In The Male Prison, his review of Andre Gide’s notebooks that appears in his brilliant collection of essays titled Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin said that “To deny another person’s humanity is to deny one’s own.”
Specifically, he was talking about the French Nobel laureate suppressed love for a woman named Madeline, of which Gide hid beneath a veil of extreme contempt. Baldwin’s broader point, however, was about sexism: that when men do not give love to women, and I’m talking about a a broader, more plural, more encompassing love than the pleasures of the flesh, they do a brutal amount of damage to the women they are with, as well as themselves. I am reminded of this quote every time I turn on the radio and hear crunk, bounce, or any other kind of thug music over the past couple of years. For the imagery in their lyrics has been brutally inhumane, even for rap. Where do you want to start? Lil Jon’s obsession with sexual dehumanization ( all you b*tches crawl, skeet, skeet, skeet) 50 cent’s vicious lyrics combined with an antebellum image of a black woman in chains? Triville and the Ying Yang Twins’ fetish for reducing women to their body parts and abusing those body parts afterwords? And to top it off, Lil Weezy’s sick obsession with crack and rape?
For the sake of not attempting to score easy points by only saying how those messages are wrong, let me clarify myself. The misogynist rapper and rap fan has enclosed himself in a prison that is similar to the prison of the nihilist, in so much that both of their foundations are built by a dark paean to and concern for the self. But the walls of the thug rapper/fan’s prison are made by an obsession with “real manhood.” This brand of “manhood” is always “under attack” by women, black men who aren’t “real” like them, white people, and pretty much anybody who doesn’t think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. This ever present sense of “danger” always makes their lives tenuous: since they believe they are always under assault by the slightest offense, their only forms of expression are a phony rage at the women who slighted them, and a glorification of material things in order to cauterize their wounded egos.
But pretty soon these thugs find out that their macho healing elixir is poisonous. In my old neighborhood in Tacoma, there is a place called Peoples Park, built for children but usually populated by thirty something ex gangsters, men who were lucky, or in some cases, unlucky enough to survive the early 90′s blood/crip/piru/sucka wars that terrorized black Tacoma and Lakewood. If you listen to them, you hear a great deal of anger and sorrow over children they had left behind and baby momma’s they had a hard time loving.
A block away, there is the Indian Bar and Grill, where those thug’s spiritual, and sometimes actual fathers drain the insulin out of their kidney’s with liquor, fill their noses and lungs up with toxic white powder, and grouse on how bad of players and pimps they were back in the day. Each of these men in the park and in the bar have turned away from the women in their lives and the moral responsibility of sexual equality and reciprocation. Their anger and hatred for women, combined with their immersion in a demonic gospel of self pity, has robbed them of the ability to love anything, not even themselves, and reduced them to empty vessels of rage and deep, deep regret. And if any of the rap fans who read this ends up adopting the psycho sexual politics of crunk and gangsta rap music to heart, someday those men will be you.
That said, you can’t blame all of the violent imagery of rap music on black men. There wouldn’t be a glut of hyper violent gangsta rap if there wasn’t an audience for it, 70 percent of them being suburban white teenagers. But to understand Rap’s popularity in the suburbs, you have to understand the half century long pact that so many radical leftist male intellectuals have had with black men for over a half century, in which all too much of the American leftist racial debate ended up being centered around black men being oppressed paragons of hipsterism, free from any responsibility because of discrimination, with any debate about black women’s issues cast aside.
That pact was the reason that Richard Wright’s Native Son was fetishized for the wrong reasons for far too long, the reason that Chester Himes’ novels about abusing white women were wildly critically acclaimed, the reason that Amiri Baraka’s poems about putting Black and Jewish Women in the gas chamber and Eldridge’s Cleaver’s assertion that white women should be raped as a political statement became radical chic, the reason that Ishmael Reed’s reveries about assaulting feminists were overlooked by his post modernist constituency and it is the reason that music with some of the sickest and most violent imagery of women is radically popular with white suburban hipsters/teenagers and young black men.
All I am saying is that I’m tired of that pact. So many black men have made that pact and realized that the deal they agreed to made Mr. Faust’s deal with the devil seem like an out and out steal. And call me crazy (as many of you already have), but I want no part of it. And I will pay whatever price from my peer group not to be a part of it. I know that the rising level of young black women being assaulted, infected with the AIDS virus, and having astronomically low opinions of themselves (Village Voice) doesn’t cause the pitchforkmedia hipster or black militant any sleepless nights, and the prep school senior who bangs 50 cent doesn’t know or care that only 41 percent of young black men are graduating from school. But I do, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. I believe that young black men need to deal in a metaphysical philosophy of love, empathy and respect for humanity. Because if we don’t, we will perish, and do a disservice to our ancestors in doing so.