Wednesday, August 19, 2009
'The book America didn't know it needed'
Debra Dickerson calls it "the book America didn't know it needed." Library Journal calls it "an unsettling and illuminating argument." Don Imus himself has expressed on his radio show that it has "a lot of big words." Today, Michael Awkward, author of Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a Scapegoat, has agreed to answer a few questions with regard to his book's content.
1: At an initial glance, your book appears to be a defense of Don Imus's 2007 on-air comments that led to his firing at CBS. How would you explain your book's premise?
MA: The book isn't a defense of Imus's comments, but an attempt to place them -- and the hysterical reactions to them -- within a larger historical and cultural context. When I was writing the book, I saw the "nappy-headed hos" controversy as the latest in a series of events that date back at least to the mid-1990s involving charges of white racism directed at blacks when our overarching racial narrative -- of whites always poised to mistreat blacks because of deep-seated animus -- is simply not adequate to explain contemporary motivations and outcomes on many occasions. Blacks' knee-jerk reactions to such events (the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the latest case in point) suggest to me a troubled sense of beholdedness to a view that black Americans' place in the nation is static and unchanging, a view of history's unambiguous meanings for the present that blinds us sometimes to the possibly fuller and more nuanced meanings of such incidents. I look at this recent history of overreaction, and inquire into how blacks themselves use the words that got Imus and his crew into such trouble. The book asks about the implications of the increasingly mainstream place of hip-hop culture -- and black culture more generally -- in American life, and what it means for whites (including comic acts like Imus) to take up (and even parody) black usages of the racially charged phrase and sexist sentiments embodied in those three words. I'm concerned that blacks sometimes can't see the trees of today for the forests of history, and believe that better, deeper thinking about incidents like this controversy might pave the way for significant social progress.
2: Some people would say the Imus incident, now 2 years old, is in the past. Similarly, the Gates-Crowley incident has faded from the news. What does this say about the transient nature of news, when such widely-covered events that have the potential to provide significant lessons on long-standing issues in society can just as quickly fade from the spotlight?
MA: The past lingers, these incidents linger, and become part of our cultural memory even when they no longer occupy center stage. I'm skeptical about the prospects for a sustained national dialogue about anything, but I do believe that these sorts of controversies recur because they are so similar to incidents with which we are familiar. When a Brooklyn teacher was chastised by black parents for teaching a book with the word "nappy" in the title because they are certain -- without having read the book themselves -- that her intent is to cause her students to develop a negative sense of their racial identity, we can remember or at least imagine moments when such negative behavior did actually occur. (Think, for instance, of the scene in Spike Lee's Malcolm X when a white teacher tells the young protagonist that he can't aspire to be a lawyer because he is black.) We need to continue to guard against such attitudes and acts of training about racial, biological, and cultural limitations. But we also need to recognize the idiocy of such pronouncements in the post-civil rights United States. Since its end, many blacks have openly embraced the word "nappy," for instance, as a mark of cultural difference, even pride. We need to consider that sense of pride when we discuss Imus's faux pas, certainly. We need to learn the limitations of ill-informed reaction.
Further thoughts about the book:
MA: I thought I could help the dialogue about the event itself and the controversies it suggests precisely because I was skeptical at times of reactions such as those that accompanied the "Nappy Hair" moment, and because I was a loyal and well-informed Imus viewer. Also, I love comedy and -- maybe even especially -- comedians who push the envelope, who are willing to offend not for offense's sake, but to make us rethink our assumptions. And I know that that's a big part of the comedic banter of Imus in the Morning.