Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture, edited by Greg Tate, is an anthology of essays that endeavors to deal with what the title says: how much of American culture has been invented by black people, but appropriated and sold by whites. It’s a not-unfamiliar tale, that ranges from 19th-century minstrelsy, through Elvis, to Eminem, and that has been long examined by white and black authors alike (among the former, most notoriously in Norman Mailer’s willfully outrageous essay “The White Negro”). But it’s such a central topic, for any understanding of American culture, that discussion is far from exhausted, even today.
Everything But the Burden is (unsurprisingly), like most anthologies, a mixed bag. As befits the subject, perhaps, the best essays here are the most over-the-top. Carl Hancock Rux uses Euripides’ The Bacchae in order to position and define Eminem; Melvin Gibbs moves from the Five Percenters to John Walker Lindh’s embrace of the Taliban, in order to anatomize white America’s love affair with hip hop; and best of all, Arthur Jafa brilliantly reads Kubrick’s 2001 as an allegory of white people’s fascination-tinged dread of everything black. There are also a number of great essays that only obliquely focus on the issue of white appropriations of black creativity and style: Cassandra Lane’s moving “Skinned,” which tells some unpleasant truths about fantasies of interracial sex; Manthia Diawara’s theoretical memoir about the appeal of James Brown to the youth of 1960s Bamako; Beth Coleman’s essay on “pimpology”, and Hilton Als on a TV collaboration between Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin. The only (as far as I can tell) white contributor, Jonathan Lethem, illuminates the racial/autobiographical background (as a white boy growing up in a mostly-black neighborhood) of his novel The Fortress of Solitude.
The volume does a lot to examine the projections and fantasies that persist, among both whites and blacks (though in different ways), even (or especially) in today’s supposedly post-race America. But it doesn’t really get me much closer to understanding what role white people’s fantasies about black people play in the overall economy of American racism. (Not that this necessarily was the book’s goal: putting the emphasis in this way, so that Mailer’s “White Negro” becomes the issue, is yet another way of making the discussion, once again, be focused upon white people instead of black people). But then, I doubt that the issue of white fantasies of blackness can be dealt with any more definitively than it has already been in Darius James’ savage and wickedly satirical novel Negrophobia. Mailer’s fantasies of Negritude are really no different than the ones James dissects; even if Mailer writes in existential celebration, rather than paranoid dread, he is responding to the same image that is really a white projection/imposition to begin with.
Part of racism’s double bind is that there is really no way to approach the issue in “good conscience.” White people need to realize that neither their pious declarations of colorblindness, nor their acts of homage to Tupac and Biggie, accomplish anything worthwhile. As for black people, Beth Coleman suggests, in her “Pimpology” essay, that the trap to avoid is the one in which an effort at liberation, finds itself compelled to “reproduce the structure from which it hails,” the “logic of mastery” of which black people were the victims.