Monday, December 29, 2008

Saltsman's "We Hate the USA" CD

As one of the many Americans considering a descent on the inauguration ceremonies next month, even without any actual tickets in hand (and nary a perfunctory response to my queries about possibly obtaining some from my local Congressman), I have been following the "transition" fairly closely. And I'm not just talking about the president elect's cabinet picks. I also mean his decisions for the ceremony itself. The brilliant choice of poet Elizabeth Alexander; the more controversial decision to ask Rick Warren to offer up the day's prayer.

Obama is certainly trying to demonstrate his commitment to an inclusive political conversation that allows for many different ideological positions. Frank Rich persuasively challenges the limits and contours of that move vis-a-vis the Warren choice in today's New York Times. But it is clear why Obama feels he has to make such massive gestures in the direction of political inclusion. To his opponents, he represents the unassimilable anti-American. He is the butt of jokes. The threat from within.

Just think about Chip Saltsman's version of holiday gift-giving this year. Saltsman was national campaign adviser for Mike Huckabee during his failed presidential run, and Saltsman is now one of the people vying for head of the RNC. This weekend, we also found out that he sent a CD out to RNC members (as a Christmas gift) that included the song youtubed above, "Barack, The Magic Negro."

But the CD didn't just showcase that gem. According to Rebecca Sinderbrand's CNN report, the CD itself was titled "We Hate the USA," and boasted tunes that poked fun at many other political figures.

According to Sinderbrand and The Hill, the CD included the following song titles: "John Edwards's Poverty Tour," "Wright place, wrong pastor," "Ivory and Ebony" and "The Star Spanglish Banner."

The Star Spanglish Banner?

Saltsman has dismissed the controversy out of hand, describing the CD as a harmelss spoof. "I think most people recognize political satire when they see it," he said. "I think RNC members understand that."

But it is clear that Saltsman comes close to trafficking in the very forms of small-minded xenophobia, race-baiting, partisan hypocrisy, and fear-mongering that helped cost John McCain the 2008 election. To many critics, such a CD looks like political pandering (and scapegoating) at its worst -- and doesn't nearly imply the kind of forward-thinking sensibility needed to take the Republican party where it needs to go. If anything, it appears to be a surefire recipe for many more electoral defeats at the hands of a browning electorate.

However, Saltsman's holiday gesture can also help to explain some of what Obama is up against -- and why a few of his picks (for cabinet and the inaugural dais) can leave many of his supporters unsatisfied.

Saltsman demonstrates the context Obama must negotiate, a politicized landscape where some Republican operatives think that disagreeing with them on substantive policy issues means that you must just "hate the USA."

But Obama can't get caught up in proving himself to these intractable naysayers, even as he tries to embrace those rivals serious about talking honestly (and in good faith) across deep ideological divides.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Racist Grim Reaper?

The election of Barack Obama is supposed to signal (according to some pundits) the beginning of the end for race talk (i.e., publicly expressed concerns about racial discrimination) in contemporary America. However, such predictions underestimate the continuing significance of “race” as a socially salient category that allows pseudo-science to bolster folk empiricism. They also misread the contemporary subtleties of racial discrimination by vulgarizing them. But one comedian's anthropomorphic rendering of Death as a racist reaper helps to showcase the ridiculous nature of such positions.

David Alan Grier’s most recent episode of the comedy show Chocolate News lampoons a certain overly simplistic characterization of racial disparities in health outcomes. Grier’s opening rant reduces those race-based differences to the racist biases of a single personified figure, Death himself.

In his best performative version of “angry black man” meets “Fox News commentator,” Grier asks why White celebrities such as Grammy-winner Amy Winehouse and comedian Artie Lange (both famous for chronic drug abuse) are still alive and successful (Lange’s memoir was actually No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list at the start of this very month) even as a too-young comedian like Bernie Mac was killed by a relatively obscure disease earlier in the year.

Of course, Bernie Mac and Artie Lange are poor stand-ins for the general and systematic inequities between blacks and whites vis-a-vis health-related concerns today. In many ways, however, Grier still successfully captures the unreasonable nature of certain dismissive responses to contemporary invocations of racism, invocations often rejected out of hand as simply playing The Race Card, especially if the accusing party cannot produce a black-hatted culprit as the hyper-intentional source of the problem.

If there is a difference in health outcomes, it must be because of a purposefully prejudiced (and decidedly sentient) being such as Death. Or at least a secret cabal of closeted KKK MD's -- maybe slipping toxins into black patients’ IV's.

Without such clichéd smoking guns conspicuously placed at the scene of supposed racial crimes (and in the absence of any recognizably racist “bad guys” to scapegoat), some people would demand that we all automatically assume racism has little part to play in markedly different health outcomes between racial groups. If anything, such racial differences must have to do with genetics (with evolutionarily dissimilar capacities for, say, salt retention).

In many ways, current debates about racism in American culture have backed us all into a Death-as-racist corner. Without a sinister, animus-filled, and self-proclaimed racist to publicly demonize, we are relegated to only a quietist acceptance of our country’s imagined racial transcendence.

Death isn’t some supernatural creature disproportionately targeting blacks. But that isn’t nearly the only way that race/racism might serve as a productive analytical scaffold for making sense of continued racial disparities in an ostensibly "post-racial" moment.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Spike on Spike

This was the final week of classes for an undergraduate course on Spike Lee that I co-taught with Professor Salamishah Tillet here at the University of Pennsylvania, and Spike Lee was gracious enough to cap off the semester by visiting the class a couple of days ago and answering the students’ questions.

The course, Race Films: Spike Lee and his Interlocutors, was an examination of Spike Lee’s films from a variety of critical perspectives. The syllabus tried to frame our approach:

“This course requires students to think critically about historical and contemporary cinematic representations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the urban landscape. The class will examine various Spike Lee films for their aestheticization of broader social and cultural phenomena as well as their engagement with larger theoretical and political concerns. Students will be asked to watch the films closely, placing them in explicit conversation with the concepts and arguments that emerge from assigned readings and classroom discussions. By the end of the semester, students should have a richer understanding of not only Spike Lee’s oeuvre but also of how his filmic offerings are ‘read’ from a variety of analytical and political vantage points—as well as across a wide range of genres and disciplines.”

Tillet and I initially wanted the course to be a seminar or small lecture (12 to 25 students), but there was such interest in the topic that we decided to open it up—to almost 100 undergraduates.

We asked students to read across the humanities and the social sciences, using the work of an eclectic group of scholars (such as Guthrie Ramsey, Laura Mulvey, bell hooks, William Julius Wilson, Wahneema Lubiano, Roland Barthes, Barbara Smith, Michael Eric Dyson, Manning Marable, Oscar Gandy, Mark Anthony Neal, Renee Romano, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Taylor Branck, and Kara Keeling) to provide different contexts and subtexts for our engagements with Spike Lee’s films.

We also asked outside speakers to assist us in unpacking specific themes. For example, Kenneth Shropshire helped us to make sense of Spike Lee’s deployments of professional sports. Marc Lamont Hill unpacked Lee's representations of urban violence. Imani Perry offered a poignant interpretation of Lee's political investments in Southern history. Jason Sokol gave us the critical tools to dissect Lee's rendition of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 1960s. Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw asked students to look at the controversial debates about art and aesthetics that often serve as a subtle, but important, backdrop for Spike’s films. And Aishah Shahidah Simmons deconstructed Lee's filmic renditions of homosexuality. The entire semester was quite an ambitious intellectual ride.

Spike Lee also happened to released another film this September, Miracle at St. Anna, which was based on a James McBride novel about at a group of Black soldiers trapped in an Italian village during World War 2. (The students are writing their final papers on some aspect of that film.)

But the highlight of the semester had to be Spike Lee spending two hours with the undergraduates this week, answering their questions and responding with a few of his own.

The students pushed him on a lot of themes, including his much-criticized treatment of female sexuality/subjectivity (from Nola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It to Renata in Miracle at St. Anna), his fascination with professional sports (conspicuous in just about every single “Spike Lee Joint” ever made), his spat with Clint Eastwood earlier this year about representations of race in World War 2 films, his portrayal of white ethnic communities, and on and on.

When it was all done, I kept telling Lee how great a job he did. He laughed, and asked me if I thought he was going to be terrible. I didn't, but sometimes celebrities don’t take such events very seriously. Or they get defensive when students ask hard questions, when students do anything but genuflect obsequiously. But Lee didn’t ask for that.

The students challenged him, respectfully, and he tried to answer them without mincing words or dodging potentially controversial issues—and without simply defending himself or his work from “attacks.” The students really appreciated that. And so did their professors. Spike Lee, thank you.

Kanye Sings...

Kanye West has just released his latest CD, 808s and Heartbreak, an instrumentally pared-down and techno’d-up attempt to voice disillusionment about his recent breakup with his fiancée (several months ago) and the unexpected death of his mother during elective plastic surgery last year.

West if probably best known (especially to folks who aren’t big hip-hop fans) as the celebrity who blasted President Bush during a national telethon because of the government’s slow initial response to Hurricane Katrina. “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” he said. The comment caused quite a stir, and even compelled him to lampoon himself on a subsequent episode of Saturday Night Live.

Kanye’s newest offering is an introspective (some might say, solipsistic) attempt to articulate his sense of dissatisfaction with the spiritual/emotional vacuity of commercial success and all its material trappings.

It is also a hip-hop emcee’s attempt to sing and not just rap. That might not seem like such a big deal to people who don’t follow hip-hop music. But it is an incredibly bold move given the internal logics of hip-hop.

Lauryn Hill and and Queen Latifah are examples of hip-hop emcees who move easily between rhyming and singing. But they are exceptions to the rule. They are also women. And hip-hop polices female emcees much differently than their male counterparts.

For hip-hop’s male emcees, singing is a definite no-no. They only ever approach that domain gingerly and self-consciously. Hip-hop singers generally don’t try to rhyme. And hip-hop’s rappers don’t sing -- not sincerely. If anything, they approach that dividing line with a kind of self-parodic anti-virtuosity, a satirical tone immortalized by the likes of 1980s hip-hop pioneer Biz Markie:

There are dozens of male emcees who have deployed this anti-singing trope in their work. Ol’ Dirty Bastard is probably the closest to Biz Markie’s canonized status in that genre, but everyone from 50 Cent to Flava Flav have used it in some of their music. For hip-hop emcees, singing is usually relegated to catchy hooks during a song's chorus -- and sung by other artists. Anything else seems to confound implicit assumptions about how hip-hop masculinity performs itself in public.

There are a few male emcees who have tried to traverse that performative division of labor within hip-hop musical production without tongue-in-cheek inflections -- and without their hip-hop authenticity/reputation taking a public beating, figures such Mos Def, Michael Franti, and K-OS most immediately come to mind.

Kayne West’s latest studio effort attempts to vocalize his hurt and angst. And it does so through singing as much as rhyming. For hip-hop, that is a pretty radical intervention for an emcee to make. Of course, West has always been out there on an idiosyncratic and iconoclastic island all by himself somewhere -- for better or worse. We’ll see how his fans respond to this latest aesthetic mix of bold-faced egotism and would-be genius.