Kareem Bounces A Cultural Rant Off The Rim

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who should have stuck to basking in his glory as a basketball player and dreading cross-country air flights, is now a columnist for TIME. He has written a ludicrous column that essentially accuses whites of profiting from the adaptation of trends spawned by black people.

Says he in part: "Underwear sticking out of pants? Hip-hop language? Twerking? An unintended byproduct is that white people, feeling aglow in One-Worldness brought on by taking a hip-hop exercise class, forget the serious state of racial inequality that still exists and needs to be constantly addressed. In the face of being shamed and persecuted, African-Americans have cultivated art and fashion to maintain pride in who they are, so to see other cultures take this and profit from it while still allowing the shame and persecution to persist makes us want to holler."

Clearly, Kareem does not accept the notion of imitation as flattery. I would argue that culture (used in the broadest possible terms here) is organic and flows freely around the world, especially in the Internet/mobile era and that nearly every socio/racial/economic group borrows freely from dozens of others. This is not in any way exploitative, but rather is a form of appreciation. That a phenomenon starts in a poor neighborhood and is noticed and adopted elsewhere should not be more of an issue than kids in that same neighborhood having access to 18th-century Western European art in their schoolbooks, British TV shows, Chinese food or burritos.  

Should I stop eating the fried chicken and biscuit based on recipes passed by my mother through her mother and her mother before that, because they probably originated in a poor, black South Carolina neighborhood about 100 years ago? No. Should Kareem be outraged because a bunch of white guys opened a chain of fried chicken fast-food restaurants based on a recipe they might have gotten from a black person somewhere in history? I should hope not.

If he wants to rant more appropriately, Kareem might have examined the extent to which black basketball players, who spawned the whole trend of $300 athletic shoes, participated in their sales. Hello, Michael?

It seems to me that lots of black people have monetized their cultural inventions such as soul, Motown, rap or hip-hop music. Because white producers or manufacturers might have played a role in getting vinyl pressed and distributed to predominantly white-owned music stores, does that make them guilty of some sort of exploitation? How about the white (or Hispanic or Native-American or French or German or Japanese, etc.) buyers of that music? Exploitation or appreciation? At least in those days, the black artists could count on residuals.

I don't think anyone is forgetting "the serious state of racial inequality that still exists and needs to be constantly addressed" when they admire or buy a reproduction of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Augusta Savage, James Van Der Zee or Kara Walker, watch a Spike Lee or John Singleton movie, or read a book by Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston.

Nor when they put their hair in cornrows or take a hip-hop dance class at the Y. I imagine when Kareem looks around his undoubtedly well-appointed home and sees Asian, European, or perhaps African art and furnishings, he doesn’t feel too bad about “borrowing” from those cultures.

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