Everything But The Burden

Everything But The Burden


Nigs R Us Or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects

"Have you forgotten how when we were brought here we lost our religion, our culture, our gods, and many of us by the way act even lost our minds." —Minister Louis Farrakhan

"The history of the world my sweet is who gets eaten and who gets to eat"—Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim

"It's not too good to stay in a white man's country too long"—Mutabartuka

The title of this book is a Florence Tate original. Mom once wrote a poem of the same name to decry the longstanding, ongoing, and unarrested theft of African American cultural properties by thieving, flavor-less whitefolk. A poem to point up how Our music, Our fashion, Our hairstyles, Our music, Our dances, Our anatomical traits, Our bodies Our Soul was still considered ever ripe for the plucking and the biting by the same crafty devils who brought you the African slave trade and the Middle Passage.

What has always struck Black observers of this phenomenon isn't just the irony of white America fiending for Blackness when it once debated whether Africans even had souls, but the way They have always tried to erase the Black presence from whatever Black thing They take a shine to: jazz, blues, rock and roll, doowop, cornrows. Readers in Black music history are often struck by the egregious turns of public relations puffery whereby Paul Whiteman got crowned the King of Swing in the 1920s, Benny Goodman anointed the King of Jazz in the 1930s, Elvis Presley popped as up the King of Rock and Roll in the 1950s, and Eric Clapton awarded the title of the world's greatest guitar player (ostensibly of the blues) in the 1960s. Whatever Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Chuck Berry and BB King and other African American pioneers thought about these coronations they seem to have been wisely kept between pursed lips (at least until Little Richard deigned not read the winner and declare himself 'the architect of rock and roll' at an 80s music awards ceremony). The same market forces that provided Caucasian imitators maximum access to American audiences through the most lucrative radio, concert and recording contracts of the day, also held the purse strings to all those Black artists could hope for in the segregated American entertainment business.

For much of the last century the burden of being Black in America was the burden of a systemic denial of human and constitutional rights and equal economic opportunity. It was also a century in which much of what America sold to the world as uniquely American in character in terms of music dance, fashion, humor, spirituality, grassroots politics, slang, literature and sports, was uniquely African-American in origin, conception and inspiration. Only rarely could this imitation be enjoyed by African Americans as the sincerest form of flattery or as more than a pyrrhic victory over racist devaluations of Black humanity. Counter to Thomas Jefferson's widely known notions of black cognitive inferiority, the grandsons and daughters of antebellum America's slave commodities have become the masters of the nation's creative profile.

Legal and economic inequality between the races, though diminished to varying degree by the advances of the civil rights and black power movements, still defines the quality of alienation which afflicts black/white relations. The history of racism is more alive than dead for many African Americans—much of our public policy around crime, public housing, health care and education continues to reflect the notions of second-class status for African Americans born in slavery. The African American presence in this country has produced a fearsome, seductive and circumspect body of myths about Black intellectual capacity, athletic ability, sexual appetites, work-ethic, family values, and propensity for violence and drug addiction. From these myths have evolved much of the paranoias, pathologies, absurdities, awkwardness, alienation and anomie which continue to define the American racial scene.

This book is an interrogation of those myths and the ways they have become intertwined with the popular culture of the country and the world since the time before the first world war. This is admittedly a peculiar book about a peculiar fascination: our peculiarly American notions of racial difference and the forms of pleasure, some times sadomasochistic in nature, that have sprung from the national id because of it. It features a peculiarly African-America twist on Marx and Engel's observations about capitalism's commodity-fetish effect—the transformation of a marketable object into a magical thing of desire. It is our belief that capitalism's original commodity-fetish was the Africans auctioned here as slaves whose reduction from subjects to abstracted objects has made them seem larger than life and less-than human at the same time. It is for this reason that the Black Body, and subsequently Black culture, has become a hungered-after taboo item and a nightmarish booger bear in the badlands of the American racial imagination. It's become something to be possessed and something to be erased—an operation that not only explains the ceaseless parade of troublesome Black stereotypes still proffered and preferred by Hollywood (toms, coons, mammies, mulattoes, and bucks in Donald Bogle's coinage) but as well, the American music industry's never-ending quest for a white artist who can competently perform a Black musical impersonation—Paul Whiteman, Elvis Presley, Rolling Stones, Sting, Britney Spears, N'Sync, Pink, Eminem—all mechanisms contrived to do away with bodily reminders of the Black origins of American pop pleasure.

It is with this history in mind that African American performance artist Roger Guenveur Smith once posed the question Why does everyone love Black music but nobody loves Black people? Readers will find that politics, (the power to address who gets eaten and who gets to eat), matters in this book's discussion of the Black American Burden but so does Eminem, the latest pure product of white and crazy America here to claim his 15 minutes of MTV generated fame as a Black male impersonator whose rap records are routinely played by rock stations who consider black rappers anathema. This book then about Black resentment to no small extent, but be reminded that Black irony and contrariness are never far away. Because while Everything But The Burden is largely devoted to scrutinizing the need by white Americans to acquire Blackness by any means necessary, it is also about the fascination that desire has provoked in a contemporary generation of African American artists and intellectuals who hold complicated ideas about whose Black culture is it anyway?

There is a panopticon effect being generated here. Just imagine a nest of Black scribes secretly and sometimes surgically observing white people parading around as imitation Negroes. Now imagine those same scribes measuring the distance between the simplicity of white mimesis, the complexity of Black expression and wondering where they fit into the equation.

In this sense Everything But The Burden is also about what white people can't see when they see Black—the sight of a Black imagination "playing in the dark" to use Toni Morrison's apt description, making hay of what happens in the wily and wounded African American psyche when it goes messing about and marketing, and making sense of race in these United States and abroad. Given that most of these writers are, like the editor, civil rights and black power era babies, our take on The Burden differs from my very hip, septuagenarian Southern-born mother. Our take on white appropriation has been colored when not softened by the socioeconomic gains, opportunities and legal protections earlier generations struggle have provided for Black thinkers and cultural entrepreneurs (no longer if they ever were, separate categories) today.

Nelson George once correctly identified the African American equivalent of postmodernism as post-Soul culture. Soul music, widely understood as the sound black gospel vocalists like Sam Cooke made as they turned away from praising Jesus and towards the more lucrative romantic pop market, subsequently produced a secular faith of sorts around the verities of working-class African American life. Soul culture succinctly describes the folkways African Americans concocted in the desegregating America of the 50s and 60s, as the Civil Rights movement was on the ascendancy. Post-Soul is how George describes the African American culture that emerged out to the novel social, economic and political circumstances the 60s Black movements produced in their wake. Post Soul would include the plays of Ntozake Shange, the novels of Gayl Jones, the films of Spike Lee, the music of Fishbone, Tracy Chapman, and Living Colour, the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, the songs and the cosmetic surgery of Michael Jackson, the art of Jean Michel Basquiat and of course that postmodern expression par excellence hip-hop. All this work managed the feat of being successful in the American mainstream in a language that was as easily referenced to white cultural models as to African American ones. Its signature was not it's smooth blackness but its self-conscious hybridity of Black and white cultural signifiers. Hence, Basquiat referenced Raushcenberg and Dubuffet before Bearden, as the members of Living Colour and Fishbone found Led Zeppelin and the Sex Pistols as praiseworthy as James Brown and George Clinton. By the same token all of these artists left an African American critique of racism visible in the foreground—a recognition that Black discontent was as alive as white supremacy in the land of the hybridizing freakyfree.

But with post-Soul's new forms came new psychological relationships to older and arguably perhaps even outdated takes on such platitudinous topics as Black oppression, Black propriety, Black identity, Black community, Black family, Black femininity and feminism, and most of all, Black marketability. For the first time in history mainstream success becomes a defining factor in the cultural value of an African American arts movement—primarily because it would be through the country's major channels of mass communication and mass marketing that debates about these figures moved from margin to center, from the 'hood to the floors of Congress.

The 70s, 80s and 90s saw lively and sometimes bitter debate arising in black America over whose idea of African American culture would prevail in the public imagination. The Black feminist writers who emerged in the 70s—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and Michelle Wallace may be said to have kicked off the aspect of post-Soul that critiqued black cultural nationalism, and particularly the patriarchal strain of same. Camps and divisions within Black culture became more pronounced and hysterical as time went on: old guard Afrocentrists versus our freakydeke bohemians and newly minted Ivy League buppies, all of the above thrown in relief by those gauche ghettocentric's who would come to be known as the hip-hop nation. The omnipresence and omnipotence of hip-hop, artistically, economically and socially has forced all within Black America and beyond to find a rapprochement with at least some aspect of its essence. Within hip-hop however, as in American entrepreneurship generally, competing ideologies exist to be exploited rather than expunged and expelled—if only because hip-hop culture and the hip-hop marketplace, like a quantum paradox, provides space to all Black ideologies, from the most anti-white to the most pro-capitalist, without ever having to account for the contradiction. The aura and global appeal of hip-hop lies in both its perceived Blackness (hip, stylish, youthful, alienated, rebellious, sensual), and its perceived fast-access to global markets through digital technology. The way hip-hop collapsed art, commerce and interactive technology into one mutant animal from its inception seems to have almost predicted the forms culture would have to take to prosper in the digital age.

By now the basic history of hip-hop will read as holy writ or apocryphal horror story depending on where you're standing: From the predominantly African American and Puerto Rican populated South Bronx it came in the mid/late 1970s, a cultural revolution whose first shots were hardly intended to raze Babylon. Reflecting the age-old desire of underprivileged teenagers everywhere to invent their own entertainment, hip-hop expressed the zeitgeist of your average South Bronx youth of that moment in music, dance, fashion, and visual art. That the music was made by turntables, the dance made by whirling the top of the head on the floor like a helicopter and the visuals were murals painted sometimes overnight on ten new York subway cars from top to bottom, is what caught the attention of the rest of the planet. 25 years on this thing we call hip-hop is not only a billion dollar subset of the music industry but one whose taste-making influence makes billions more for every other lifestyle and entertainment business under the sun, from the manufacturers of soft drinks, liquor, leisure wear, haute couture, automobiles, sports events, electronics, shoes, cigars, jewelry, homes. With this affluence and newly-minted mass cultural power have come debates that have divided the U.S. Senate, incited police organizations and political opportunists of every ideological stripe, and cleaved generations, genders, classes of people belonging to every ethnicity in America along the way.

One of the more peculiar outgrowths of hip hop's popularity has been the birth of the "wigga:—the so-called white nigga who apes Blackness by "acting hip-hop" in dress, speech, body language, and in some cases even gang affiliation. Some in the African American community see the appearance of the wigga mutant as a comical form of flattery, others as an up to date form of minstrelsy.

Minstrelsy or 'Blacking up'—the application of burnt cork grease to a white or black performers face became a staple of American entertainment in the 19th century when our home grown vaudeville circuit turned this crude and mocking form of maskery into a means of making a living wage. Though the cork grease appliqué has faded away, the sight of white performers attempting to replicate Black features still generates among African American spectators a host of responses—from joy to horror to sarcasm to indifference. There seems, for example, to be as many African Americans of the hip-hop persuasion who reject as embrace an Eminem—for some a white rapper will always be an oxymoron, others will like retired basketball star Charles Barkeley find great humor in the irony of living in a time when the best rapper (his words, not mine) is white and the best golfer is Black.

What has changed since the days of Elvis is the degree to which Black American hip-hop producers are in control as arbiters of who and who is not a legitimate white purveyor of hip-hop. In part this is because hip-hop remains as much defined by the representation of Black machismo as black esthetics. The impact of African American music and musical cultures on white British and American notions of masculinity and style plays no small role in accounting for the largely white male and Japanese fandoms of jazz, blues, rock and roll, soul, funk, reggae and now hip-hop. Once the music of marginalized minorities, they have become the theme music of a young, white, middle class, male majority—largely due to demographics investment in the tragic-magical displays of virility exhibited by America's ultimate outsider, the Black male. This attraction became inevitable once popular notions of American manhood began to be defined less by the heroic individualism of a John Wayne and more by the ineffable hipness, coolness, anti-heroic, antiauthoritarian stances of bona fide genius Black musicians like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. African American rebel-icons whose existential glare at white bread America now looks to be epitome of what Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clifts, James Dean, Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen were trying to project in their influential film portrayals of American male discontent.

There is equally a case to be made for the deep impact of African sculpture and dance and jazz on what we call European modernism in art. For some merely bearing witness to these forms of Black expressivity, or even learning to replicate them, would not be satisfying enough of their desire to become intimate with African American experience. The desire to vicariously rebel against European culture from within inside an imaginary black body, took on a philosophical dimension in this century as the conceit inspired the cosmopolitan inventors of Cubism and Dadaism to defy European conventions in the name of going native. To no small degree the African American emphasis on improvisation, performance and cast-off materials could be said to have influenced much of what has occurred in American poetry and fine arts since the second world war. More than I'm allowing for here on these subjects is touched upon by Carl Hancock-Rux and Arthur Jafa in their scintillating deconstructions of modernisms hidden Black face in this collection.

Though the much-maligned 'wigga' figure takes on easy to mimic forms of African American culture (i.e. the songs, the speech, the dress codes and the bad attitude of hip-hop), his more sophisticated brethren have spent most of the last century trying to translate their black/white baggage into remedies for Western culture's spiritual malaise. In popular music since the 60s complicated characters like Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Johnny Rotten and now Eminem have complicated the question of how race-mythology can be creatively exploited. They have also made us understand how influence and appropriation can cut both ways across the racial divide. In a nutshell, these are white artists who found ways to express the complexity of American whiteness inside of Black musical forms. In turn these artists came to appeal to some among the post-Soul generation African Americans who have no problem, as Lester Young, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker did not, in claiming a white artistic ancestor. It is for this reason that Vernon Reid and myself decided a dissection of Steely Dan's nappy roots was required for the Burden.

African American admirers of white artists have historically transcended the picayune boundaries that define the world's race-obsessed ideas about skin and cultural identity, drawing freely from the world's store of artists for models. Ellington loved Debussy and Stravinsky, Jimi Hendrix had a special thing for Bach, Bob Dylan and Handel. As stated above Jean Michel Basquiat had a special fondness for DuBuffet, Rauschenberg, Warhol and Gray's Anatomy Charlie Parker embraced country and western music; Ralph Ellison credited T.S. Eliot with inspiring him to study the craft of writing as assiduously as he already had that of European concert music. Toni Morrison speaks of Marquez, Fuentes and Cortazar as if they were blood relations, and so on. There should be no revelation in this but the sad truth about the dehumanization of Black people that goes in America is that it places blinders on us all to allowing for the complexity of human desire within the divided racial camps. When reading Beth Coleman's marvelous expose of pimp culture as a demoralized attempt to recreate the master-slave dynamic, we are reminded of how distorted one's self-image can become in a morally deformed culture.

During the high period of Black cultural nationalism when Amiri Baraka was out to purge himself of all his past associations with white people and white art movements certain anxiety of influence, anti-intellectualism and counter-supremacy surged up in ways that made white influences nearly a taboo topic. Those days are long behind us but one effect of that movement has been the emergence of a separate but equal America where even middle-class Black people make literature, music, film, television and theatre for other Blacks consumption and rarely socialize outside of a work context with their white counterparts. The increased opportunities for Black ownership and profits from Black entertainment has largely made moot the once vociferous arguments against white profiteering of Black culture as the doors to Black entrepreneurship within corporate America have been swung wide open To the degree that the movements 60s changed anything about race in America they have clearly begun to sweep away the denial of economic opportunity that had kept African American entrepreneurs off the playing fields where big bucks were being made off of Black talent. The advent in hip-hop of multimillionaire Black moguls like Russel Simmons, Andre Harrell, and Sean P. Diddy Combs has largely made the question of white co-optation of Black culture more a joke among younger African Americans than a jibe. They've seen hip-hop topple 'white rock' as the most influential and lucrative form of pop music among middle class youth in America. They've watched with amusement and admiration for the Black production corporations behind the hip-hop-soul flavored songs and dance moves of N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Savored the victory in every other nu-metal band on MTV having a rap-singer and a lead guitarist that's ceded his once-exalted sex symbol position to the bands resident 'turntablist'.

If hip-hop had done nothing but put more money in the hands of Black artists and business managers than ever before it would mark a milestone in American financial history. What that wealth has not been able to transform however is the social reality of substandard housing, medical care and education that afflicts over half of all African American children and that accounts for one out of four African American males being under the control of the criminal justice system. Nor has it dismantled the prevalent, delimiting mythologies about Black intelligence, morality and hierarchical place in America.

The instruction given to all of the Burden's writers was to tackle the all-American fascination with Blackness in the realms of music, literature, sports, fashion and beauty, music, comedy, political activism, modern art, science fiction cinema, hero-worship, machismo. Some approached the assignment through an iconic figure whose life and work seemed to embody the network the history of shame, blame, idolatry, denial, stalwart bravery, tomfoolishness and misapprehension that marks the subject. It is a history that mocks us all as we attempt to reduce the world's possibilities to its racial inequities.

Warning: a specific emphasis has been placed on key figures and movements whose lives and work have inadvertently made race in America a subject as demanding of complex reasoning and ethical inquiry as genetically modified organisms. In "The New White" Negro Carl Hancock Rux takes on the Eminem phenomenon, hitting it right between the eyes and finding a self-made cipher wrapped in a hard nigga dreamcoat.

In "Melvin Gibbs Black God and Thugs" the long history of criminalizing and mythifying Black culture is detailed from ancient India to the Wu-Tang Clan, finally resting on a powerful reading of white American Taliban follower John Lind Walker's search for a way out of America's spiritual darkness through the dark spirituality of hip-hop, and fundamentalist Islam.

Robin Kelley presents the bizarro world of white activists who seek to overcome the race problem by browbeating African American militants about their fixation on race and Black radicals who struggle to get white-run lefty organizations to understand that the race problem deserves more than a footnote in the war on capitalism In my dialogue with Vernon Reid we present the ways Steely Dan ran away with Black cool and disguised it in their own critique of the American dream. In Beth Coleman's "Pimp Autonomy" we are made to see the pimp figure as an appropriator of the master-slave dynamic that has programmed the psyches of black and white American men for centuries. The excerpt from Jonthan Lethem's next novel explores the minority status of a lower middle class white youth in Brooklyn in the hip-hop era. With Mike Ladds poem ''The New Mythology Started Without Me '' we get the buying and selling of the Black American dream rendered as a nightmare. The two scenes from Eisa Davis' play "Umkovu," use dark wit to make light of a white businessman and a Japanese deejay who live to reduce Black culture to its most marketable clichés. From Hilton Als comes a study of the career of Richard Pryor who more than any other American performer of the past century exemplified the promise and the compromises expected of angry Black performers who long for white love and mainstream success. Further expanding our vista of Black America's impact on the world we offer Manthia Diawara's account of how James Brown fomented a social and stylistic rebellion on young people in the 60s and 70s Mali, and Meri Danquah's account of hair-straightening and skin-bleaching a la Michael Jackson style run amok in Ghana.

In Latasha Natasha Diggs "Black Asianphile in Me" we are given a near parodic view of the fetishism that fetishism begat: her exotification of Asian penises and fighting techniques offering an inverted Afrocentric image of white appropriation at its worst. In Tony Green's personal writing on larger than life subjects Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer and George Foreman one is allowed to see how ineptly the Black Superman model favored by Black mythifiers like Mailer fit on an average Joe like Green's younger athletic self. Professional fashion and beauty stylist Michaela Angela Davis delves even deeper under the skin to point up how the country's obsession with Hollywood and Conde Nast's proscriptions of beauty has wounded young black women unaware that their style-innovations feed the beauty industry that denies them affirmation. Cassandra Lane's "Skinned" opens up an even deeper vein of woundedness in depicting the whyfores of her anxieties about imaginary white women showing up as sexual threats in her marriage bed.

The essays of Danzy Senna, Renee Green and Arthur Jafa form an Afro-futurist troika: Senna looks back on ghetocentricity from 2037 in her parody of Harvard-trained literary anthropology, Green delves into space, race and injustice as they have been conjoined in Hollywood potboilers and the work of Octavia Butler, while Jafa provides a reading of Kubrick's 2001 that would even startle Sun Ra. Jafa also takes on Picasso, Duchamp, Pollock and Kubrick, whose visual critiques of whiteness through Africanist myths he sees as having led them to formal breakthroughs and conceptual cul de sacs.

Taken in total these essays present the myriad ways African Americans grapple with feelings of cultural inferiority, creative superiority and ironic distance in a market-driven world where we find continue to find ourselves being sold as hunted outsiders and privileged insiders in the same breath. In a world where we're seen as both the most loathed and the most alluring of creatures we are still the most co-optable and the most erasable of beings too. It is the singular, historic power of this chilling, maddening, schizophrenia-inducing paradox that it has always called some of the country's most exceptional, daring and fecund literary minds to order—Twain, Douglass, Melville, Crane, Faulkner Du Bois, Robeson, Hughes, Hurston, Baldwin, Morrison, West all come to mind. It is the deepest wish of this editor that this anthology honors and serves this quintessentially American theme as well as its predecessors have.

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Excerpted from Everything But The Burden, edited by Greg Tate. Copyright © 2003 by Greg Tate. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.