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Does He Not Have a First Name?
So here is my take on the Imus matter. Might as well get it out here before it decides it wants to be a poem or something. Wouldn’t want to devote my poetic reserves on something that has already gone past its “sell-by-date” in the media market-place. (I am being ironic, people).
I have watched Imus without regularity but with enough frequency to know that at some point something like this was going to happen. Imus, like Howard Stern and many others has created a persona that seeks to push the envelope on daring speech. He presents a a casual everyman persona that is impatient with preciousness, political correctness and insincerity. He never struck me as a “loose canon” in the way that Stern can be–he always seemed interested in the people he spoke to on his show, and he seemed quite proud of his juice–the friends he talked about who were clearly in high places. But in his banter with his producer or side-kick (I was never sure what the official role of this guy was) the banter would turn to jokes about people, elliptical comments about situations, and that now common practice of radio show hosts of talking an issue to death through these seemingly sudden and unexpected returns to the topic when we least expect it. I have not watched the clip of his comments about the Rutger’s basketball team, but I know that my reactions may help me to understand what all of this can mean to me.
I first heard the story as a bit of official news media gossip. My initial reaction was not surprise, but a certain casual amusement at how idiotic this man could be to make such a comment. The comment seems dated, unusually vicious and unquestionably in poor taste. I do think that this will blow over, but I turn out to be quite wrong. I thought it would blow over because Imus is a big shot, he makes a lot of money for the network and he seemed intent on apologizing. Still, I also knew that if the story continued beyond a few days, then he would have to do something dramatic or something would have to be done to him.
The photo that was being shown of the Rutgers team struck me as interesting. The media nicely placed the beautiful, very African faces of these women beside the comment by Imus. These were unquestionably black women, with full lips, dark complexions and hair in various stages of “naturalness”. Now the attack seemed to be loaded. There is no question in my mind that Imus decided to single out these women for their race. He seemed intent on demeaning them by entering into the ancient discourse of treating the black female body as an object of animalistic disposability. His point is that these tough, strong women, these African women are defined by their race and are strong and tough because of their race. There is nothing in his words that would point directly to this idea, but the context is loaded. Nappy-headed is insulting at some many peculiar levels. Nappy headed is an insult that girls will throw at each other. To be nappy headed one cannot afford to get one’s nappy hair done right. The “nappiness” of one’s hair is a reflection of one’s blackness. And yet the very act of trying to shake “nappiness” is a kind of black quirk. The argument goes that ever since madam C.J. Walker made a veritable fortune on the loathing that women have of their natural hairdo, favoring, instead, hairdos that approximated to white folks hair, the very fact that “nappy” can be seen as an insult is itself evidence of just how far the self-loathing of African features goes in black people. But it is Imus who has taken on the task of pressing that button.
I have heard the argument that Imus should not be given a hard time because black hip-hop artists say much worse than he does in their songs and nobody demands that they be fired from their jobs. As a result, I have heard many including black leaders, declare the reprimand of Imus as in danger of seeming hypocritical—the endorsement of a certain double standard. It is a spurious argument, surely. After all, Imus is not a rap artist, and this business of treating these matters of language as if all contexts do not affect the way we engage language is misguided. Were Imus to have written a rap song and put that on a Cd and tried to market it and go on tour with it, I think the discussion would be more fascinating. First of all, there would be no question of firing Imus for that act, and secondly, he would face other repercussions for doing something like among his peers in the hip-hop industry. I know no black nationally syndicated radio show hosts who have used the kind of language that Imus expected to get away with.
Imus cannot be sensibly judged by the standards set by rap artists just because they are black. By that token, we should just go ahead and judge him by hate-mongers of the worst kind and by pornographers. I am not suggesting that rap artists are either hate-mongers or pornographers, but I am saying that it is critical to think of who Imus is. He is an important public figure whose program is relied on for political and social opinion. He has a massive following and he understands the nature of that influence. Yes, I am saying that he has a greater responsibility than the average person does or should.
Others have used this opportunity to rail against the misguided nature of the long held view that where blacks can say things about each other and use certain language to describe each other, when whites do the same the implications are different. Here, the argument is that this, too is a terrible double-standard. If it is fine for black people to use that kind of language, then it should be fine for white people to use that language. A gentler take is that we should give the black folks who use a certain kind of language the same hard time that we give white people. I find the argument here another of those that is not rooted in reality or in the nature of human interaction. When a white person, knowing full well the implications of using racial epithets and the long history of what they mean, chooses to use such language, their weight and impact will be invariably quite different from that kind of language coming from a black person.
American is a double-minded nation. There is one America, and idealized America in which all people are equal, in which everyone has equal opportunities to success, in which race is not a defining force, in which gender is not a defining and alienation force. In this America, the American Dream is available to all. In this America, people can be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. In this America, the playing field is even and people can be assured that they will not be at a disadvantage just because of what they might look like or who they might be. It is the America that many want to believe in. This desire is so strong that even in t5he face of all evidence to the contrary, people will still ignore those facts and believe in the dream. The reason is simple: to believe otherwise would be to open up a veritable Pandora’s box of questions that are not easily answered. If America is unfair to one group then whatever success I may have could be unfairly had. The world just feels so much better and is so much easier to manage if the assumption of equality is ion place.
The other America is one we are all aware of. It is the one that reveals the underbelly of racism, the problems of sexism, the violence, the viciousness, the world that repeats itself in our lives but we don’t talk about it. This America arrives in shocking stories of unfairness in our society. It beats against the dream and makes us wonder whether there is any real chance of change. It is the America that allows people to have continued doubts about the likelihood that either Barak Obama or Hilary Clinton can make it to the presidency. This America has been coming at us through the odd way we are dealing with the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s milestone in baseball. This America can dominate the way we view the world, but it can be quite debilitating as well.
Torn between these two Americas, we try to find some middle ground. Imus and his antics are locked into the second America. What people are trying to do is to apply the pretend that Imus is an aberration and that the norm is the first America. The effort to say that Imus should not be so badly treated if blacks who have made similar statements about black women are let off the hook is a product of the first America. But it is clear that it does not work, that it does not hold up.
I don’t know what the implication of the firing of Imus might be. What I do know is that his defense cannot be that he has been shaped or de-sensitized to the use of this language by the amount of insult that black rappers are using in their songs. After all, I don’t think anyone has even shown that Imus is a serious fan of hip-hop. The push to have hip hop artists clean up their act and to move away from the insulting language is a good one, but it is a separate one.