We're Our Own Worst Imuses

By Jonetta Rose Barras
Sunday, April 15, 2007

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 His style of commentary is as outdated as black-and-white TV, and he deserved to be sent packing.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.

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