When I was twelve, we moved into faculty housing on a large Job Corps facility that had taken over a vast decommissioned Army base. My dad taught reading to high school dropouts there from major East Coast cities. It was part of President Johnson’s “Great Society.”
I don’t know how many Job Corps trainees were at our facility, but there were a lot, maybe in the thousands. They slept in the same painted wooden Army barracks where Bob Dole and Jackie Robinson had trained in World War II.
I don’t remember any sense of culture shock although I was a scrawny small-town white boy moving in a sea of young Black and Puerto Rican men. It was a great adventure learning their masculine slang and profanity, and curating the vulgar restroom graffiti. We knew our cultural appropriation was frowned upon, but we didn’t know it had a name.
Of course, we didn’t invent cultural appropriation. Pat Boone had served up an unthreatening whitebread version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” Elvis Presley made a career out of appropriating Black music and salacious, suggestive hip thrusts.
My mom told me that when I was a toddler, people at Nalley’s Cafe in Francisco, Indiana used to give me a nickel to belt out “you ain’t nothing but a hound dog,” Elvis-style. We had no idea that was Big Mama Thornton’s song, because Elvis never mentioned her. I hope she got lots of royalties.
The Beatles were so bold about lifting Black music that they eventually were sued by Chuck Berry’s music publisher. “Come Together” came out the year I started high school, and we all took John Lennon at his word that he wrote it. But Berry’s lawyer noted the Beatles’ song’s melodic similarity to his client’s song “You Can’t Catch Me,” and the fact that Lennon’s song actually used some of Berry’s lyrics, for crying out loud. It’s perfectly legitimate to “cover” another person’s song, as long as you pay, and you ought to acknowledge the songwriter’s authorship. But the Beatles had to be sued for copyright infringement.
Plagiarism is theft, and it’s not the exclusive domain of white entertainers. I’ve written previously about the plagiarism of Martin Luther King Jr. and Roots author Alex Haley.
We’re no longer as stratified and segregated as we were in the 1960s. It’s hard to draw a definitive line between Black and white culture anymore, and therefore more difficult to identify cultural appropriation. It doesn’t seem odd anymore to see white athletes giving one another high fives, or to see Black teenagers skateboarding.
But the last frontier seems to be appropriating grievances. At first glance, the massive turnout of woke white Millennials at anti-racist demonstrations seemed like a heartwarming gesture of transracial solidarity. Maybe this generation of Americans could finally put racism behind us.
But on closer examination, a lot of these white demonstrators appear to have come out for the fun. A Black police officer in Portland told one of my friends that he was usually able to engage young Black protesters in respectful conversation until they were interrupted by shrieking white Leftists who brought the conversation to a halt with name-calling and accusations, and often with racial epithets.
Let’s be clear: rioting is fun. It’s an adrenaline rush. We had one at the Job Corps center. What could be more intoxicating for the criminally inclined than to defy authority, destroy adults’ property, menace the police, and maybe take home a big-screen souvenir to remember the riot by?
I remember looking into the sweaty faces in our Job Corps riot. They were similar to the faces of a football team after a touchdown, but happier, more exultant. What I was witnessing was ecstasy. And so when I hear urban riots described as a product of “black rage,” I am skeptical. Most looters and arsonists will have very fond memories of their riot.
It’s not surprising that unaccomplished young whites, former latch-key kids whom nobody has ever taken seriously, covet the grievances that enoble and entitle Black victims, grievances that they believe are a blank check. The right to bellow accusations at detested adult authority figures, to give free unchallenged rein to your darkest impulses, to hush and intimidate your critics? That’s irresistible to people of their neglected character.
Perhaps it was inevitable that these hyper-entitled, over-indulged young white people would eventually try to appropriate Black Rage itself. James Baldwin, meet Little Richard.