My kids don’t like it when I tell them I don’t like hip hop music. They think if I don’t like hip hop I don’t like black music and that I am acting racist. I am bothered by their reaction. Not so much about the charge of racism–I mean if we’re all racist then the charge starts to lose its sizzle. Are they not racist too? No, what rankles is the charge that I must not like black music.
Aha, it dawns on the old codger that of course they would feel that way since hip hop and its close cousins have pretty much comprised black music in their lifetimes. They may know a Beatles song here or Jimi Hendrix there but Aretha? Luther Vandross? Stax-Volt? Muscle Shoals? Quiet Storm? Motown? Uh-uh.
Too bad, too. All these things are in my view as good as it gets. Not quite down the memory hole but dangerously close.
So now comes Howard Husock’s article in City Journal bemoaning the turn away from gospel, blues and soul toward rap. His article, like many in the generally estimable City Journal, has something of a moralizing/grumpy edge to it. And it is not all that deep–he paints with a broad and somewhat predictable brush.
Still and all, to this grumpy moralizer it is an article that is worth reading and it is good that he wrote it, if only to bring to center stage the notion that black music was really quite different prior to the rise of rap, and different not just musically but also in terms of values and ideas. Judging from the comments it seems some of his readers know little about pre-rap black music.
In that regard, I am cutting and pasting a blog post I wrote quite a while ago, when blogging was newer and I was blogging on my own–e.g., for sure you have not read this before. It tells a similar tale as the one told by Husock. It has to do with an experience I had as an administrator at a well-regarded art college.
Since I was blogging on a controversial racial topic while an administrator at a college I had to be quite sure to remain anonymous. The blog was published under the name of Fenster, of course, and that helped with desired anonymity. But the experience I was writing about was quite specific and known to the members of my community so I wanted to be doubly sure I remained anonymous.
So I used a contrivance: I began the post with a letter that I had received from a former student at an art college recounting the experience I wished to explore. I wrote the letter, of course, and it described my experience. I reasoned that the fake letter would make it difficult to pin the issue on me. Such are the dangers, or at least the perceived dangers, of blogging about higher education’s odd contours from the inside. I am not proud of the resort to anonymity, or the use of a fake letter to make myself even more anonymous but there you have it.
Here is the letter I supposedly received from someone else:
A few years back I graduated from the well-regarded art department at a well-regarded college. The capstone of the program was a senior show in which the best work got put in a gallery. This was done around the time of graduation so parents got to come, and it was done up as a pretty big deal. A couple of other seniors decided to publicize the event around campus. They created a series of posters, each of which had a TV star from the 70s on it, along with a cute quote promoting the show.
One poster featured the mother in the show Good Times, Jimmie Walker’s mom. Remember this was a spin off from the Jeffersons? She was a domestic working for the Jeffersons, and played the same role on Good Times.
Anyway, the poster had a picture of her saying something like “Come on Down to the Senior Show”. She had her maid’s uniform on and had a kitchen spoon in hand. I guess the administration found it offensive, probably because it reminded people of Aunt Jemima imagery. They ordered that all of the posters be taken down right away. Then a delegation of administrators arrived at the senior show itself and closed it down because of the offensive posters, giving all of us–students and parents both–a mini-lecture about sensitivity and responsibility. My parents were shocked, I was upset and embarrassed. Like most of the students who had work in the show, I wasn’t responsible for the posters and didn’t know the details about them. So to some extent I felt I was being punished personally for what someone else did. But even so, I didn’t really find the poster offensive. I don’t know a lot about Aunt Jemima, but I do remember Good Times fondly, and have no negative sense of the character.
The next day we had one of those campus wide cathartic meetings at which everyone–mostly white people–got to lecture each other about sensitivity and older faculty got to lecture all of us about the meaning of “intentionality” in the creation of art, and how we need to be much more aware of cultural stereotyping. The idea, I take it, was that her role as a domestic was demeaning and somehow redolent of slavery and things like that . . .
And this was my response:
That actress was Esther Rolle, and your story is illuminating in a number of respects. It seems to me that in his or her quest to ground an objection in history, the faculty member you mention may have gotten some of the details wrong.
Rolle was a proud and independent woman in real life who played a proud and independent woman on TV. In fact, as this site points out, she and John Amos were strongly in favor of building the TV family around positive role models, including a solid, two-parent family. Indeed, they objected when the focus of the show morphed from the family to their son, proto-hip-hopper Jimmie (Dy-no-mite!) Walker.
Rolle found the show turning in an offensive direction. She told Ebony Magazine in 1975, “He’s (Walker’s character) eighteen and he doesn’t work. He can’t read or write. He doesn’t think. The show didn’t start out to be that. (The) role of a bright, thinking child, has been reduced. Little by little – with the help of the artist, I suppose, because they couldn’t do that to me (emphasis added) — they have made J.J. more stupid and enlarged the role. Negative images have been slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child.”
So to the professors question about intentionality, I would possibly toss back a rejoinder about proportionality. Yes, Rolle played a domestic, but is the main issue the job description or the content of character? Methinks your professor may be mistaking motes for beams, possibly due to the beam in his or her own eye.
I mean, the clown Jimmy is to my mind much more offensive and minstrel-like. And isn’t it his character, not Rolle’s, that has morphed, survived and prospered in a hip-hop era?
But does anyone on campus find it offensive to systematically portray blacks as uneducated, as uninterested in education, as hustlers, as gangstas? The media are overflowing with this imagery. Pick up a newspaper and do the counting and sorting yourself. Do faculty hold teach-ins on the problems appropriating this imagery in one’s work? I’d wager not.
And here’s a more recent story, related by descent to the one you’ve recounted: just a few days ago, Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury had Bush refer to Condi Rice as “Brown Sugar”. So consider: the image of Esther Rolle is offensive and a reference to the National Security Advisor as a sexually available slave girl is not?
After all, consider the actual lyrics of that Rolling Stones song:
Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in New Orleans.
Scarred old slaver know he’s doin’ alright.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good
(a-ha) brown sugar, just like a young girl should
Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot,
Lady of the house wond’rin where it’s gonna stop.
House boy knows that he’s doin alright.
You should a heard him just around midnight.
Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good
(a-ha) brown sugar, just like a black girl should
I bet your mama was a tent show queen,
and all her boyfriends were sweet sixteen.
I’m no schoolboy but I know what I like,
You should have heard me just around midnight.
I’d think, dear reader, that your patronizing professors, who may be quick to giggle at Doonesbury and boogie to the Stones, ought to read these lyrics carefully before their next highfalutin’ lecture.