Mary Ann Shadd Cary: Another Buried Story Unearthed

October 9, 2020 is the first time I’ve heard the name ‘Mary Ann Shadd Cary’–and I only came across it because of a Google doodle in honour of her 197th birthday.

Such is the quality of the education I received during my years of compulsory education here in Canada.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was an anti-slavery activist; the first black female publisher in North America; the first female publisher in Canada; the first black woman to vote in a U.S. election; and the second black woman in the U.S. to earn a law degree (at 60 years of age) in the United States; her former Washington, D.C. residence was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1976; the National Women’s History Project (now the National Women’s History Alliance) designated her a Women’s History Month honouree in 1987; and she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998. In Canada, she was designated a Person of Historical Significance, with a plaque in Chatham, Ontario dedicated to her; she features in Canada’s citizenship test guide, which was released in 2009 (page 16); Library and Archives Canada has a Mary Ann Shadd Cary collection, archival reference number R4182 (formerly MG24-K22); Heritage Toronto has marked the place where she published her newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, with a plaque.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary is an important figure in American and Canadian history, but I never learned about her in school, even in the American history class I took in high school. Shadd Cary is yet another example of how the accomplishments and achievements of people who are not white cis heterosexual men (preferably of means) are erased from history’s pages–or at least have been until recently. Now that she features in Canada’s citizenship test guide, I hope schools here in Canada are teaching students about her–or at least allowing students ways of learning about her.

It’s true that history is so often written from the point of view of the victors and those in power, but it’s high time we acknowledge the past in its entirety and the achievements of everyone who lived and did important things, not just a few who fit a certain mold.

Cultural Appropriation

It’s finally time for me to address an issue I’ve been hearing a lot about lately, and which has occupied my thoughts for quite some time now (and may make me seem like a bandwagoner here): the issue of cultural appropriation. I’ll sum up my thoughts here: While context is important in regards to cultural exchange of any kind, and I acknowledge white people especially have to take history and social reality into account when we adopt aspects of non-white cultures (since we’re the ones with the most privilege), there is such a thing as taking things too far.

Take, for instance, the idea that white people shouldn’t wear clothing, jewellery, or body decor (such as mendhi) from cultures not our own, especially of our own accord, as doing so can be considered cultural appropriation. Clothing, objects, and symbols of any kind have no meaning in and of themselves; people give these things meanings. And cultures–past and present–are made up of people. Granted (as an example), a non-Native wearing a war bonnet is the equivalent of someone who never served in the Canadian Forces wearing a Victoria Cross–that I can agree with, especially considering the war bonnet, as an object and as a symbol, hasn’t been adopted into the non-Native mainstream to date. But is it really cultural appropriation if anyone, regardless of ethnicity, adopts something, or a few things, from one or more different cultures which have been not only adopted, but absorbed, into the Western mainstream?

Now, let’s look at the hypocrisy of those on the lunatic fringe (let’s be fair here) of those who complain about what they consider ‘cultural appropriation’–more specifically, disciples of the New Age movement who subscribe to the belief that what they consider cultural appropriation is wrong. For instance, Jeffrey Armstrong, Heather Lounsbury, and Jordan Pearce (of ‘Spirit Science’ fame) peddle products, services, and rhetoric modeled on some version of ancient Eastern philosophy, such as Ayurveda (in the case of Armstrong) and traditional Chinese medicine (Lounsbury). The thing is, these folks are white. Will those New Agers who whinge about cultural appropriation go after them for actually misappropriating other cultures–and for their own personal gain–or will they resort to special pleading? Especially when one considers that New Age products, services, and rhetoric are geared towards middle-class people, the vast majority of whom are white…

Because of globalization (a topic I’ll cover another time), the world has become more interconnected, and thus there is more cultural exchange and cross-pollination than ever before, so, except for a few situations, it’s ridiculous to talk about cultural appropriation, especially when originating cultures can access aspects of their own cultures, especially once those aspects have been adopted and absorbed into the mainstream. As John McWhorter once wrote, “With gay white men and black women, for example, it’s not as if the black women are being left without their culture after the “theft,” … The idea that when we imitate something we are seeking to replace it rather than join it is weak. … Every language in the world is shot through with words and grammatical patterns from other languages—that is, signs of people in the past doing what we would call ‘appropriating.'”

All of that said, I agree it’s not unreasonable to ask that we show respect for other cultures, and to ensure all cultural exchanges and borrowings are done on a level playing field. That is, everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gets credit for what they create; we not misrepresent, nor perpetuate stereotypes of, other cultures (Katy Perry, here’s looking at you); there’s enough for everyone (think yoga and what we in the West think of as ethnic food); and there are no double standards (think Kylie Jenner’s cornrows and Miley Cyrus’s dreadlocks).

In conclusion, like with everything else, it’s important to keep the subject of cultural appropriation in perspective.