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 His style of commentary is as outdated as black-and-white TV, and he deserved to be sent packing.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

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.


Jonetta Rose Barras is the

political analyst for

WAMU Radio.

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