A literary scholar examines the many ways in which African American influences are incorporated, without acknowledgment or thanks, into the white cultural mainstream.
Cultural appropriation, writes Jackson (English and African American Studies/Northwestern Univ.), “gets a bad rap.” Rap, for instance, borrows from the styles of earlier generations—soul, disco, funk, even gospel—but includes the likes of Billy Joel and Paul Simon in its DNA. Appropriation, she writes, “is everywhere, and it is inevitable,” though it is also a matter of power as much as artistic license: The culturally dominant group gets away with borrowing fashions, musical styles, and language, developing “black aesthetics without black people.” In a lucid explication of the work of appropriation in music, she examines borrowings not just by white artists such as Britney Spears, but also members of minority populations such as Jennifer Lopez, who, by Jackson’s account, lifted liberally from a less-known artist named Ashanti. It’s Lopez’s good luck that the borrowing, including the passing insertion of the N-word, took place in a time when “the internet wasn’t then what the internet is now, and time forgives all slurs.” Pop star Pink took a different course, gradually shedding any blackness in her sound, even as Miley Cyrus dropped her white-pop teen persona to embrace the hip-hop world and Khloé Kardashian did her hair up in cornrows and called herself a “Bantu babe.” The author ranges across a broad field of reference, writing of the appropriation of the Southern-ism “chile” (child, that is) by means of the TV show Real Housewives of Atlanta and the culinary borrowings of Paula Deen, “white Mammy, plumping America one fried delicacy at a time,” who got in trouble not for her lifting recipes but instead for using the N-word. Jackson is evenhanded throughout, though there’s a welcome fire to her discussion, as when she writes, “America is addicted to hurting black people. America is addicted to watching itself hurt black people."
A revelatory, well-argued work of cultural criticism.