Pierre Vallières is not the only one to have used the expression “white nigger” in the title of a book. In 2019, a professor of literature at Northwestern University in Chicago, Lauren Michele Jackson, published the book White Negroes, When Cornrows Were in Vogue, which just came out in paperback. Press spoke with Mme Jackson and discussed cultural appropriation and recent controversies surrounding Vallières’ book.
What is the genesis of your book?
I have often written essays on interracial aesthetics, cultural exchange, and how race manifests in visual or cognitive terms. When my agent suggested I write a book, I naturally wanted to look at cultural appropriation, which is the subject of a lot of headlines in the media, but often in the wrong way.
A word first and foremost about the title of your book. We have recently had several cases in Quebec where university professors have been scolded for uttering certain similar words. Could a white professor quote the title of your book?
Certainly yes. You can use it in your article. It was the polite term for official segregation in the United States. I’m referring to a 1957 essay by Norman Mailer, The White Negro [NDLR : ce livre dénonçait la mode de l’existentialisme]. This is very different from the word starting with N (” n-word “). I would never have used the word starting with N as the title of my book. I know that in French the same word translates both terms. Racial terms in French and other languages
Some argue that the history of American race relations is being wrongly blamed on other Western countries.
It’s a different story, but it’s not exceptional. There are many good reasons to draw parallels between different national forms of colonialism, imperialism and slavery. These phenomena have had reverberations all over the world, with several nuances depending on the country.
Have you ever heard of the book White Negroes of America, by Pierre Vallières, which was translated into English with the “word that begins with N” which you consider unacceptable, rather than “Negro”, and which described the oppression of Francophones by Anglophones in Canada?
No never. I find it hard to imagine an African American reading this book. Maybe the francophone black diaspora read it [rires] ? All kidding aside, translating the title of the Quebec book you are telling me about is a major linguistic challenge, a very interesting translation problem.
You talk about the misuse of the concept of cultural appropriation. Do you have an example?
A white artist borrows inspiration from black culture and is exposed in an inflammatory manner. This is not the right way to talk about it. You have to understand where it comes from, otherwise it will continue.
What is this origin of cultural appropriation?
It’s not just racism, it’s also capitalism, the industry that shapes the evolution of creative fields such as music, fashion, fine arts, cooking. Historically, the artistic avant-garde was made up of artists of European or American tradition drawing from ethnic and racialized cultures what was lacking in white culture, which created a void in white culture.
So the artistic avant-garde is part of industry and capitalism?
Mass culture is often associated with capitalism, but the vanguard needs this mass culture to distinguish the elite from the masses, from the working class.
Is it possible to imagine a cultural appropriation, a cultural hybridization, outside of capitalism?
We all live in the real world. No creative practice can free itself from capitalism and Western aesthetic forces. One can only wish to limit these influences, or at least understand them and not hide them.
Famous examples of cultural appropriation, such as Picasso and his African inspirations, have been questioned lately.
There is no point in saying that it is good or bad. It must simply be recognized that Picasso benefited from his audience’s fascination with Africa, which allowed him to put forward works now considered his personal contribution to the history of art.
White Negroes, When Cornrows Were in Vogue. Lauren Michele Jackson. Beacon Press. 185 pages.