A misleading and uneven book that poses, but doesn't answer, an interesting question. Everything But the Burden isn't a collection of essays in its entirety. There's an impression given, as the book's description reiterates, that this is a collection of essays. Mostly it is; however, there are also excerpts from a play, a story or two, and a poem. Secondly, the book promises to tackle the question of what white people are “taking from black culture.” Indeed, that's what these pieces should be about. Mostly, they're not. Quite a few of the pieces go on at length about black culture and how it relates to this or how it relates to that, (“you can get with this or you can get with that”; note: “The Choice is Yours” – The Black Sheep? EDL?), but the only mention of the book's subject is a paragraph tacked on at the end. There are some pieces that really stand out as positive contributions. Among them are those written by Michaela Angela Davis, Arthur Jafa, and Meri Nana-Ama Danquah. It was these essays that gave this collection what strength it had. Finally, those essays that actually do tackle the subject do not prove their point. Their summation: white people are “crafty devils” who steal the best parts of black culture and never have to face the pain. But is it so simple? Is this a subject that can easily be divided into black and white? Can culture, with its lack of physicality, be stolen? Must all “whiggers” be condemned because of the success and buffoonery of Vanilla Ice and Eminem (a modern revision of this book surely would include Iggy Azalea)? And are all these white imitators truly free of black cultural burdens? What are these burdens? If those guilty of cultural appropriation face these same burdens, then does this disprove Tate and those essayists who argued his point?
Let me tell you a little story. Hopefully, it's relevant.
I was born “white.” I grew up in a white neighborhood, went to a white school, etc. At an early age, I fell in love with black culture. I don't know why; it just happened as it does for many. Initially, my love was simple, an appreciation for Michael Jackson and Prince which, with time, morphed into a deep love for Bobby Brown, Shai, and the R&B scene of the early nineties. By high school, I was a bonafide whigger: sagging pants, walking with a limp, stereo bumping the latest 2Pac, Menace II Society and Jason's Lyric on constant play on my VCR. I was guilty of betraying “the white race” and thieving from black culture. I was that crazy-looking white boy, taking “everything but the burden.”
Everything but the burden. They called me nigger. Hundreds of times. I wished I'd been counting. I would've had the number tattooed on my chest and worn it as a badge. They bloodied my face. They once tried to run me off a bridge. They said they were going to kill me. I believed them. They wanted to. White people hated me. Cops did too. Without reason, I was pulled over, detained, and searched. Why? Because I looked the part. Because my friends were black. It didn't matter. They said I was “worse than a nigger” because I was a traitor.
I never fought back. I couldn't. It was me versus the world, versus reason. Who'd stand behind me? And I continued for years. My whiggerdom changed, I went from white hoodrat-wannabe to white underground hip-hopper, but through it all I loved black culture.
And then time came to “grow up.” I turned down the stereo (though the music is mostly the same), I bought pants that fit snugger (though far from tight), and I quieted down (though my heart still rages).
What is burden? They called me the same names. They accused me of the same crimes. They treated me similar, if not the same. Where my burden ends is that I was able to take it off, neatly package it away, and try to fit in. But therein lies a burden in itself: I am alone. Outside of my wife (who is Hispanic, by the way; alien in part to both cultures), I have no one. I don't fit in. I literally spend days in my house without once leaving. I don't relate with people. I have become like Ellison's Invisible Man; instead of casting myself in a room of light to drown out my shadow, to become invisible, I have sequestered myself to a room without light, to be absorbed into the blackness, void of human contact because I don't know how to fit in anywhere. I knew how to talk to people when a greeting was “w'sup?” and hanging out meant goofing on a freestyle session. Now, I try to fake it, try to “act white” because that's what everyone—black and white—wants from me, but everyone sees through it. I am a fake.
What did I take? I took the swagger. I took the music. I took the literature. I took the history. I took the dialect. I took it all. I even took the burden. But I gave it all back and all I have left is a memory of what was, and of course the burden.
Maybe I was wrong to “take what wasn't mine.” Truly, I don't think so. My intentions were pure. But if I am guilty of cultural appropriation at its worst, then I guess I have received my sentence. This is my burden. Perhaps it is out of place and erroneous to expose myself completely on a book review for an uneven collection thirteen years old., but it posed the question and failed to answer it. There are many answers to such a question. This is my answer. Judge it how you will.