An Unheeded Alarm

In my last blog series I journeyed back to my adolescence and reviewed my complicated relationship with hip-hop. The rise of ‘gangsta rap’-and the explicit nature of the songs of the genre-would lead to intense debates during the 90s. I was reminded of the acrimony between critics and fans of the emerging genre a few weeks ago. While researching the topic I examined the life of late Civil Rights activist C. Dolores Tucker. Though I was aware of how Tucker had been criticized, the sheer level of venom directed at her had faded in my mind. C. Dolores Tucker was only three years younger than my maternal Grandma. In the culture I was raised in you absolutely cannot  call an elder out of their name, or even raise your voice at them. Indeed, when I yelled at my Grandma at 14 years old and sucked my teeth at her she immediately backhanded me. I never spoke to her that way again. And though I may vociferously disagree with my remaining elders on some issues(religion in particular) to this day I do not speak to them disrespectfully. It is just ingrained in me. Revisiting  how deeply C. Dolores Tucker was dissed and insulted jarred me. The dislike that certain hip-hop fans had for Tucker was driven home for me when I brought her up on my Facebook page two weeks ago. A friend of mine-who is also a die-hard Tupac fan-confessed that as a teen he rejoiced when Tucker died. His comment really threw me. Even when I consumed hip-hop as a teen I didn’t take such a harsh view of Tucker and other elders who spoke out against the degradation of black women in hip-hop. I couldn’t, for to throw shade at and insult them would be be to insult the type of people who raised and nurtured me. The disregard for our elders and the values of their generation would continue to be a point of tension in my life.

As a post-Civil Rights baby I lived suspended between the world of my Grandma and Mama and the one I was born into.  When I was a teenager Grandma would often tell me that one day I would better understand her and the way she was raising me. Now in my early thirties with a daughter of my own I understand what she meant. I understand why my Mama had no tolerance for the music of my generation and why she pushed back against its’ degrading messages so vehemently. I see why Tucker and others from the old school raised hell and complained about the way the public image of black women was further dragged through the mud.  We certainly can have a debate about the methods but I understand their intentions. They wanted to protect our girls and women. The critics in the nineties were raising an alarm in defense of black women and girls-one which went unheeded. . But we were too intoxicated by the beat and the bling to hear their protests. And the record companies? Well in the words of the Wu-Tang Clan:” cash rules everything around me, cream get the money-dolla dolla bill ya’ll!” Songs full of misogyny and violence made them a lot of dollars, and that’s all that mattered. Twenty years later I wish we had listened when the alarm was raised. Now my daughter, along with millions of other little Black girls, has to live in a climate where the hypersexualization and degradation of those who look like her is now the norm.

My daughter lives in a society where virulent misogynoir runs rampant. And though sexism has always been an issue for black women in the USA it wasn’t always expressed with such vitriol by those in our own community. Earlier this years I read  “At The Dark End of The Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance-A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power” by Danielle L. McGuire. It was a moving book. In reading it I became better acquainted with the real Rosa Parks. But the major revelation of the book for me was learning deeply the continued rape and abuse of Black women at the hands of White men in the South angered the Black community. In “At The Dark End of The Street” McGuire shows that this anger and refusal to sit idly by while Black women and girls were degraded laid the groundwork for grassroots organizing in Alabama. The reaction of the Black community to the rapes of Recy Taylor in 1944 and Betty Jean Owens in 1959 stirred both pride and longing in me. Black servicemen stationed in Europe during World War II petitioned the White House, complaining bitterly of Taylor’s treatment  and pointed out that they were fighting on the behalf of a country that did not value and protect the women of their race.  In 1959 Betty Jean Owens would receive an outpouring of support from her community, with students and leaders demanding that Black womanhood be respected.  As my eyes scanned the pages of the book and my mind took in all my people had previously done on behalf of Black women I started crying. For while I loved and appreciated those who stood up for me in the past I couldn’t help but wonder: what the hell happened to us? What happened to the concept of Black womanhood, to the idea that our girls and women deserved better? What happened to those who agitated on our behalf? How did we go from having a major problem with Black women being mistreated to harboring elements who not only do so publicly but profit handsomely from it?

There are many who will defend today’s misogynoir in music and culture. They will raise the issues of freedom of speech and creative expression. I understand their point. But when I take the longer view of history and review the historical context Black women have faced in the United States I still cannot give mainstream hip-hop a pass. Black American women were already burdened with trying to exist in a society that is hostile to us. We were already dealing with the four classic stereotypes of Black womanhood, which didn’t convey our reality. Adding yet another layer to that was unnecessary. It was also a hit to our personhood that we couldn’t afford to take. But it happened and the damage is done. Our elders rang the alarm when they saw the first sparks.  We didn’t listen, and we now have a conflagration on our hands.

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