Cover image for Everything but the burden : what white people are taking from Black culture
Everything but the burden : what white people are taking from Black culture
Tate, Greg.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Broadway Books, 2003.
Physical Description:
viii, 260 pages ; 25 cm
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E185.615 .E86 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E185.615 .E86 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Compiles essays and prose from African Americans who comment on the appropriation of black culture into white America.

Author Notes

Greg Tate is a longtime staff writer at The Village Voice. He is also musical director for the fifteen-member conducted-improvisation ensemble Burnt Sugar

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

There's an old remark to the effect that if you toss a Harvard boy in a locked room with a ghetto kid for a month, well, who'll come out sounding like whom? This collection, edited by Village Voice critic Tate (Flyboy in the Buttermilk), attempts a sociology of that transaction, as repeated perpetually throughout American culture. Contributors including Carl Hancock-Rux (on Eminem), Hilton Als (on Richard Pryor) and Renee Green (on a complex of film and social theory) advance considerations more specifically directed than Norman Mailer's classic "The White Negro." (On sale Jan. 14) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Tate (cultural critic for The Village Voice) instructed contributors to this edited volume "to tackle the all-American fascination with Blackness in the realms of music, literature, sports, fashion and beauty, comedy, political activism, modern art, science fiction cinema, hero worship, machismo." Entries range from Carl Hancock Rux's angry and not altogether convincing attempt to depict Eminem as the "New White Negro" to Vernon Reid's heaping too much praise on Steely Dan. Some writers go too far in attempting to show that whites have often overreached in borrowing from black culture. This is the case with Arthur Jafa's assertion that vinyl recordings "became black in sublimated response to the separation of the black voice from the black body." Not all records were black and, in any case, those that were did not exist because of some sort of sublimated racism. Overall, the essays are well written, entertaining, and provocative, the most effective being those that deal with personal experiences. Particularly enjoyable is Meri Nana-Ama Danquah's "Afro-Kinky Human Hair," which describes the author's experiences on returning to her native Ghana. She found its citizens were often seeking the same things she fled from in the US. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Most collections. W. K. McNeil Ozark Folk Center

Booklist Review

In this collection of essays, Tate, a cultural critic for the Village Voice, explores the American attraction/repulsion, fascination, adoption, and obsession with the alternative culture constantly being reinvented by black Americans. White America's appropriation of black American culture is often accompanied by denial or inability to acknowledge the cultural contributions of blacks, while perpetuating the notion that they are culturally deficient. The essayists, including Elsa Davis, Danzy Senna, Arthur Jafa, and Melvin Gibbs, explore the ironies of commercial television filled with the soundtrack of black music from the baby boomers' youth as if the songs are (and were) American classics. Contributors analyze the alternate obsession with and denial of black cultural contribution in American life, drawing a line from Norman Mailer's obsession with the white Negro to Steely Dan's black-influenced sound, all setting the precedent for white rapper Eminem. The contributors also explore the downside of white America's love and envy of black culture, a condescension or paternalism that raises questions about whether blacks are being flattered or mocked or both. --Vernon Ford

Library Journal Review

How does the majority, dominant, power-holding culture appropriate elements of the disenfranchised minority culture? In myriad ways, according to this collection of new essays edited by Village Voice writer Tate. From Picasso and Pollock to Steely Dan and Eminem, the white imitation of black ways has profoundly "colored" Western culture. Despite the book's subtitle, this work is as much about the varied emotional and intellectual responses of black thinkers to this phenomenon as it is about cultural appropriation per se. Ranging from Hilton Als to Jonathan Lethem, the contributors include professors, artists, musicians, and writers, and their essays embrace research (on the Left and the "Negro Question"), theory (on the primal history of thugs), and personal reflection (whether an impassioned account of sexual jealousy or reserved observations on James Brown and Malian youth), plus snippets of verse and drama. The degree of formality in the language varies enough to be distracting. The collection's stylistic diversity and idiosyncratic selection of topics create a provocative, if rather trying, reading experience. Recommended for substantial academic and public collections on race and American culture.-Janet Ingraham Dwyer, Worthington Libs., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1. Eminem: The New White Negro by Carl Hancock Rux "Wearing visors, sunglasses And disguises Cause my split personality Is having an identity crisis" --Eminem, from "Low, Down, Dirty" "There is a zone of non-being, An extraordinary sterile and arid region, An utterly naked declivity Where an authentic upheaval can be born. In most cases the Black man lacks the advantage Of being able to accomplish this descent Into a real hell." --Frantz Fanon, from "Black Skin, White Masks" 1. Revenge of Pentheus Pentheus, the protagonist of Euripides' The Bacchae, was a young moralist and anarchical warrior who sought to abolish the worship of Dionysus (god of tradition, or perhaps better said, god of the re-cyclical, who causes the loss of individual identity in the uncontrollable, chaotic eruption of ritualistic possession). When Pentheus sets out to infiltrate the world of the Bacchae and explore the mysteries of savage lore, his intention is to save the possessed women of Thebes (from themselves), who engage in hedonistic practices somewhere high in the mountains. Dionysus derails the young warrior's lofty mission by titillating his sexual curiosity (inviting him to take a quick glimpse of the drunken women as they revel in their lesbian orgy). In order to witness firsthand the necromancy of the inhumane, Pentheus must disguise himself as one of the inhumane. Ultimately the young moralist's disguise mirrors the appearance of Dionysus, the very god he seeks to subjugate. The transformed soldier, now possessed by the spirit of the nemesis, is set on the highest branch of a fir tree, elevated above all and visible to none--or so he is led to believe. Pentheus' disguise is as transparent as his voyeuristic fetish, and it is because of this very visible elevated space he inhabits that he is brutally dismembered by a gang of possessed women on the mountain (led by his own mother), who see him for what he is. Historically, academics have neatly interpreted the characters of The Bacchae as belonging to themes of good versus evil, rational versus reason, nobility versus paganism. In the casual study of classical realism, Pentheus is noble in his efforts to eradicate paganism, and Dionysus is an all-powerful demonic and immoral force. But in a more careful study (or at least, an alternative one), we may learn that Dionysus is a traditional Olympian god, neither good nor bad. His powers are amoral; they are powers informed only by the powers that control human existence. Real life--death, sex, grief, joy, etc.--in its entire splendor. Dionysus and his worshipers cannot be controlled or converted. Their humanity has been perceived as inhumane, and in defense of their right to preserve an identity and a culture for themselves, an extreme cruelty befitting of inhumanity is enacted. The mother's murder of her son is a necessary evil; we accept the death of Pentheus as the inevitable defeat of his judgmental and moral idealism, but because this act of brutality is performed by the mother of its victim, we also question the value of human existence above the existence of humanity (couldn't she have just given him a slap on the hand and a good talking-to and said, "Baby, some people live differently than others, but ain't nobody better than the rest . . ."?). Perhaps the moral of the story is: The identity of the individual is most often sacrificed for the identity of the collective, so we must now all live and speak in broad familiar terms and forsake our sons and daughters for the ultimate good of humanity as we see it. The evolution of human existence is propelled by a constant narcissism; a struggle to negotiate one's perception of self and one's perception of the other, and some of the most (historically) flawed (though pervasive) acts of negotiating a collective identity are politicized oppression and cultural mimicry of the other--both of which seek agreement. Inevitably, collective agreement regarding identity produces a common design for humanity, or a morality relative to the perceptions of a particular group. Hierarchical notions of humanity are formed, and, eventually, once the tracks are laid, people will have to pitch their tents on either side. Conflict. War. Somebody (or bodies) in opposition to the populace will have to dismembered, so that new orders of identity can be formed. Fast-forward a few thousand years to a more contemporary but parallel heroic-antiheroic protagonist--Eminem, the platinum-domed, Caesar-haircut, pop-prince bad-boy superstar of late-twentieth/early-twenty-first-century postmodern hip-hop culture. Like Pentheus, Eminem may also be seen as a rebellious and beardless icon with disdain for the majority, and like Pentheus, he dresses himself in the garments of the outcasts, has learned their language, their songs and rituals. But unlike Pentheus, Eminem is no moralist martyr with a secret desire to objectify. The real Slim Shady does not make the mistake of re-creating the Theban soldier's vain attempt to destroy the god of mass appeal. He accepts the unholy ghost as his personal savior, and with a slight flip of the Greek tragedy script (with hip-hop flare), introduces to us his first sacrifice--his own mother, whom he publicly debases and strips of all garments of integrity, drags nude into the spotlight, and ritualistically murders hit single after hit single. Though savagery is expected to call for misogyny of magnanimous proportions, Eminem's humiliation of the maternal figure is not just limited to his own mother, but extends itself to she who is also the mother of his own child (or in ghetto fabulous vernacular, his baby mama). In one of his first award-winning acts of hit-single hedonism, the real Slim Shady murders his baby mama right in front of his baby (for our entertainment and pleasure)--and later, in his sophomore phase, morphs into a fan of himself who is inspired to do the same. A continuum, thereby raising the inhumane status of outcast culture to new bacchanalian heights. The postmodern pop-culture icon of the outlaw is complete and to be carried into the new millennium; Eminem does not seek to know pagan lore--he was born into it, has always spoken the language of it, has always danced to the music of it, has always dressed himself in the latest pagan wear, has never used this language, this music, or this apparel to disguise his true identity or to disguise his race, and he has never tried to dissociate himself from the source of his performance, the black male outlaw or outcast of hip-hop fame. Rappers Big Boi and Dre may go by the moniker Outkast, but Eminem proves that a real outcast has got to do more than make Miss Jackson's daughter cry--you got to fuck the bitch, kill the bitch, dump the bitch's dead body in the river, and not apologize for any of it. Eminem's politically incorrect vaudeville routine (an oxymoron) is not to be attempted by everyone. Even his proteges, D-12, failed miserably as horror rappers on their debut album Devil's Night (if poor record sales and bad reviews are any indication). With boasts of slapping around handicapped women, gorging pills, and sodomizing their grandmothers, the effect is less tongue-in-cheek than tongue-in-toilet. And, when old-school mack daddy of hip-hop cool, Slick Rick, made a cameo appearance on the recently released Morcheeba album, Charango, derivatively flowing a la Eminem style ("Women Lose Weight") about murdering his overweight wife in order to hook up with his sexy blond secretary, MTV did not come-a-calling. The result is derivative at best. Incidentally, not long after the Morcheeba album release, Slick Rick found himself arrested by the INS and awaiting deportation from this country (because somebody just found out that he has been an illegal citizen for over thirty years.) Not to suggest that his penal consequences are the direct result of imitating Eminem, but so far, only Eminem gets away with being Eminem, perhaps because because he uses his disguise to disguise himself as undisguised--raising the questions, who is the real outcast, who is the real Slim Shady, what has he inherited from culture to achieve his bad-boy, outcast minstrel, rebel superstar icon, and what exactly is being performed? 2. Fanon Had a (Semantic) Dream Frantz Fanon tells us that the oppressed must identify an oppressive archetype in order to overcome historical oppression. But before the oppressed can achieve acts of true upheaval, they must first realize that they have yet to achieve "non-being" status. The oppressed may have attempted prior acts of resistance, but have never actually "descended into a real hell" that will scorch into the very nature of seeing an effective upheaval that brings the non-being into being. For now, the oppressed continue to live in the dream of identity, the dream that (in reality) the oppressed are, in fact, Negro, Colored, Black, Minority, Afro or African American, Hispanic, Oriental, Dykes, Queers, Bitches, Hos, Niggaz. All accepted as real identities. The acceptance of these identities further compels a performance of these identities, whether compliant or rebellious. The oppressed identity performance relies upon a collective agreement informed by a historical narrative that either supports the validity of, or opposes the construct of, these identities. Before a revisionist identity can be forged, there was an inheritance and an acceptance of a construct--thus, even when the oppressed think they are revising their identities, updating the language of their identities, or endeavoring to better the circumstances of their identities, they are not--not completely and not actually--because no language in the American polyglot has ever been subscribed to by the collective that points to the very nature of human identity beyond elementary categorizations, and no accurate language identity exists in our collective agreement. We are comfortable with vague concepts of identity, and the ghettos and empires these concepts create. What the oppressed figure in America has been working with as an identity is actually an archetypal construct born out of a dream (as in aspirations and imaginings) belonging to an oppressive figure who is not only the architect of the dream that oppresses us, but is also the Dionysian-like landlord of our realities--both good and bad--neither real nor unreal, and completely exempt from being vanquished from our realities. We inhabit an oppressive dream, and until that descent into Fanon's "real hell," the oppressed will continue to pay a high price to rent substandard space in the dream that we call race in America. 3. Eminem, the Other White Meat ". . . If all the Niggers Started calling eachother Nigger, Not only among themselves . . . but among Ofays . . . Nigger wouldn't mean anymore than 'Good night,' 'God bless you,' or 'I promise to tell the whole truth And nothing but the whole truth so help me God' . . . When that beautiful day comes, You'll never see another Nigger kid Come home from school crying Because some Ofay motherfucker called him Nigger." --Lenny Bruce Eminem, a.k.a. Marshall Mathers, was born in St. Joseph, Missouri (near Kansas City), spending the better part of his impoverished childhood in Detroit, Michigan--which, by the way, is about 90 percent ethnic minority and has one of the highest concentrations of African Americans in the nation, at 83 percent, while non-Latino whites comprise only 12 percent of the city's population. Detroit's recent dip below one million is largely attributed to continuing white flight, and 10 percent of the state's population has lived in poverty for more than twenty years (a family of three with an income of a little more than $9,300 earns too much to qualify for welfare in Michigan--but is about $4,000 below the federal poverty guideline), according to the American Community Survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Translation: Eminem may have been born white but he was socialized as black, in the proverbial hood--and the music of the proverbial hood in America for the last twenty-five years has been hip-hop music. The same inner-city struggles and impoverished circumstances that brought us blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, doo-wop and soul, brought us hip-hop music--it began as a form of identity-boosting vocal scatting over pulsating beats and progressed to become a means of expressing the social realities of African-American urbanity. By the time it became a major money-maker in the music industry, the genre of hip-hop transformed into a bodacious representation of gangsta life and gangsta obsessions replete with murder, money, sex, alcohol and drug consumption--and, when this got tired, narrowed itself down and preoccupied itself with the glam of capital gain. The legend of Eminem, a.k.a. Slim Shady, a.k.a. Marshall Mathers (and his psychotic nasal slapstick trips of alienation) begins with his Detroit exposure to rap, performing it at the age of fourteen and later earning notoriety as a member of the Motor City duo Soul Intent. The legend is that he dropped out of high school, worked minimum-wage jobs, practiced beat boxing and freestyling his lyrics on home recordings, and worshiped rap groups like NWA--he admits he "wanted to be Dr. Dre and Ice Cube," wore big sunglasses while "lip-syncking to their records in the mirror." He also honed his style in the company of five black Detroit MC's (D12). Together, the racially integrated posse decided that each of them would invent an alter ego, thus the six MC's were to be thought of as twelve MC's--dubbing themselves, the Dirty Dozen. When Eminem emerged as a solo artist in 1996 with the independent release Infinite, he was accused of trying to sound "too much like Nas," so he perfected a nasal white-boy, horror-rap cadence, following Infinite with The Slim Shady LP, which led the hip-hop underground to dub him hip-hop's "great white hope." The legend of his discovery varies. Allegedly, Dr. Dre discovered Eminem's demo tape on the floor of Interscope label chief Jimmy Iovine's garage. Another story goes that Dre first heard Eminem on the radio and said, "Find that kid whoever he is! I'm gonna make him a star!" or something like that. Either way, not until Eminem took second place (who won first?) in the freestyle category at 1997's Rap Olympics MC Battle in Los Angeles did Dre agree to sign him, producing the bestselling triple-platinum Slim Shady LP in early 1999. With controversial yet undeniable talent (the right mix for stardom of any kind), Eminem became the white-boy cartoon god of surreal white-trash humor and graphic violence, a stratum of Roseanne Barr-meets-Quentin Tarrentino-meets-Mickey Mouse Club-cum Snoop Dogg and beatnik Dobie Gillis. The Marshall Mathers LP followed and sold close to two million copies in its first week of release, making it one of the fastest-selling rap albums of all time, and his latest album, The Eminem Show, was the first album since 'N Sync's Celebrity and the September 11 terrorist attacks to sell over one million copies in its debut week. To top it all off, Eminem's roman a clef feature film debut, 8 Mile, is described as a story about "the boundaries that define our lives and a young man's struggle to find the strength and courage to transcend them." In his great struggle to transcend boundaries, the surrealist rap icon has also managed two weapons charges, an assault charge, a lawsuit from his mother for humiliating her in his lyrics, and his baby mama's attempted suicide--all to keep it real, as they say. Excerpted from Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture by Greg Tate All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Greg TateCarl Hancock RuxEisa DavisRobin KelleyBeth ColemanMelvin GibbsJonathan LethemMichael C. LaddHilton AlsMichaela Angela DavisCassandra LaneTony GreenManthia DiawaraLatasha Natasha DiggsMeri Nana-Ama DanquahDanzy SennaRenee GreenArthur Jafa
Introduction: Nigs R Us, or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objectsp. 1
1 "Eminem: The New White Negro"p. 15
2 Scenes from Umkovu, a playp. 39
3 "Reds, Whites, and Blues People"p. 44
4 "Pimp Notes on Autonomy"p. 68
5 "ThugGods: Spiritual Darkness and Hip-Hop"p. 81
6 "Yoked in Gowanus"p. 99
7 "The New Mythology Began Without Me"p. 106
8 "Steely Dan: Understood as the Redemption of the White Negro": A conversation between Greg Tate and Vernon Reidp. 110
9 "A Pryor Love: The Life and Times of America's Comic Prophet of Race"p. 116
10 "The Beautiful Ones"p. 124
11 "Skinned"p. 136
12 "Ali, Foreman, Mailer, and Me"p. 153
13 "The 1960s in Bamako: Malick Sidibe and James Brown"p. 164
14 "The Black Asianphile"p. 191
15 "Afro-Kinky Human Hair"p. 204
16 "Captive Herstories"p. 217
17 "Affection Afflictions: My Alien/My Self or More 'Reading at Work'"p. 227
18 "My Black Death"p. 244
Contributors' Notesp. 258
Acknowledgmentsp. 261