Author and professor of African-American literature and culture at University of Michigan Dr. Michael Awkward raps about Negroes, hoes and “real” Jews with BEAST henchperson D. Armenta
Your latest book, “Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a scapegoat” addresses an issue that the mainstream media (and by association, a large segment of the general public) has deemed offensive; you defend Imus’ controversial description of a women’s basketball team as “Nappy-headed hoes” as being taken out of context. Could you expand on that?
I argue that public reaction to the Imus controversy generally ignored its skit-comedy origins, or didn’t see its parodic intentions as relevant. Because I had watched the show for quite some time [a show which, by the way, sees satirically pushing the cultural envelope as its mission] I am certain that the phrase is not, as many people claimed, a reflection of Imus’ deep-felt animus towards black women generally or toward the specific black women who were members of the Rutgers team. Rather, because of the nature of Imus’ largely comedic show, I strongly believe that it needed to be recognized as being part of a skit in which Imus and his producer, Bernie McGuirk, were impersonating young black males and expressing some [perhaps even many] members of that group’s much-articulated contempt for certain types of black women.
The culture of black American youth, as represented on music videos and seen in urban malls and the streets of the inner city throughout the United States has produced a thin, soft, light-skinned, aggressively straight-haired and made-up female ideal that the women on the Rutgers team did not embody. These women were athletes, some of them muscular or at least larger than that youth cultural ideal. Some of them were dark-skinned. Some of them were thick-lipped. None of them were especially trying to look pretty, as we demand of women in most public circumstances; it seemed to me that it was those desires, those expectations, that Imus’ skit was tuned into and sought to express. However vested “Imus in the morning” can be said to be in praising a certain type of female [just this week Imus praised the conservative media figure Laura Ingraham for being attractive enough to warrant him watching her on television-- with the sound off] it is as invested in uncovering the ridiculousness of the culture’s attitudes about a number of things, including racism and perhaps to a lesser degree sexism.
Your stand is a pretty ballsy one, considering that you are a black man defending a white man who has been labeled as a racist. I saw one of your readings on C-Span Books; you appeared to be trying very hard to state valid facts in the face of many distractions.
I’m much more wary than I used to be of people throwing around such labels as “racist”, frankly. My wariness in this case stems from having watched how these accusations seem, more often than we admit, based on very limited notions of the people who are being accused.
Imus lives a rich white man’s existence, as he acknowledges all the time, but it is one that seems enriched by a strong sense of a personal mission to aid people. I’ve heard him discuss his ranch for kids with cancer, heard him discuss the lack of research being done on Sickle-Cell Anemia [a disorder affecting black people almost exclusively] heard him rail against structures that overwhelmingly impact black people. I’ve seen images of black kids at his New Mexico ranch, heard snippets of black music on his program, and marveled at his generosity toward the widow of renowned Pentecostal bishop Gilbert Patterson, whose televised sermons he said he listened to many Sundays and complimented at least five times a year. Also, I’ve heard him tell [or allow others to tell] jokes of which black people were the butt.
And I had long before weighed his good deeds against his occasional [and in some peoples’ estimation frequent] comedic excesses.
But I was fascinated by another question: how do we—black Americans especially, but liberal and progressive Americans of all races also—profit from labeling folks like Imus racist? What needs do such labels serve for the black masses, say, and for progressive whites?
People have told me that my argument is “ballsy”; I do mention the need to develop bigger testicles at some point in the book, in fact, but I don’t think it necessarily was. Or maybe I do, depending on my mood. It was, however, certainly controversial but I have courted controversy most of my writing life. I proudly insisted that I was a “black male feminist” before virtually anyone else did, and I have written sometimes controversial articles and books—books taking on racism, sexism, and what I saw as the flaws of feminist arguments—for over two decades.
For most of my life, I’ve been aware that I live in a culture that’s vast. I’ve listened to music and read works by people whom others insist I wasn’t supposed to like (or at least write about) because I was black and male.
I have always resisted the notion that I had to do or think a certain way because I am black and male.
I am a proud feminist, and have been one ever since I learned what that meant. Everything I’ve written, every class I teach, and virtually every conversation that I have offers me opportunities to demonstrate that fact. I am very aware of the limitations of “groupthink” and expected perspectives.
Could you give a few examples of “groupthink” in your own experience?
One “groupthink” perspective, in fact, used to be that men couldn’t produce feminist insights because they were men—or more accurately, hadn’t divested themselves sufficiently of their sense of male privilege.
What about “groupthink” experiences as a black man?
I hated that people thought that I should cheer O.J. Simpson’s criminal ass because I was black. Or that I should have gone to the Million Man March because I was a black man. Or that there should be a correctly “black” response to Obama’s candidacy and that I should be filled with racial pride because he was elected.
Or that I shouldn’t watch Imus’ show or “defend” him because, of course, people who didn’t know his show (and many who did!) were speaking vociferously of him as a racist.
I don’t claim to know things I don’t know. I try not to prejudge people or circumstances [too often, those who prejudge end up with egg on their faces].
What was it about Imus’ show specifically that appealed to you?
For a long time, Imus’ show was my favorite show on television. I learned all sorts of stuff about politics by watching it. I learned not to take myself [or the politicians he lovingly made fun of who appeared on his show] so seriously. Watching his show during a dark period of my life, I learned the importance of laughter again, even when it’s motivated by pain and anguish. I liked the show so much I used to have dreams about it, quite frankly. In the dreams I was an intern on the I-team, joking with the boys in ways I’d never feel comfortable doing in my real life. The show was hugely important to me, waking up as I sometimes did with a gnawing sense of nothingness.
I loved that Imus talked about his difficulties, displayed his ego, explained his positions—or often, the lack thereof—and that he knew so much about music, about politics, about recovery, and that he could host a show that moved from silly bullshit to serious engagement with our horrible treatment of veterans of Bush’s ill-fated Middle East experiment.
He’s an endlessly interesting figure, a great interviewer, a charming cad, an always-injured cowboy, a pussy-whipped husband feared by his guests but seemingly afraid to contradict his wife about anything that matters. Watching him helped me to figure out some contradictions I was struggling with; or at least to recognize that I didn’t have to resolve them all.
I guess “ballsy” was an understatement..What keeps you going? It’s gotta be hard, having the unpopular view. I’ve been there too many times myself; my reaction is usually withdrawal, depression and anger. How do you keep on without letting people get to you?
What keeps me going, I guess, is a stubborn streak and a long-time aversion to being told — implicitly and explicitly — what I was supposed to be and think as a consequence of others’ preconceptions. Like many people who become intellectuals, I suppose, my favorite basic question (of the who/what/where/why variety) has always been “why.”
I came of age as a scholar when feminism was beginning to become a crucial area of study, and its principles were crucial to me as I was trying to understand the world that had been dominated by my mother’s stories of my father beating her, of him kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant with me. Feminism helped me to understand the dynamics of their relationship and, to an extent, what motivated his behavior and how his brutality made her feel. At the same time, feminists were claiming — in part because of their justifiable mistrust of men’s motives, in part because they wanted to protect their burgeoning field — that men couldn’t “do” feminism, that we couldn’t understand and contribute to its agenda. That protectionism bothered me, in part, because it said that I had no place — except as an antagonistic figure — in a discussion I found thrilling and extremely provocative. It reminded me of the gang turf wars I’d experienced as a child in inner-city Philly, which I never understood and which I saw people harmed and killed in the name of. But, as much as anything else, it just seemed short-sighted, because the fundamental goals of feminism — gender equality — couldn’t be achieved without men’s active involvement.
So I tried to make a small space for myself in the discussion. I imagined myself at times a fetus inside my mom, trying to understand the pounding she was taking, asking myself “why,” and exploring books, films, and songs that helped me to move toward answers. I wrote about the things that mattered to me, about inequalities that damage black women’s — and men’s — lives. Eventually, people stopped questioning my sincerity. And a number of people found my work inspiring and useful. So writing about the Imus controversy wasn’t difficult precisely because I saw it as another moment when the harm that racism and sexism have done to black people had limited our ability to consider our own behavior, our own attitudes, our own limitations.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition of the feminists’ and black peoples’ issues as seen through your eyes. I’m thinking of occasions when I’ve witnessed the “You just don’t get it” response to well-meaning folks in both circumstances; it seems to me that many opportunities for better understanding have been lost due to this sense of distrust and protectionism.
I think folks often don’t “get” people who are different than they are. Many westerners don’t fully understand the psychology of suicide bombers, for instance, and I’d venture to say that many women have a hard time getting why the most homophobic of men can be found smacking each other on the ass as a form of encouragement or congratulations when they are playing sports. Some of us revel in our ignorance and use it to feel better about ourselves. That’s what party politics in the United States has devolved into, it seems to me. I think that one of our obligations as human beings is to try to understand, to move beyond our biases — or at least to see our biases as limiting. I have no illusions about human perfectibility; people are always going to display — and revel in the display of – ignorance, narrow-mindedness, better-than-thou-ness, if you will. That desire to revel is the root both of conflicts and of comedy, for instance. And, yes, a lot of people — including me — have explored the issue of why group behavior is predicated in part on exclusion. There are insiders and outsiders, “real” blacks and “fake” Negroes, “real” women and self-hating females, “real” Jews and self-hating Jews, and they’ve been the subject of endless discussion.
I “get” Imus; my wife has concluded that he’s an asshole. His show amuses me. It wouldn’t amuse my progressive friends necessarily, or my feminist friends. The show makes me laugh and informs me (and sometimes offends me, but no more than, say, the Today show or the revival of teenager obsession with vampires).