Mateo's Reviews > Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture

Everything But the Burden by Greg Tate
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Aug 10, 2009

really liked it

A while back I went to see Medicine for Melancholy, a film about two African Americans who have a one-night stand in San Francisco, and afterward joined a small group of strangers in the lobby who were discussing the movie. Among us was a white woman in her 70s, a doctor's wife from Los Angeles, as well as an elegant black woman originally from Mississippi, and at one point in our impromptu discussion of the film and of race in America, the doctor's wife began to talk about the problems her gardener, who was black, used to have driving around Westwood. The doctor's wife obviously meant well and was undoubtably progressive, but the moment was a little cringe-inducing, redolent as it was of a certain upper-class liberal noblesse oblige. The black woman listened impassively for a few moments, and finally responded by saying, not unkindly:

"Well, yes, it's amazing what happens in this world. But I have to change the subject for a moment and ask you a question: how do you get your skin to look so fabulous?"

(The doctor's wife was, it must be said, amazingly well preserved.)

I instantly thought of a quote that appears in Hilton Als's essay on Richard Pryor in Everything But the Burden, which I was then reading: "For black people, being around white people is sometimes like taking care of babies you don't like, babies who throw up on you again and again, but whom you cannot punish, because they're babies." I don't know if Everything was intended primarily for black audiences, or white, or for both, but it has the virtue for a white reader like myself of having the feel of what black people say, or what some black people say, when the conversation is unmediated by the presence of white people. For this reason alone I'm glad to have read it.

Being a collection of essays, Everything But the Burden, as one would expect, ranges widely in quality. Thankfully, all the pieces (with one exception, Michaela Davis's huffy essay on black beauty) avoid the trap of merely proclaiming the they-raped-and-enslaved-us-and-they-now-they-wanna-be-us diatribe, a trap not because it's not fundamentally true but because it's so true as to be both unedifying and even somewhat tedious. (Which is not to say that some people don't need to hear it, but they're not going to be reading this book.) And some of the essays suffer from a hyper-intellectualism, riddled as they are with recondite academese and intellectual jargon. (Whether this is due to a desire to out-intellectualize white authors, a general verbal malaise affecting artists and social-science academics, or the fact that Greg Tate knows a lot of smart people, I can't say.)

At their best, though, the essays are nuanced and reflective and passionate. Among the finest: Manthia Diawara's recollections of his youth in Mali in the 1960s and his theory that the soul music of James Brown allowed Africans to reclaim their lost cultural heritage; Robin Kelly's history of black influence on American communism; Tony Green's reflections on Ali, Frazier, and Norman Mailer; hilarious pieces by Danzy Senna and Latasha Natasha Diggs (lampooning scholastic spelunking and celebrating lust for Asian men, respectively); and Cassandra Lane's remarkable first-person account of how her anger at whites can poison her closest relationships--an anger that she neither defends nor justifies, but for which she does not apologize, either. It's a nuanced piece that is at once rueful and defiant.

But there is a hole at the center of this book, and that is--with the exception of Meri Nana-Ama Dunquah's remarkable essay about returning to the Africa she left as a child and trying to become "African" while all around her Africans are taking their clues from the West--never really discusses what it means to "take" something from another culture, or whether something can "belong" to one culture and not another. Once hip-hop became a global phenomenon, could white kids in the suburbs or Japanese idol princesses be said to be taking from black culture? Is Tiger Woods taking from white culture by golfing? Is Neil Degrasse Tyson taking from white culture by being an astronomer? Am I taking from Inca culture when I eat a potato? If rock and roll takes blues in directions that Muddy Waters could never have imagined, is that appropriation inappropriate? Some greater exploration of this question would have enhanced the book greatly.
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message 1: by Lobstergirl (new)

Lobstergirl Reminds me of a comment I heard on Cspan. B.R. Myers, author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters and A Reader's Manifesto was answering a question. I gather the question was about how Koreans (not sure whether north or south) were listening to lots of hip-hop, and whether this was making them more open culturally and nationally. Myers said no, and he added that when he was growing up in South Africa, the most racist people he knew - the ones who wanted to herd up the blacks behind walls and leave them to starve to death - all loved Bob Marley and reggae.

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