Years ago I was told about a family letter. In it, a relative had asked another who was into genealogy about the family history. The letter began:
When a man steals a loaf of bread, one calls him a thief. When a man steals a kingdom, one calls him “The Conqueror.”
My antecedents are English. In that mix of my ancestry is included William the Conqueror and many of his companions whose later descendants became the Magna Carta barons. I am also descended from Vikings who were not filtered through France, Anglo-Saxons, and probably Brittano-Romans and Brythonic Celts if one could precisely trace these things back far enough. The language of the English is a mishmash of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, Viking-age Danish, and other languages from many cultures. Since the language started stabilizing into what we call Modern English at about the time my patrilineal ancestor left Warwickshire for Virginia, our language has added many words and roots from all over the world: Latin and Greek, German words like schadenfreude, French words, Portuguese words that the English found being used in India, such as “veranda.” We have stolen words from every culture where we found a useful word.
My family has lived in what is now the United States for more than four hundred years. We accepted foods from other cultures into our cuisines. We eat hominy grits, which was part of the cuisine of the Southeastern Indian tribes. More recently, we have taken in foods from other cultures: pemmican and jerky, tacos and enchiladas, spaghetti and other pastas, pizza, curries. We never turn down more food choices, and we make them our own. We’ve stolen cooking ideas from everywhere around the world.
I’m sitting here in jeans and a plaid shirt. England did have a weaving and cloth producing tradition, but jeans and denim came from what is now Italy and France. Plaid, or tartan, is usually associated with Scotland. Now, admittedly, another of my family lines did rule Scotland for several centuries, but they were a Norman or Breton family that had settled in England and then went north with King David. They were certainly not highlanders. In the other room, I have dress clothing, such as I shall be wearing on Sunday. All of my dress shirts have French cuffs. My ties, well over a hundred of them collected over the decades, are mostly made from silk, not a cloth native to English or American cultures. Some of those ties are in patterns that have come from far countries or have used techniques of production that originated in other than England or the United States. Others were made in foreign countries using English-developed techniques or American designs. For instance, one Frank Lloyd Wright tie was made in Italy of silk, probably using techniques developed in China and refined in Europe and the US. We have picked up types of cloth, raw textile materials, and processing techniques from every culture under the sun.
Other types of English culture? Well, there is Shakespeare. He stole from everywhere. The whole copyright thing didn’t really get seriously enforced until Queen Anne’s day in the Eighteenth Century; thus Shakespeare happily appropriated Greek and Roman plays, putting them into English and updating the stories here and there. While Shakespeare used the English form of the sonnet, the sonnet itself came from the Norman Kingdom of Sicily and was adapted by Henry Howard to be more easily written in English. Shakespeare also borrowed from English and Scottish history and myth, of course. But if there was a culture he ran across to steal from, he certainly took anything that wasn’t nailed down. We discussed the words above. He was one of the greatest word creators in our language. He used roots from Latin, Greek, French, and anywhere else he knew of to create words.
My forebears have left me an unexpected gift, a boon for the ages. Do you want to accuse me of cultural appropriation? You don’t understand. My culture is appropriation. If your culture is not English in origin, you cannot appropriate any other group’s culture. Not only will you be appropriating that group’s culture, but you will also be appropriating my culture of appropriation. Don’t appropriate my culture.