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About a month ago US cultural critic John McWhorter posted an essay on the Daily Beast headlined “You Can’t Steal a Culture.” He was responding to Sierra Mannie, a student at the University of Mississippi, whose article “Dear Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture,” had been published in Time magazine (July 9).
Ms Mannie, addressing white gay men, wrote: “Maybe, for some of you, it’s a presumed mutual appreciation for Beyoncé and weaves that has you thinking that I’m going to be amused by you approaching me in your best ‘Shanequa from around the way’ voice.… [but] you are not a black woman, and you do not get to claim either blackness or womanhood. It is not yours. It is not for you.”
Admittedly, here, where the undisputed African chief of Africanness has declaimed homosexuality to be anathema to Africans, this might seem absurd. Addressing gay men as if they had a right to exist, much less talk back! Shocking. But McWhorter, in the US, saw in it an important theme. “The debate over what we call cultural appropriation,” he wrote, “has roots in the justifiable resentment of white pop musicians imitating black genres for monetary gain.” From George Gershwin and Elvis Presley to Eminem and Miley Cyrus.