Spelman College’s Market Friday has lasted forever. Students from the Atlanta University Center—Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta and Morris Brown—take time between classes to collapse on Spelman’s all-female campus and kick it. Back in the 1990s, there were black leather medallions sold with Malcolm X T-shirts while students nodded heads to Brand Nubian and MC Lyte, Jodeci and Michael Jackson. Today you can still find Afrocentric fare, but the music this past semester gave some students on campus pause.
There was concern that many of the songs spun for those strolling through booths across from the bookstore and around the corner from Sisters Chapel was too much. The argument went that many of the lyrics violated the women on campus. The songs were positioned as violent exercises toward them that had no place at the historically Black Atlanta University Center, much less Spelman’s all-women campus. A petition was drafted and circulated by student leadership at the school demanding a policy to keep DJs from publicly cross-fading commercialized misogyny with the complicated racism that songs like 2 Chainz’s “Birthday Song” represent.
The blowback was disturbing. Twitter responses to the petition graphically demanded the tunes continue. The student leaders who put the document together were labeled with obscene racial and gender slurs from students at neighboring AUC schools, and even from classmates behind the gates at Spelman. It was a hard lesson learned, the petition in part the result of a service-learning component of a Violence Against Women course at the school.
Pop culture is misogynist as hell. This conclusion is hardly an epiphany. The mainstream has a capacity to do so much. Pop entertains, it instructs, it counsels and it can free us if situated just so. But mostly, an unchecked diet of top-10 movies, albums, television shows, games and books oppresses in a devastatingly elegant way. The Spelman situation is just one example.
Certainly there is no need for a Bamboozled retread highlighting gross blackface and Stepin Fetchit-isms. There seems to be a baseline understanding that mass culture has a history of objectifying and “othering” Black people. But (*in Mariah Carey-Precious-welfare-caseworker-voice*), can we talk about the abuse in your household? Pop culture is often relentlessly trained on women. Their rape, or the threat of it, is fair game for entertainment value in top-rated television shows ranging from The Walking Dead to Scandal. Websites get mad hits hosting a video of a bus driver serving an uppercut to a female passenger. Then there are “Bandz a Make Her Dance” and “Pop That.” The dark side of pop culture is like a specialized mash-up of racism and misogyny that we can’t quite get at.
There is the celebration of nihilism through constructed reality shows about basketball wives, hip-hop wives, housewives and bad girls who are pitted against abusers—again, for entertainment. The frame is a familiar one of Black deficiency that, in some crazy way, is normal.
No, it is sick. There are consequences. We become complicit in our own oppression when we insist on women as objects.
The Obama era seems to allow high tolerance for racism because of a sociopolitical fiction of the nation as post-racial. (No matter how much we insist we know we’re not.) But to call this complicated Black-on-Black violence against women racism alone, of course, doesn’t quite cover it. Certainly there are spots of affirmation for Black folk, but too many pop images of us are zip-cooning cocktails of an interconnected Black male privilege, misogyny and cultural racism.
Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan, in his epic Fanz Fanon and the Psychology of the Oppressed, does right in redefining violence beyond the physical to include the social and/or psychological violation of another’s integrity. Pop culture has a whole lot of integrity violation going on.
But this read isn’t to suggest we strip our hard drives of all questionable entertainment. We need not only listen to Channel Orange and A Love Supreme while reading Imani Perry before watching reruns of A Different World on our way to the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Simply, there is the need to take stock of what it is we’re doing with and to ourselves in the name of entertainment, art and culture.
We have to take better care of us.
The Harlem Renaissance and golden era hip-hop this is not, but something just as important is taking place in this post-millennial Obama moment. To find it we have to become aware and honest in our dealings with the mainstream. Respect to the sisters of Spelman College for doing that, situating popular culture just so, toward freedom.
Dr. David Wall Rice is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also associate professor of psychology at Morehouse College, where he serves as co-director of the Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies (CTEMS) program.