Saturday, April 19, 2008

Tracy Sharpley-Whiting on Basic Black by Anthony McCarthy

This conversation between Professor Tracy Sharpley-Whiting* and Basic Black host Kim McLarin about Sharpley-Whiting’s book Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip-Hop's Hold on Young Black Women is worth listening to, it takes about a half an hour. I hadn’t known about her until seeing the program Thursday night and now her book is going to the top of my “to read” stack.

Many of the points in the interview about the impact of an increasing view of sexual and other human relationships in terms of commodities and consumption are in line with a lot of what I’ve come to conclude is the core of what is wrong with our culture. The impact of the media driven hyper-masculinity of the general culture and in its most blatant form in hip-hop culture are central issues for us. Sharpley-Whiting’s point about Harvey Mansfield’s idea that women are equal to men, but not entirely, makes the connection between his work and that of a rapper named Nelly. Nelly apparently achieved what passes as coolness these days when he swiped his credit card through the buttocks of a black woman in one of his videos.

"I think that's what people really find troubling about many of the relationships in the hip-hop generation in the larger culture that relationships are becoming increasingly transactional," .... "And for most people, that particular moment [in the video] clarified it."

These images and prejudices are being marketed to all of us continually. While a lot of that is selling us other things through sex and self-indulgence, I can’t believe that there isn’t some more basic intention of nudging the culture backwards by a concerted effort. It all looks like part of the same backlash against human rights to me.

She says a lot of things in the interview that just aren’t supposed to be said in progressive circles these days. One is that teenaged girls, from 13-19, are particularly vulnerable to the influence of negative and demeaning depictions of women in the context of sexual allurement. What they see on the screen and what they hear does have a real life influence on their behavior. Just as importantly, their experience is not separate from the behavior towards them from other people who have also been influenced by the same media. That children go through puberty at a time they aren’t intellectually or emotionally able to protect themselves and to avoid exploitation counts as little when there is massive profit to be made by pretending that they are “young adults” who have abilities that they do not yet possess. Passive acceptance of the media selling them a degraded image of themselves through sex and mnemonic hooks is something that is clearly inviting trouble. Women are not the only group being sold on self-debasement, indeed, on self-destruction. Clearly these images are marketed to black people in America. Other minority groups are also sold similar roles for themselves. I’ll be expanding on that idea in a different context soon.

If you watch the video please notice the speed with which ideas are brought up by the two women, the sophistication and complexity of the ideas and the rarity of many of them. This wasn’t just an exchange of pre-digested sound bites. Basic Black is one of the few TV programs where you can hear this kind of adult conversation on TV. Wouldn’t you like to hear more of it?

* From Imus to Industry: The Business of Stereotypes and Degrading Images : Sharpley-Whiting’s statement to the Congressional Subcommittee on Commerce

An edited transcript of an interesting conversation she had with Mark Anthony Neal published in Duke Magazine.