We’re Our Own Worst Imuses

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Jonetta Rose Bar­ras

They wanted to slay Don Imus and they did. Jesse Jack­son and Al Sharp­ton, the NAACP, the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Black Jour­nal­ists and their posse knocked the shock jock off his throne at CBS Ra­dio and MSNBC. But be­hind the scenes in the black com­mu­nity where I live and work, the out­cry all along has been for some­thing else.

Rather than blast the talk-show host for his deroga­tory de­scrip­tion of the Rut­gers Univer­sity women’s bas­ket­ball team, many African Amer­i­cans I spoke to in my work as a ra­dio com­men­ta­tor said all along that black folks, in­clud­ing and per­haps chiefly those who led the charge against Imus, should take a long look in the mir­ror. I think they’re right. The sen­sa­tional in­dig­na­tion that got Imus fired last week struck many of us as hyp­o­crit­i­cal. It cast African Amer­i­cans prin­ci­pally as the vic­tims of dis­crim­i­na­tion — and ig­nored the fact that they are the chief pur­vey­ors of the de­mean­ing lan­guage be­ing de­cried. It ig­nored the re­al­i­ties of how cul­ture gets trans­mit­ted in con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety and the prom­i­nent role that African Amer­i­cans play in that trans­fer. It failed to rec­og­nize the mar­ket forces at play. And it held blacks un­ac­count­able for any of the dam­age, sad­dling whites with all the blame.

I have no tears for Imus. His style of com­men­tary is as out­dated as black-and-white TV, and he de­served to be sent pack­ing. But here’s the point: If African Amer­i­cans wanted to hold Imus ac­count­able and pun­ish him, shouldn’t they take sim­i­lar ac­tions against some in their own group?

Ur­ban Amer­i­can pop cul­ture is fast be­com­ing a black — and some­times His­panic — thing, and a bunch of peo­ple are get­ting filthy rich from it. The dirty lit­tle se­cret here is that the fight over Imus may not have been so much about his ter­mi­nal foot-in-mouth dis­ease as about who has do­min­ion over that cul­ture and who col­lects the cash.

“Imus didn’t say any­thing that hasn’t been in­cluded in thou­sands of records,” said Misty Brown, a lo­cal arts con­sul­tant. “We have been called far worse, and by our own peo­ple.”

It was black rap artists who cre­ated the im­age of African Amer­i­can women as “bitches and hos.” That im­age has been mar­keted and dis­trib­uted by large cor­po­ra­tions — Warner Brothers, Vi­a­com, Black En­ter­tain­ment Television — and pur­chased all over the world by reg­u­lar folks, white and black, in­clud­ing, no doubt, some of the same peo­ple who called for Imus’s head.

As a re­sult, there isn’t any­thing sa­cred in black cul­ture any­more, said lo­cal hip-hop artist Bo­mani Armah, “be­cause it isn’t sa­cred among us.”

Some black ra­dio sta­tions “al­low songs to be played that clearly dis­re­spect black women,” said Michael Francis, a crim­i­nal jus­tice ex­pert and so­cial com­men­ta­tor in the Dis­trict, who cau­tions that not all the blame for the den­i­gra­tion of black women can be placed at rap’s door. The an­tecedents can be found in slav­ery, when black women were bred, whipped and put on the block to work for oth­ers.

But even though it was poorly ex­e­cuted Imus-speak, “nappy-headed ho” is, in fact, a prog­eny of black street/thug cul­ture. It is a cul­ture whose sym­bols, id­ioms and fash­ions have not only seeped into the Amer­i­can main­stream over the past 20 years but have been en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braced. We see and hear this cul­ture ev­ery day in the ’hood, in high schools, in the movie ticket line, in the up­per­crust col­lege dorm.

Con­sider that last year’s Academy Award for Best Orig­i­nal Song went to “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from the movie “Hus­tle and Flow.” That Howard Univer­sity gave rap­per P. Diddy the same post­grad­u­ate achieve­ment award that it once be­stowed upon famed African Amer­i­can au­thor Zora Neale Hurston. Or that in 2001 the NAACP gave its pres­ti­gious Im­age Award to R. Kelly, a black singer ac­cused of hav­ing sex with un­der­age girls.

We know this “thug” cul­ture by its aw­ful and ex­ten­sive body tat­toos; its den­i­grat­ing lan­guage that sculpts ev­ery wo­man — re­gard­less of color — into a sex ob­ject or a joke. We know it by its so-called ur­ban fash­ion, which in­cludes the butt-re­veal­ing pants, the flashy and of­ten fake gold — around the neck, on the arms, in the mouth. And yes, by the lyrics we hear and the videos we see. Nowa­days, it has also spread into com­edy, said Armah, who notes a rise in po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect jokes and skits.

African Amer­i­cans “have cre­ated the at­mos­phere where peo­ple feel com­fort­able mak­ing deroga­tory state­ments,” said D.C. small-busi­ness owner Ed­win Chin-Shue, who man­aged sev­eral record stores for years. “If we want to boy­cott Imus, then we have to boy­cott Warner Brothers and Sony. We have to boy­cott Spike Lee and ra­dio sta­tions that play rap mu­sic.”

The Imus con­tro­versy was an ex­ten­sion of the bat­tle over use of the N-word. African Amer­i­cans can throw around the most de­mean­ing ter­mi­nol­ogy, seek­ing to cash in at ma­jor record com­pa­nies, pro­duc­tion stu­dios or pub­lish­ing houses (check out the chick-lit phe­nom, which in many cases is just blax­ploita­tion movies put to print). But the mo­ment cer­tain whites walk into that world, blacks are in­sulted, deeply of­fended. Spike Lee can use the word “jig­ga­boo” in his movie “School Daze.” Imus and his pro­ducer side­kick had bet­ter step back.

Who is care­taker of the au­then­tic thug cul­ture, in­clud­ing when and how to use the phrases “nappy head” or “bitches and hos”? That is the ques­tion.

The day af­ter Imus was fired, rap­per Snoop Dogg was quoted as say­ing that what Imus did and what rap­pers do “are two sep­a­rate things.” Rap­pers “have th­ese songs com­ing from our minds and our souls that are rel­e­vant to what we feel,” he said. “I will not let them [ex­ple­tive] say we in the same league as him.”

But as Amer­i­can so­ci­ety be­comes more col­orized, more re­flec­tive of its mul­ti­cul­tural roots and fea­tures, blacks may be un­able to re­tain sole rights of pro­pri­etor­ship, even through bul­ly­ing and demon­stra­tions. Ex­pres­sions seep into main­stream cul­ture and be­come uni­ver­sal prop­erty.

“Peo­ple start think­ing [a phrase] is cool,” said Deb­o­rah Tan­nen, pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. “You use it be­cause you have the feel­ing of be­ing with it, be­ing on the cut­ting edge. It’s also about the youth cul­ture” and “the al­lure as­so­ci­ated with youth.”

So we heard the ag­ing Imus at­tempt­ing to repli­cate the lan­guage of youth­ful African Amer­i­can thug cul­ture. And we saw Bush ad­viser Karl Rove on­stage at a re­cent ra­dio cor­re­spon­dents’ din­ner, clum­sily try­ing out the men­ac­ing gangsta pose and con­fronta­tional hand ges­tures as he shouted out the lame lyrics to a faux rap song. It was Amer­i­can street cul­ture come to the White House.

And street cul­ture’s in­tro­duc­tion into main­stream Amer­ica, though in­cre­men­tal, is not ac­ci­den­tal. It is or­ches­trated by im­age- and opin­ion-mak­ers — black and white — and cor­po­ra­tions champ­ing at the bit for new mar­kets and the cash they prom­ise. The pub­lic aids and abets the process. It’s less about be­ing cool and more about the money. Ka-ching.

Each year rap/hip-hop brings more than $4 bil­lion to the mu­sic in­dus­try. The ur­ban ap­parel mar­ket racks up more than $2 bil­lion in sales an­nu­ally, ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous trade publi­ca­tions.

“In a cap­i­tal­ist en­vi­ron­ment, what is main­stream is what sells,” said WAMU Ra­dio talk show host Kojo Nnamdi. “The den­i­gra­tion of women has been a huge seller in the last 20 years. Black men do it and even black women do it.”

And that den­i­gra­tion gets picked up and tossed around freely. “You should hear some of the things the young ladies I work with call them­selves,” said Jan­ice Ferebee, pres­i­dent of Got It Goin’ On, which pro­vides self-es­teem and life-skills ser­vices for girls and young women in the United States, South Africa and Ghana.

So it’s fair to ask: Why now? Why all the heat and bother? Surely it’s not the first time that African Amer­i­cans have heard rap-speak in main­stream Amer­ica. And why won’t blacks chas­tise their own?

The same ma­chine that fed Imus has made an aw­ful lot of black folks mil­lion­aires. So this mat­ter of who is pa­raded in the pub­lic square for an old-fash­ioned butt-kick­ing must be a finely ex­e­cuted dance. Al­though Sharp­ton and oth­ers may claim that they have flogged rap artists, one thing is cer­tain: They haven’t flogged P. Diddy, Snoop Dogg or many of the oth­ers with the same vengeance that they did Imus. They haven’t sought to strip them of their spon­sors and their liveli­hood. One rea­son may be that money from th­ese trash-talk­ers keeps the wheels of more than a few black or­ga­ni­za­tions turn­ing. The last per­son who had the guts to chal­lenge those within the race was the late C. Delores Tucker, who led the Na­tional Congress of Black Women.

“Peo­ple have been al­lowed to con­tinue liv­ing out this most amaz­ing dou­ble stan­dard,” said Nnamdi. It’s time that dou­ble stan­dard were slain.


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