“Cultural Appropriation” & “Pathway to Freedom”

Been hearing & reading a lot lately about “cultural appropriation” & how awful & widespread it is.
I’ve been musing about this all week, while sitting in on rehearsals for “Pathway to Freedom,” out in the woods of Alamance County NC.
Here, at the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre, an interracial cast is preparing to perform the only ongoing play about the Underground Railroad. On July 13, “Pathway” will open its 23rd season. The cast has been working hard every day,


But by the standards I keep reading about from self-appointed foes of “cultural appropriation,” none of this should be happening: “Pathway to Freedom” was written by a white man, Mark Sumner.

Sumner was a Carolina native, who taught in segregated southern universities for twenty years, and built a successful, comfortable career as a professor, specializing in theater. He helped organize and produce outdoor dramas around North Carolina and in other states, as well as writing plays.


Mark Sumner: Dead white guy, yes. Cultural appropriator?

When Sumner was commissioned to write “Pathway” in 1992, what did he know of the lives and culture of the millions who were enslaved here for more than 200 years? What & who gave him permission to tell this story for them? By “cultural appropriation” logic, shouldn’t such exploitation be stopped, and the play shut down?

I wish I could ask Sumner his thoughts on these questions. Unfortunately, he died in late June, at 93.

But at least, we know who told him to do it: the Board of the Snow Camp Historical Drama, which was started by local whites, some of them Quakers. They’d been putting on another historical play, “The Sword of Peace,” since 1973, and thought it was time to expand.

Who authorized them? But those board members are all gone too.
What’s even more puzzling is that “Pathway,” despite all the strictures of ideology, is a darn good play. That’s not only my opinion, either. The Director, James Shields, knows about militant pride: he also performs as Frederick Douglass. Yet Shields is fiercely loyal to “Pathway”: he’s been in it for 16 years, and his teenage daughter has been part of the cast for a dozen years.

Shields explained one reason for his loyalty just last night, while setting up a crucial scene: Sumner, he told the cast, had used the scene to show the black characters as in charge of their own struggle for freedom. (Above & below) James Shields, “Pathway” Director & cast member

The whites in the story, while brave and committed, were allies, not white saviors. This was, Shields said, unusual in such stories.

How did Sumner come to do this? Another question he can’t answer. But I have two suspicions & two hints about the how, all of which are germane to the debate over culture and its “appropriation.”

The first suspicion is that, unlike far too many white people in, say, our reactionary NC legislature, Sumner in his long life got a clue or even two about the epically  brutal history of Southern slavery and segregation. While nothing in his obituaries suggested civil rights activism, he lived at close range through plenty of events that could change traditional racial attitudes, in southern whites ready for it, with eyes open and hearts not closed.

Maybe he was one of them; it did happen.

This first suspicion is strengthened by the second: that Sumner was deliberate and artistically shrewd, as shown by his intention to weave music through the play.

And not just any music but the traditional black spirituals and field songs. But more than merely a

                                                    Working on the music, with Micaela Bundy.

collection of excerpts: he worked with Ann Hunt Smith, a distinguished black music educator. 

Smith created a “sound track,” a stunning vocal suite that weaves this classic music of melancholy, stifled rage and dogged hope throughout. It’s sung by the cast, a capella, and a sign of its importance is that the cast has spent almost as much rehearsal time singing as they have speaking & acting. “Pathway’s” music director Micaela Bundy is demanding, skillful, thorough, and soulful.

Music DIrector Micaela Bundy also plays Mama Harris, a powerful black woman

This music acts both like a Greek chorus soaring over the action, and an anchor planting it firmly in a floor of battered but defiant faith (“My Lord delivered Daniel,” they almost shout at one low point, “Delivered Daniel –why not me??”)

And yes, this music should be recorded and a sound track album released; darn right

Now to the hints: the first came from another Snow Camp veteran, who had talked with Sumner when he visited the drama. Turns out that when he started, Sumner also didn’t know much about Quakers, who figure prominently in the story, as they did in the antislavery struggle here. They too were a self-consciously separatist subculture in those years (much more than now). So he went to the Quaker collection in the library of Quaker-founded Guilford College — and studied up on them.  And to judge from “Pathway,” he did a pretty good job.

The second hint is an inference from a fact: the fact is that Sumner wrote “Pathway to Freedom” when he was seventy. The inference is that this is not a youthful work. By that I mean the play reflects, besides research, and other book knowledge — an infusion of wisdom, conscious of how naive idealism can be humbled by historical ambiguity, yet emerge from the wreckage of years  in a chastened, more resolute form. “Pathway’s” climax brings a kind of catharsis, but it portends tragedy as well.

This leavening of wisdom brings me back to the matter of “cultural  appropriation.”

Certainly it is important for survivors of

Where slavery is, open violence is always close by.

oppression to find their own voices and tell their own stories.

At the same time, it’s also true that artists can use study, empathy and imagination to cross cultural gaps, and tell stories that include experiences and cultures beyond their own.

Indeed, unless a play or a story or a novel is purely internal & subjective, what else can the author do but imaginatively “appropriate” & make use of the lives and culture of others?  

Just how different — no, mysterious — other people can be, even those from our own “culture,” and those we (think we) are closest to, is a point of learning more available (tho not guaranteed) to the mature. Crossing those gaps successfully, between persons and cultures, takes modesty, study, imagination and often enough courage.

Oh, and plenty of hard work.

Moreover, such efforts often fail, for reasons ranging from racism (which is indeed plentiful) to mere lack of talent.

Yet some succeed. I think “Pathway” is a shining example of that.

Now there’s more to be said about “cultural appropriation.”  But in the face of this achievement, cries of “appropriation” by self-appointed cultural gatekeepers sound hollow, myopic, and sanctimonious.

In any case, this show will go on, beginning July 13.  I recommend all who have interest in this issue come see it and make your own judgment.

And I say “Yes” to other artists, black & white, who are moved to follow its example, undertaking to cross these gaps in plays, novels, and other art forms. Use your brains, empathy, imagination & courage. — this is a yes, even to those who fail.

Part of an earlier cast of “Pathway to Freedom.”

6 thoughts on ““Cultural Appropriation” & “Pathway to Freedom””

  1. Overcoming racial injustice is essential, historic, complex … and it isn’t easy – but it must be done. What are you doing to reduce racial injustice?

  2. Dear Chuck, whatever your experience of this play with which I have no experience myself, is it necessary to write with sarcasm and disdain about the idea of cultural appropriation? For me, your tone undercuts your argument.

    Sincerely, Grace

  3. I guess I wasn’t paying enough attention to pick up sarcasm and disdain, tho I know Friend Chuck is indeed capable of offering those up on occasion. But in this case, I don’t find it and, I am reminded of the classic advice, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. The problem of institutionalized and personal racism, and of white privilege is so vast, that lots of approaches are required. There needs to be, in my opinion, a lot of ‘both/and’, and less of ‘either/or’. I find that fear of doing it wrong, or even less than perfectly gets in MY way of doing anything at all. When I remember that ‘love casts out fear’,(some truth teller said that a long time ago), then I can discover what I can do lovingly and trust that it can be received in the spirit in which it is given. This play sounds like it was conceived and presented in love, so I trust it will promote that same spirit. Mickey E.

  4. By their fruits ye shall know them.

    A trail map that indicates possible danger isn’t the determinant as to whether danger is present there. It’s good to have a warning. And the map is never the territory.

    I’ve got to see this play!

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