Thursday, January 17, 2008

how do you stop an avalanche?

objectification: In order to protect themselves from other people, people put others at a distance. This allows them to see the other people as things or objects that can be treated without having to consider their feelings (if I empathize with you and hurt you, I also hurt myself). When we objectify others, we strip them of their humanity and their individuality, hence objectification is also called depersonification.

i'll never forget my first trip to prague. i was fronting james blood ulmer's power trio "blues experience raw" and everyone on the european press junket was kind of foaming at the mouth about it. we were traipsing all over europe. the pay was good, the food was good. maybe i'd get to practice my bad german when we got to berlin. fun, fun, fun.

no one had to tell me. i knew that as an african american in europe, i was in a strange and precarious position that had me dangling between those pigeonholes of icon, fetish, heroine, whore at every turn. they know who josephine baker was. they watch oprah every day. they listen to hip-hop, to foxy brown. they readily assume that all black people are inherently ignorant, profoundly uneducated, inarticulate, violent, rabidly oversexed ghetto dwellers who listen to hip-hop, play basketball (or some other sport) and eat fried chicken by the bucketful. had they ever actually met any african-americans? the answer was usually a resounding no.

at first, i thought: if that's the vibe, why bother extending myself? they had me all figured out. nevertheless, i always looked for the moments that would connect us. i couldn't help myself. it's my nature to empathize.

i had never experienced prague and after careful research and a pocket reference language book, i felt ready to explore. as i unpacked my luggage, i flipped on the tv for some visual wallpaper. what greeted me was something so familiar, yet so wholly unexpected. i felt like someone brained me in my conscience. i slowly backed away from the set, perched myself on the end of the bed and stared at the screen for the better part of an hour in disbelief.

it was sanford and son, straight outta the '70s -- with all of those grunts, those oh-so-black attitudinal inflections, those mammyfied mmm-hmm that's right! yeah, chile! fill-ins -- in german. laugh track completely intact, of course. at first it was hilarious, to hear the way they "blackened up" the german voices. i remember meeting the mexican voice of james bond awhile back and having him explain to me that when it was time to speak espanol, his voice would always be attached to bond. i got a kick out of imagining some german guy as the voice of fred sanford. but after awhile, i felt embarassed, humiliated, freaked out. in retrospect, i think i was in shock.

all i could think was, everyone all over the world is seeing this? that wasn't all they were watching, either. they get all the shows from back in the day. and they love them.

why don't i love them? because much of it looks like a modern day minstrel show that, in its better moments, reinforces some pretty foul stereotypes. what scared me is that those shows were probably much of what formed ideas and opinions about me. i have to admit, it was pretty strange hearing some some white european someone used the "n" word on me a few days later on a gig oh-so-casually, in that hip-hop way, which of course made it okay to say it. when he saw (and heard) how shocked and angry i was, he blurted, it's hollywood! it's rap music! it's not me! and i was like, sure it's you. it came out of your mouth, didn't it?

and that goes double for hip-hop videos that denigrate black women. thankfully, they don't get BET in Europe -- yet. They have a viewership of 90 million in the US, Canada and the Carribean -- but those videos that are featured on BET Uncut in the middle of the night, the ones with the half naked sisters shaking so hard that their clothes fall off? those play everywhere. and they love them.

i'm channel surfing the other night and i see bob johnson, the black man that started BET, passionately defending hillary clinton with all of the self-righteousness that he could muster. i can't think of any self-respecting african-american that doesn't think this man isn't the scum of the earth, for more reasons that are fit to print. here's my top three:
  1. bob has a long history of exploiting african-americans for his own monetary gain. he sold low cost programming that focused on sex and violence. that's a good business move because it makes him an enormous amount of money, but it's bad for the community. who cares? bob didn't. "I never really embraced that notion that BET was an heirloom that belonged to the greater black society," bob says. "BET was a business that had a great impact on African-American society, but it didn't belong to it. And so, my thing is that we want to contribute, we want to add value. But we have to operate according to the philosophy that you have to exist in a world where business decisions have to be made based on business, not on political notions or social agendas."
  2. bob paid the people who worked at BET near-slave wages. again, if you're in it to make a lot of money, this can be construed as a good business move. this was bob's approach. "i'm in business to make money," says bob. and he has. he sold BET to Viacom in 2000 for 3 billion dollars, becoming the first black billionaire, at least stateside. think about all of the natural resources and untold riches in africa, and so i consider shaka zulu and many other great african leaders to be billionaires many times over. but that's me.
  3. how can Viacom -- white owned and operated -- run the only black network on tv? by using the same formula that bob has so carefully built. sure, gangsta rap saved the music industry in the 90s. some of what they created -- like NWA's Fuck Tha Police -- was powerful and relevant and necessary. but then somewhere in there, everyone began to believe that the use of the "n" word, the violence, the materialism, the objectification of black women that rap and hip-hop sold to the world as art was actually black culture. and because everyone loved hip-hop and rap so much, it became something that everyone wanted to emulate. (white) people who consider themselves to be "down" with hip-hop use the "n" word all the time, whether they're talking about black people or themselves. black women are casually described as 'hos on nationally syndicated radio programs. the black beauty paradigm has shifted away from natural beauty to what's video ready. the houses, the cars, the money, the appearance of wealth -- this has spawned a cottage industry of its own, from pimp my ride to MTV cribs to CMTs trick my truck. it's a lifestyle. though he would scarcely acknowledge it, this is bob johnson's real legacy.
everything slid into this money-making abyss that left no room for anything but shuckin' and jivin,' because that's what brought in such huge capital and making money is all that any of these people cared about. especially bob. the snowball of 2ost century minstrelsy in media that started with al jolson and stepin fetchit and amos and andy kept rolling down the hill with good times and sanford and son until it became a BET avalanche. interestingly, no one knows how to stop one. you kind of have to let them stop themselves.

who knows if that avalanche is going to bury us as a people or not. it definitely feels like it will, whenever i deal with someone who'd rather objectify me than empathize.

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