“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”
With these words, Jesse Williams absolutely floored the crowd at the BET Awards Sunday night.
His acceptance speech for the Humanitarian Award was jaw dropping.
Here was a black actor on “Grey’s Anatomy” just telling it like it is on national TV.
He wasn’t afraid a business dominated by white people would take offense (and some white people did). Or if he was, he wasn’t going to let it stop him.
The activist who recently produced a documentary “Stay Woke: the Black Lives Matter Movement” said, “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander… If you have a critique for the resistance… then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.”
No more tone policing. No white fragility. Just if you’re with us, stand up – otherwise, sit down and shut up.
It was beautiful. And it got me thinking.
There are so many obvious truths about our country’s relationship with race that hardly anyone ever gives voice to – especially a white person like me.
So I’m going to add my voice to Jesse’s. I’m just going to say it.
It’s past time we admit it, white people.
American culture would not exist without black culture.
I don’t mean to say that white people are incapable of culture or that if black people had never been kidnapped and brought to our shores as slaves that white people wouldn’t have been able to devise a unique national character.
But if that had happened, it would have been a very different character than what we have today.
It might be America, but it would not be our America. It would be some other thing. I will leave it to speculative fiction to attempt to determine what that might have been like.
However, we need not resort to fantasy to see all the incredible things black people have given us. They’re everywhere, in everything – though usually staring back at us through a white face, heard from a white voice and monetized by a white industry.
The hundreds of years of struggle from slavery through Jim Crow through the modern prison state have given black people plenty of fertile ground with which to build our national culture. Traditionally white people have served as both oppressors and appreciators of the fruits of that oppression.
The most obvious example is music.
There is very little American music not based on black traditions. Even if it is performed by white musicians, even if it is written by white musicians – almost all American music owes an overwhelming debt to black people.
Take rock n’ roll, a style usually associated with white people. The majority of rock musicians are white. The majority of rock stars are white. The majority of rock listeners are white.
But it couldn’t exist without black music – specifically blues and jazz.
Rock n’ roll was invented during the second great migration, when black people from the southern United States came into contact with large groups of whites in big cities such as New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, etc. It was the first time many white people heard black music like blues, work songs, etc. It was also the first time many black people heard European instrumentation. The resulting cultural collision was extremely fruitful.
Rhythm and blues (sometimes called “race music”) evolved into distinct new styles – country, jazz, gospel, folk and rock. In many ways the different styles had less to do with actual differences in the music than in rebranding black music for a white audience. When a black musician became known for a particular kind of music, the fledgling music industry tried to monetize it by finding a white musician who could do something similar and thus reach a larger audience.
They figured if X number of white people will listen to this music played by a black musician, X plus thousands more will listen to it if played by a white one. And they were right.
Black musician Chuck Berry was one of the first to play what we’d recognize as rock n’ roll. He took standard jump blues and played the two-note lead line on his guitar that until then was typically performed on piano. He put guitar at the center of the sound, amplified it, electrified it and rock was born.
The genre developed organically with many black musicians taking the lead – Fats Domino, Sister Rosetta Tharp, Goree Carter, Jimmy Preston, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Joe Hill Louis, Guitar Slim, Howlin’ Wolf and many others.
However, the first certified rock hit “Rock Around the Clock,” was recorded in 1954 by an all white band, Bill Haley and His Comets. With this recording, the die was cast. The music was invented and developed mostly by black musicians, but it wasn’t a major success until it was recorded by white musicians.
The same thing can be seen with Elvis Presley, the so-called “King of Rock n’ Roll.” He wasn’t breaking any new ground. He was just the first white person who could sing like the black blues musicians who came before him. They toiled in obscurity. He cashed in.
This isn’t to say that no black musicians succeeded playing rock n’ roll. But it was predominantly white musicians who popularized the style that their black forebears had created.
To understand this, perhaps it is best to turn to the insight of Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones). In his classic book “Blues People,” he dissects the complex American relationship of race and music through the 1960s.
Baraka writes that white and black America have different value structures. As such it is a very different thing for a black American and a white American to play the same music.
When a black musician like Louis Armstrong played jazz music – another invention of black culture – he was fulfilling the ideals of his culture. By contrast, when a white musician like Bix Beiderbecke played jazz music, he was rebelling against his.
There is something jarring and revolutionary when white musicians play black music, Baraka writes. In doing so, the music becomes devoid of race. It is no longer black music. It is just music.
However, the musicians who created it are not likewise freed from the ghetto. They’re still black even if their music no longer is.
So what are black musicians left to do but create new music that they can call their own?
This may explain why so few black performers play rock music anymore. It was taken from them. They had to move on.
Even so, their fingerprints are all over everything that came after. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, all the way through the White Stripes and Black Keys. Ask any hardcore fan to name the best rock guitarist who ever lived, and the answer is bound to come back – Jimi Hendrix. Yet, Eddie Van Halen made an awful lot more money.
Perhaps the most incredible thing is that black musicians have continued to develop new and more creative music after every appropriation. Funk, Rap, Pop, Hip Hop, modern R&B. One can see all of it as a progression of gentrification and subsequent creation.
It makes me wonder: why do we love black culture so much but not black people?
As Williams said to end his speech this weekend, “…just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
Black people have achieved amazing things in America. But white people rarely give them their due.
For instance, people generally think of rap as a black thing. But the largest audience for the genre is us, white folks.
There’s something jarring about white teenagers singing along with every n-word in the lyrics of a black rapper’s song as if these kids had the right. We don’t, people.
As Baraka might say, it’s a very different thing when we say it. But it’s more than just rebellion.
Too often white people turn to music that is characterized as black as a way to mock that culture. We demand black culture be commodified in a way that makes sense to our vision of what black people are. And when someone like Williams comes forward to call us out on it, we resent it.
Look around, white folks.
We love our culture, but we’re ignorant of our history.
We enjoy living vicariously through a marketed vision of black struggle but we don’t do anything about the actual struggle before our eyes.
Our black brothers and sisters are crying out in pain. And we’re the cause.
No, we probably didn’t light any crosses afire on anyone’s lawn, but what about our attitudes? What do we say when race comes up? Do we indulge in gut reactions of colorblindness or do we actually listen to what black people have to say? Do we do anything but shrug?
This isn’t about white hate or white guilt. It’s about accepting our responsibilities.
We owe black people much of our very idea of what it is to be an American. Isn’t it time we started paying it back with love and action?
23 thoughts on “Without Black Culture There Would Be No American Culture”
I think a better comparison to Jimi Hendrix would be Duane Allman. The Rolling Stone ranked them first and second in the list of all time great guitarists, and both died young (Duane at 24, Jimi at 27) and they died within 13 months of each other. Jimi was of course black, and Duane was white. I am not sure how much more Duane earned than Jimi.
It seems likely to me that if Jimi had lived as long as Eddie Van Halen (Eddie is still going strong at 61) Jimi might have earned a great deal more from his music. The same goes for Duane.
I looked up the highest net worth musicians, and there are a few that you would expect and a few surprises:
1. Sir Paul McCartney
2. Andrew Loyd Webber
3. Herb Alpert
4. Sean “Diddy” Combs
5. Dr. Dre
6. Jay Z
7. Emilio Estefan
8. Elton John
10. Mick Jagger
The rolling stones got their name from a blues musician called muddy waters from Mississippi and also became famous by singing one of his songs
Muddy was great, but Robert Petway was actually the first to record Catfish Blues. Do you really think he was the composer? The lineage is lost in the mist of time.
I was told that Elvis was not full blooded Caucasian he was part native american. The first thing you have to do is stop calling yourselves white you r not white if l had to pick a color it would be pale pink. Also l want it noted that Love has no color neither does hate. People of color have given so much more than music and mostly out of the need to lighten our burdon. Thank you for your article l got love for you be cuz “U STOOD AND DELIVERED SUPPORTING TRUTH!”
I would like to say its still going on with the music my black people created in chicago.. Blacks created House and Techno. Im black.. But blacks are not the top 100 djs.. Point they took that too..
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Kraftwerk invented Techno they were white Germans it was called electronic but it was the seed to Techno. So that one is not one you can claim is black inspired.
Dude… You are clueless about Kraftwerk, sorry. They Did not Invent Techno Music. * Sped up Disco music is the seed to Techno Music.
Kraftwerk also influenced Rap and Hip Hop. Just listen to Afrika Bambaataa.. This Black/White/Whatever Color-Culture-Discussion is pointless.. We – as a society/or people – either have a goal for society or we don´t.. The ones arguing like “without US you would be nothing” are not out for equality..
The truth will out, and we are ever so grateful for it..Thank you for having the guts and the will to go against the GRAIN!!👁🍒👁👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾
This article is well written but that’s where my praise stops.
With out any culture here in America there would be no American culture. That includes African American, Caucasian, Native American, Mexican, Italian, Indian.
The whole concept behind this country is to have an overall enriched culture by the many sub-cultures here (a melting pot). So you’re headline is redundant. It’s common knowledge!
Yeah there are some scattered truths and clear points made in it. Doesn’t change the fact there is always a double standard to these talks. Country music was developed by white people, but Darius Rucker seems to be doing okay in it.
How Justin Timberlake was treated after he tweeted about Jesse’s speech was ridiculous. JT has roots in Memphis and was surrounded and engulfed by that culture. The fact he can sing, and dance, and do everything he does well is a testament to the African American culture. He shouldn’t get flack for agreeing with Jesse. Plus he does nothing but give back to that community.
I’m tired of all the race stuff…I genuinely am! Watch Morgan Freeman’s interview on race. Type that into YouTube (Morgan Freeman Race Speech). It’s from like 2006 and it’s even more true today!
Thank God I am member of the military and we are all green! Some of my brothers and sisters may be darker shades…but they are still my family!
Let’s be honest, the military is no safe haven from racism and never has been. Even when African Americans were first allowed to enlist it was segregated. There were certain jobs they didn’t have access to and white fellow enlisted members often treated the people we were at war with better than their own black countrymen. Recently there has even been a cultural attack on black enlisted female soldiers for wearing their hair in its natural state when they were on field exercises and didn’t have access to hair care products. My father once told me that while serving in Germany he and other black servicemen actually fond a contingency plan the military had created in the advent that black members were to take up arms. So first they draft them and then make plans to fight against their own enlisted men.
Well change poison into medicine and help others to deal with the sort of concept is going on in our American society and all across the world stop hating and believe people do have problems dealing with it !
I call him a Leader ! It changed my thought waves …..
I’m glad that someone can acknowledge the injustice and have the courage to speak out and know that a wrong needs to be made right. Thats all we’re asking is for our due and the genocide, lyinching and raping of our ancestors be acknowledge instead of saying forget about it, but don’t forget about 911, Pearl Harbor, 4th of July and etc. We need our reperation for what our ancestors endured. We we’re thrown in a pot to make soup, but weren’t given any ingredients and they think that we will live normal lives. Generational curses exist. Our stolen history, our stolen inventions, etc. It saddens me that so many people don’t want to acknowledge the truth and live a lie…..At least you you will be able to sleep at night.
Here we are, once again, attempting to explain and define the contibutions and rights of the,” African American “, No we do not need the help of any group to help with our plight, we simply need to respect each other.
America has ALWAYS had culture. Native culture IS American culture.
What you meant to say is, “Without Black Culture, There Would Be No American Pop Culture.”
Do not erase the true people of this land in your attempt to flex your allyship. You can bring up the many contributions the Black community has made to this nation without implying that White culture is Amrican culture.
Please amend your title.
Jimmy largely emulated Buddy Guy (whom he idalized as a child). He was aggressive yet sloppy at times. When it comes to technicality, Eddie blows him out. You obviously don’t know your guitar. But Jimmy deserves more money?..why…oh yeah, because he’s black.
The true heroes of the industry the last half century are the studio & sound engineers behind the scenes. Quincy & Herbie are lengendary but brilliance comes in all flavors.
There’s a major problem going on today with individuals & organizations speaking on the behalf of entire demographics and claiming cultural practices as there own; separating us,
Hip Hop’s the big one.
I grew up inner city, in the the 70’s & 80’s and I’m here to say. MOST people don’t really know what HIP HOP is. BET sure as hell doesn’t -they claim its black.
HIP HOP IS:
Folks, most of those categories were DOMINATED by Puerto Ricans, the true victims (along with Rick Rubin) and ONE category is dominated by Black America.
BUT, Rap makes the most money so I guess we’ll just forget about the rest of the culture and call rap Hip Hop and claim it as a black culture.
Where ever we go, we are Americans. All of us. Crap like this artical and the other night’s speach is damaging to our progression as a people. We’ve all had swing at it.
Are you kind?
Do you work hard?
These are the things that truly separate us and determine our limits.
The rest of you are just racist and getting in our way.
And who do you think own/runs this country? It’s not the white American in front of a shark tank. You’re lucky if they speak English.
Agreed! Don’t let the derailing trolls stop you in this very true conversation.. Hell, most people in this country can’t admit, they benefit from this culture. Even if they didn’t grow up in a black American diaspora, they benefit from it. Mind you, Anti-blackness is GLOBAL. All these excuses and derailments are all clearly stemmed from that. They’ll say everything under the sun to make their false information seem true. Very proud to read this article. Thank you for sharing.
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