To me, “I Wonder What Became of Me?” represents cultural innovation more generally. For one, the fusion happened far beyond the stage. The difference between the boopiness of Europop and the richness of modern American pop is due, historically, to what P.J. O’Rourke once satirically described as Europe’s “tragic lack of Black people.” (He was referring to Poland, but the point, however exaggerated, applies far beyond.)
The story of Black and white Americans frequently centers on abuse, dismissal and conflict, as it must. Beyond this, though, there has always been cultural melding, both above and below the radar. That melding has increased in tempo over the past several decades.
It is especially striking in language: American English among young people gets more infused by Black English by the decade. My girls enjoy a YouTuber known as SSSniperWolf, a young woman of, reportedly, Turkish and Greek ancestry who pops off casually with Black English words and idioms. For instance, I’ve rarely heard the whimsically scatological “dookie” uttered by someone who wasn’t Black. But she isn’t pulling some sort of quotidian minstrelsy; this effortless infusion of Black English expressions is now routine among many Americans her age and even older. A surly teen sweetly totaled my car not long ago (I’m fine!), and despite his being of South Asian descent, his speech was perfect Black English — and again, this is now to be expected. His cousins and friends who came to the scene all spoke the same way.
The fusion we’ve come to recognize is even in body language. The righteously disapproving neck swivel traditionally associated with Black women is now a gesture one can see young women of all ethnicities using. More than two decades ago, Stanley Crouch told Salon: “Carl Jung said that white Americans walk like Negroes, talk like Negroes and laugh like Negroes,” adding that Jung would have been in a position to know, being from “Switzerland, where they make the real white people”!
Of course, cultural appropriation can go overboard. We are justifiably wary today of those in power mimicking, sometimes profiting from, cultural products of the disempowered. Some see and take exception to mainly this in the dialect mixing I refer to. However, appropriation yields hybridity that, especially after the passage of time, only the most resolutely clinical of mind-sets can see solely as symptoms of injustice. Peoples sharing space will copy one another — even if they don’t always get along.
And in any case, another side of the incorporation of Blackness into America’s popular canon is the increasing dilution of whiteness as a cultural default. To see how far America has come, one need only watch about 15 minutes of 1950s television. “I Wonder What Became of Me” is a beautiful example of how we’ve arrived where we are: It can be a wonder indeed how beauty can emerge from, and in spite of, racial mistrust and dissension.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and “Woke Racism.”