It was a sunlit moment.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve had students in my Pop Culture class talking about black images in entertainment media. As part of that discussion, I showed them a movie – Spike Lee’s 2000 satire, “Bamboozled.”
It is in some ways a deeply flawed film. But it derives an undeniable power and poignancy from its evocation of a century’s worth of black stereotypes. A bad-taste parade of Aunt Jemimas, Sambos, pickaninnies and minstrels shuffles across the screen and you can’t help but feel overwhelmed – saddened and sickened at this coarse slandering of black people and black life. When the movie went off, the room was sullen, silent and maybe a little shell-shocked.
Then I showed them a rap concert video. Lots of swagger and threats of violence. Lots of crotch grabbing, lots of motherbleep this and motherbleep that, lots of street-gang shout-outs and every other word the N-word for an audience that was predominantly white and delirious with enjoyment.
One student said that, had she never seen “Bamboozled,” she would never have thought twice about that video. But having seen it, the rappers seemed – and she said this with some surprise – “ignorant.” That was the sunlit moment – one of those rare instances when you can actually see your point getting across.
It came against a backdrop of big news from the hip-hop community. Meaning last month’s cease-fire between 50 Cent and The Game, two rival rappers who make their livings with images of violence. The two shook hands at Harlem’s historic Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, agreeing to squash a squabble that culminated in February with gunfire between their entourages outside a New York City radio station. One man was injured.
Afeni Shakur, mother of the murdered Tupac, pronounced herself “proud” to see peace break out. A New York rapper who calls himself Cormega said it was “a beautiful thing.”
With all due respect, let me just say that my own response is decidedly more mixed.
I keep trying to put this in a context I can understand, keep trying to imagine people loyal to Al Green shooting it out with those loyal to Marvin Gaye. Or Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin holding a news conference, like Middle East potentates, to announce a cease-fire.
I find myself wondering how black culture, that old sweet song of strivers and lovers, blues and rhythm and how I got over, ever came to this. Is this how the present generation of black entertainers builds upon the opportunities secured for them by the sacrifices of those who came before? Is this why Nat Cole was attacked onstage by white racists and Paul Robeson was blacklisted? Is it why the Temptations endured segregated ballrooms and Sammy Davis put up with death threats? So that two petty thugs with a reported 14 bullet wounds between them can get rich off coonish stereotypes that would make Sambo blush?
Most of all, I wonder this: How in the world did we ever reach a point where all of this came to seem normal? The questions are not about music. They are, rather, about the willingness of black people to lift black people. About whether it is still true that more is required from those who are given more. About whether this “more” is something we who are black have the right to expect and the will to demand. About whether we still give a damn about we.
I felt good leaving school last week, felt warmed by that sunlit moment. Then I stopped at a newsstand where the cover of Vibe, a hip-hop magazine, showed a striking image. Three murdered icons of rap – Jam Master Jay, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur – standing in a graveyard among the tombstones. I took it as a reminder that the need is urgent to find answers to those questions. And that until we do, sunlit moments will be few and far between.
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