By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Ever since she started pumping her friends' snapshots of black people behaving badly onto her Web site, Jam Donaldson has been at the center of an uncomfortable cultural question:
Can African Americans publicly humiliate, satirize and otherwise shame other African Americans and not be called "race haters," "elitists" and "Uncle Toms"?
Donaldson has heard it all before. Since 2004, her Web site, http://Hotghettomess.com, has featured a motley assortment of gangbangers, hip-hop poseurs and strutting hoochie mamas, set off by quotes and comments that suggest Donaldson's disapproval. The featured "Mess of the Month" for June is an unnamed plus-size woman wearing a halter top split almost to her navel. Her accessories are arm and chest tattoos and an oversize necklace with a cross. The caption beneath her photo is a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: "Nothing in [all] the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
Like what you see? Hate what you see? Either way, there's more where that came from. Donaldson, a lifelong District resident, is the creator, executive producer and writer of "Hot Ghetto Mess," a six-week TV series based on her Web site that will debut on Black Entertainment Television on Wednesday night.
The TV show isn't exactly like the Web site, Donaldson says, but it's in the same spirit. Which is to say that it features video clips of young African Americans (as well as folks of the Caucasianpersuasion) engaged in various acts of idiocy (random street brawls, gratuitous booty-shaking, etc.). It also puts cultural ignorance on display (people are asked in man-on-the-street interviews whether they know what "NAACP" stands for; they don't). The tone, Donaldson says, is more or less in keeping with the same finger-wagging critique embedded in the Web site's slogan: "We Got to Do Better."
"I think shame is underestimated as a tool for behavior modification," says Donaldson, sitting in the front parlor of her duplex in the District's historic LeDroit Park neighborhood. "I could have done it in a nicer way, I guess. This is just how I chose to do it."
This is not, she acknowledges, "the ivory tower approach. I'm saying, and a lot of other people are saying, that just because you're poor and you're young, it doesn't mean you can act like an idiot. If you're starting fights at a funeral, I'm talking about you. If you're going to the prom with your [breasts] hanging out, I'm talking about you. If you're having five babies with five different people, I'm talking about you. I've said it before: It's not where you live, it's how you behave."
Preachers and teachers and prominent African Americans such as Bill Cosby and Barack Obama have delivered that message before. But Donaldson, 34, might be a different kind of messenger: a Gen-X'er, a child of the Hip-Hop Age.
The message is also being carried by an unusual medium. Donaldson isn't blind to the irony of having her show on BET, the District-based channel founded by Robert Johnson and now owned by the conglomerate Viacom. BET has long been on the receiving end of the criticism that its music videos venerate the worst stereotypes about African Americans -- in other words, some of the same kinds of images on which "Hot Ghetto Mess" is commenting. ("Hot Ghetto" even engages in a sly bit of self-referential media criticism by asking people what they think of the portrayal of women in music videos.)
Donaldson came to BET's attention via a DVD version of the Web site that she produced in 2005. The DVD made some noise at the Hollywood Black Film Festival last year, which prompted BET's president of entertainment, film director Reginald Hudlin ("House Party," "Boomerang"), to contact Donaldson about a series. Jam (short for Jameela) subsequently quit her job as a Legal Aid Society attorney in October to develop the program full time.
BET liked what she produced so much that it moved "Hot Ghetto" from a 2008 start to a fall 2007 launch, then to summer, which is prime time for a new series in the cable industry. The show, hosted by comedian Charlie Murphy (brother of Eddie), is scheduled to air immediately after another new series, "Socially Offensive Behavior," a hidden-camera show in the mold of "Punk'd" or "Candid Camera."
A few people have a problem with that. Since January, when word began to circulate about BET's interest in developing the series, a Chicago area student, Latrice Janine, worked up an online petition calling on BET to cancel "Hot Ghetto." The petition, electronically "signed" by 5,245 people as of last Wednesday, reads in part, "How long must we continue the minstrel show? . . . Viacom/BET, we are no longer going to sit patiently by and let you make Black people look like buffoons."
"Our feeling is that people who are concerned about stereotypes will want to watch the show because the whole point is to challenge stereotypes," said Jeanine Liburd, a BET spokeswoman. Asked how a show called "Hot Ghetto Mess" would achieve that, Liburd said she would check and provide descriptions of segments; she did not call back.
Nevertheless, the controversy over "Hot Ghetto" has helped and hurt the show. Donaldson shrugs off the criticism and notes that it has brought plenty of attention to the program, helping to double the number of visitors to her Web site (to about 30,000 a day).
On the other hand, it has also put a couple of would-be advertisers into a post-Imus crouch. In the past few weeks, State Farm Insurance and Home Depot both asked BET to remove their banner ads from promotions for the show on BET.com. Home Depot issued a statement saying it is not a sponsor of "Hot Ghetto"; State Farm said it found the program "inappropriate" and wanted no association with it.
Donaldson finds all the hoopla a little surprising. Although a committed TV watcher (she loves "Golden Girls" reruns), she never thought she'd be writing and producing her own TV series. Instead, she aimed for career in law (her degree is from Georgetown) after attending District public schools (Jefferson Junior High, Wilson High) and Howard University, which is about four blocks from her home. Donaldson's late father, Jeff, was dean of the fine arts department at Howard; Donaldson's mother, Arnicia Williams, is a retired FEMA employee.
Despite the liberal politics that surrounded her, Donaldson says her own views are more eclectic. She cites Churchill: "If you're not a liberal at 20, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative at 40, you have no brain."
As a legal aid attorney, helping poor people with housing disputes, she says, helped change her dorm-room politics: "I saw the victim mentality up close and personal. There's a downside to perceiving yourself as a victim in all aspects of your life."
She's not sure she'll go back to the job if her TV show isn't picked up. At the same time, she says she's not sure "I can bring myself to vote Republican" in the next presidential election.
Donaldson, though, says she's not trying to score political points for anyone with "Hot Ghetto." She's just trying to sound some alarms and, maybe, "raise the standards of my community."
Donaldson knows some will accuse her of airing dirty laundry, and providing cover for racists. She's not concerned.
"Someone sent me an e-mail [and] said he loved the site and said he was from the KKK," she says. "I don't really care about that. Black people know what I'm saying is true. Everyone knows it's true. We have to get beyond that. We're stifling our growth as long as we're obsessed with what white people think."
Besides, she adds: "We all need a voice to challenge ourselves. Sometimes you have to be shocking."
Staff writer John Maynard contributed to this report.