April 13, 2007
This column in the L. A. Times this week was probably the best thing I read on the Don Imus "nappy-headed hos" incident. I don't share much of Constance Rice's admiration for him - I think he's an idiot - but she's right about the racist self-parody that is the hip-hop industry these days. This particular combination of "nappy" and "ho" is undeniably racist, out of anyone's mouth and in any context. Separately, however, they should make us think about the circulation of racial signifiers.
I could be off base here, but I know "nappy" almost exclusively through the literary and theatrical production of black women. I remember seeing on stage a warm, thoughtful monologue called "Nappy Edges" some years ago, for example. It is term of calm and grounded self-affirmation in the documentary A Question of Color. For me, at least, it has none of the historical racist effect of "woolly" or other such adjectives. As a white man, however, I often feel a sense that the highly visible and visually provocative performative genre that is contemporary black female hairstyle is off limits to me, as a white man, for comment or even notice. And it's difficult to imagine a context in which I would feel comfortable saying "nappy," outside of quotation marks, to describe anything but an old sweater!
"Ho," of course, is the stock-in-trade of rapper lyrics. Anyone who has seen the wonderful and disturbing history of images of blacks in American popular culture presented in Marlon Riggs' Ethnic Notions can't help but see the gangster rapper as just the latest awful stereotype linked to the deepest fears and anxieties in the American psyche.
It's conceivable that Imus was trying to pay a backhanded complement to an intimidating basketball team through an unfortunate amalgam of black feminist identity play and the images that black hip-hip artists sell to the public as a representation of African-American culture. Out of his mouth, probably not, and I'm not sorry to see him off the air, but analyzed as an intertextual moment in a complex web of racism, identity, and capitalism, Imus' sin is not so simple to understand and judge.
Posted by johnn at April 13, 2007 10:16 AM
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