A Call for Historians to Confront the Issue of Misappropriation

Schreck, V.G, photographer.  Melody , ca. 1902. Photograph. Retrieved from the  Library of Congress .

Schreck, V.G, photographer. Melody, ca. 1902. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

By Ryan Warriner

Happy African American History Month! February is a time for all of us to recognize and celebrate the culture and contributions of African Americans. It is my belief that African American History Month is especially important for historians. We dedicate our lives to the study of the past and how it connects to the present, but so often even today, African Americans are left out of the narrative. So, I would like to take this opportunity during African American History Month to discuss the issue of cultural misappropriation.

This past fall, I had the opportunity to complete my capstone research project with the history department, and my paper – Misappropriation of African Culture in the United States: the Banjo – looks at the issue of how society misappropriates African Culture, using the banjo as a case study.

For the purposes of my paper and for this post, I will define cultural misappropriation as the taking, by the dominant cultural group, of aspects, traditions, or artifacts, of a cultural minority without understanding, appreciating, or respecting the minority’s culture. This is my own definition based both on current definitions and my own research that I conducted for the paper.

The reaction that I receive when telling people about this paper is often of amused surprise. Amused because people usually view the banjo as somewhat of a comical instrument, and surprise because very few people, myself included prior to this project, know that the banjo did in fact originate in Africa. It came to the US in the minds and memories of slaves that were ripped from their homes and families by slave traders and brought to the Americas.

We do not think of the banjo as an African instrument because we associate it with the white American South and rural Country music.  And so, the question that I really tried to answer in my paper was “How did we get here?” How did the banjo go from its African Origins to its association with white people?

In my paper, I identify four eras in the misappropriation of the banjo that map the progression of the instrument from its African roots to the banjo as a white instrument.

The first era spans from the 1600s until approximately the mid-1800s. This is the era of the banjo as a source of recreation and community for African American slaves. During the period of the Transatlantic Slave trade, it was quite common for African Americans to be forced by slave owners to work on a plantation where no or very few people spoke the same language. This is due to the vast number of languages and dialects in Africa. However, one thing that was much more common across the African Continent was musical tradition. Musical instruments, like the banjo, and musical styles were more widely shared than spoken language. Therefore, this is how many African American slaves fostered a sense of community amongst themselves. It was a slight reprieve from the horrid living conditions and back-breaking labor.

The second era spans from the early 1800s into the early 1900s. This is the era of the Banjo as a source of freedom and income for African Americans. As more and more states began to outlaw slavery, many African American slaves ran to the north in order to obtain their freedom. However, due to entrenched and pervading racism, many still struggled to find work, and so many turned to performing as a way to make a living. For example, in his account Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup recounts that he used the violin to make money with the intention of buying his freedom. Much in the same way, other African Americans used the banjo. During the time of the Fugitive Slave Acts, there were many ads posted that offered descriptions of how to identify runaways, and very often included in the description was a line about how the man or woman played the banjo.

The third era spans from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. This is the era where the banjo takes on a much different meaning as a source of oppression for the African American Community. It is in this era where racist blackface minstrel shows began to gain in popularity across the country. These “comedic” musical shows made African Americans the punchline. Center stage in the caricaturization of African Americans was the banjo. This is when many in African American communities began to reject the instrument, and for good reason.

The fourth and final era spans from the early 1900s to the present. This is the era where the banjo is considered to be a symbol of the white rural south, country music, and the region of Appalachia. While minstrel shows eventually declined in popularity, the banjo did not. Many white Americans who played the banjo in minstrel shows while in blackface took to the instrument outside of that setting. This is the beginning of how we understand the banjo today.

The issue at hand is not that white Americans play the banjo, the issue stems from the misappropriation. Cultural misappropriation creates forgotten and unknown histories, and specifically the cultural misappropriation of African traditions serves to diminish the role that African Americans played in the historical narrative of the United States.

We historians have such a unique and exciting opportunity to discover these forgotten and unknown histories. These are places where we can add something significant to the historical narrative. Not only is that an exciting prospect, and something many of us desire, but I also believe that it is part of our obligation as historians to combat misappropriation. African American History Month should serve as a reminder that there is still much to be studied and uncovered. February should function as the catalyst, but the work should extend beyond the confines of these twenty-eight days.

Ryan Warriner is a senior at CMU studying Secondary Education with a double major in History and Social Studies with a concentration in Political Science. In addition to his studies, Ryan is a Resident Assistant in Thorpe Hall, the Presenters chair for the Teach to Reach Conference, and winner of the 2018 Robert Newby Award for Diversity Efforts. Ryan’s paper “Misappropriation of African Culture in the United States: the Banjo” will be presented at the 2018 Student Research and Creative Endeavors Exhibition (SRCEE) on April 11th from 1-4pm in Finch Fieldhouse. If you have additional questions regarding this post or would simply like to know more about the cultural misappropriation of the banjo, Ryan can be emailed at warri1rt[at]cmich.edu