The Appropriation Of Cultures by Percival Everett, 2004
The magic trick:
Showing and telling when it comes to a story of taking new ownership of cultural symbols
Happy Fourth of July! We head to South Carolina this week, a place that amid the annual patriotic celebrations must also reckon with its own role leading secession in late 1860. So it’s a fitting occasion for one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking story I’ve read for this website.
This is one of those stories that very much feels like a clever idea. You can very much imagine Everett thinking, ‘Hey, I’ll do a story about a black guy buying a used truck from a white guy because it has a Confederate flag decal on it. Then he’ll start a trend of black people in the south taking back the flag as a power symbol.”
It’s a really good idea.
The execution of it is better than really good. It’s something close to beautiful. The story is there, of course. The idea plays itself out. But the neat thing is the way he frames the plot within references to that other ubiquitous symbol of the Old South: the song “Dixie.” In doing so, the story gains a measure of poetry to its clever brand of anger. It also does exactly what the protagonist in the story is doing. The story takes a symbol of hate, subverts and turns it into beauty and power.
And that’s quite a trick on Everett’s part.
Daniel gave them a long look, studied their big-toothed grins and the beer-shiny eyes stuck into puffy, pale faces, hovering over golf shirts and chinos. He looked from them to the uncomfortable expressions on the faces of the old guys with whom he was playing and then to the embarrassed faces of the other college kids in the club.
And then he started to play. He felt his way slowly through the chords of the song once and listened to the deadened hush as it fell over the room. He used the slide to squeeze out the melody of the song he had grown up hating, the song the whites had always pulled out to remind themselves and those other people just where they were. Daniel sang the song. He sang it slowly. He sang it, feeling the lyrics, deciding that the lyrics were his, deciding that the song was his. Old times there are not forgotten . . . He sang the song and listened to the silence around him. He resisted the urge to let satire ring through his voice. He meant what he sang. Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland.
When he was finished, he looked up to see the roomful of eyes on him. One person clapped. Then another. And soon the tavern was filled with applause and hoots. He found the frat boys in the back and watched as they stormed out, a couple of people near the door chuckling at them as they passed.
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