- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Among the greatest pleasures of reading is sitting down with a book you expect to find distasteful or worse, and discovering a jewel. And among the greatest pleasures of reviewing is getting to say so.
"Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture." Here we go again. Another hyperventilated screed, part post-postmodern deconstructuralist gibberish, part paean to gangstas and hos, part all-purpose rage. "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand." Very well. If I can't understand, no sense wasting my time trying. And don't give me any of that racist stuff. I'm not a racist. I'm a grouch. I don't like anybody.
Five pages into it … this guy Greg Tate … he writes like … well, like a man who has something to say and knows that he's saying it superbly. Who is he? Quick riffle to the Contributors List. "Longtime staff writer at the Village Voice … His books include …"
Hmm. Maybe I've been spending too much time on Policy Review, after all.
Editor Tate lays it out. The essays explore not only various aspects of what he calls "the need by white Americans to acquire blackness by any means necessary" and "the theft of African-American cultural properties," but also various ironic and creative black responses to "The Situation."
Now what, precisely, is The Situation? Most whites are aware (one of the not inconsiderable bennies of multicultural education) how much of American culture, from jazz and rock and roll to art and literature, originated in or expropriated black styles, formats and motifs. And we are all aware we have no choice in the matter of the existence of a black entertainment elite, especially the singers and athletes, who don't always do the role model thing to perfection.
And whatever the desire of some white Americans indiscriminately to acquire and/or consume blackness, many others take a far more selective approach. Personally, I find gangsta rap abhorrent (Come back, Otis Redding; all is forgiven), designer clothing derived from prison uniforms offensive and basketball boring. But I also love it when I encounter astute, articulate and playful intellects. And in this book, dealing with the complexities of the black/white cultural relationship, such intellects abound.
All the essays are worth reading. Some, the more academic, inform with disciplined relentlessness: minds speaking to minds. Beth Coleman's "Pimp Notes on Autonomy" makes sense. A couple are gracefully self-mocking delights, especially "The Black Asianphile," Latasha Diggs' exploration of her interest in Asian male anatomy. A couple deal in rage, but again, it's mind speaking to mind, not primal spleen.
Eminem, who's always reminded me of a person I once encountered on a Seattle street (a man dressed up like a woman impersonating a man) gets his due. Such as it is. "Captive Herstories" is serious fun at several levels. And if you occasionally encounter lines like "The Seventies as Primal-Scene Fantasy and Utopian Impulse/Dystopian Romance, Repeating Returns and Time-Loop Paradox," other insights make up for it.
Especially the gentle reminder that whiteness is not a matter of skin. Successive waves of immigrants from the Irish and the Jews to the Italians and the Poles took generations to become "authentically" white in America. Meanwhile, it took five centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and endless other agonies and affronts for "authenticity" to become an issue for blacks.
Which brings us back to what is, in fact, The Situation. Gone are the days when America could worship Louie Armstrong but decline to let him use the whites-only john. What we have now is far more complex. Strong vestiges of racism, yes, but also the split in black America new middle and new underclass and the cultural ambiguities deriving therefrom. So far, white America has "taken" (if that's the operative word) far too much from the worst aspects of the ghetto, and far too little from the rest of the ghetto and from the accomplishments of the Children of the Dream. So perhaps the vital question now is not, what do whites take, but what do blacks offer? What do they desire to offer? And why?
And it's important to remember: Thieves and masters take. Equals offer.
As for me, I may take up reading the Village Voice again. You never know what you might find.


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