignore in working with these materials. We are trying to bring these issues front and center in the language arts classroom, just as we are trying to get teachers to engage with new forms of creative expression -- including remix in hip hop and techno -- that build upon materials borrowed, snatched, stolen from the culture and put to new uses. We see these ethical concerns as central to our definition of appropriation which stresses "meaningful remixing" of existing cultural materials, just as we are also introducing issues around fair use, copyright, and creative commons. I am proud of the work our team has done in this area. It's certainly not above friendly fire and constructive criticism. And if our presentations of these materials don't do justice to the nuance and care with which we treated these issues, then we have some more work to do.

Editor's note: for some further reflections and responses to this question, see and