Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Their Eyes Were Watching Smut: Turning Pornography into Black Culture

When I was younger I watched the sitcom Sanford and Son. I had no idea that its star, Red Foxx, had an entirely different persona—one in which he performed raunchy and explicit comedy. What he was doing in nightclubs after all was adult humor for a mature audience, not the sort of thing you’d hear on daytime and mainstream television. Today we have the inverse. So why is the nearly pornographic--sex and violence--being marketed as black culture? And who’s ultimately responsible?



Their Eyes Were Watching Smut: Turning Pornography into Black Culture

In an article for the NY Times in 2006, Their Eyes Were Watching Smut, black author Nick Chiles spoke on a growing phenomenon in black literature—the popularity of so-called “street literature.” Done in the style of past writers like Donald Goines, these books—often by independent authors—feature graphic violence and what is essentially pornographic sex, set to a storyline. Chiles recounted his reaction to walking into a Borders Bookstore and seeing these books dominating the shelves of the “African-American Literature” section alongside other black authors, including his own work:


“We were all represented under that placard, the whole community of black authors- from me to Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison, from Yolanda Joe and Benilde Little to Edward P. Jones and Kuwana Haulsey - surrounded and swallowed whole on the shelves by an overwhelming wave of titles and jackets that I wouldn't want my 13-year-old son to see: ‘Hustlin' Backwards.’ ‘Legit Baller.’ ‘A Hustler's Wife.’ ‘Chocolate Flava.’… I felt as if I was walking into a pornography shop, except in this case the smut is being produced by and for my people, and it is called ‘literature.’"

Even with Chiles’ disgust, it is important to note he never called for censorship. After all, like pornography, the creators of “Street Lit” have the freedom of speech and artistic expression to do as they please, and anyone has the right to consume it. What he objected to was the double standard that he put squarely at the feet of the book media industry. White pornography books after all exist. In fact, pornography—books, magazines and film—is a multi-billion dollar industry consumed primarily by white males. However, no one expects to walk into a bookstore and see white pornography sitting on the shelf next to works by Tolstoy or Hemingway. Pornography is not marketed as mainstream white literature—although some books admittedly “push the envelope.” But if the literature is black, smut is good enough. In fact, it’s more than good enough; it is pushed as the black norm.

What Chiles describes is remarkably similar to issues facing Hip Hop—the use of adult themed entertainment, which caters to racially stereotypical images of sex and violence, as representative of mainstream black culture. Does “Street Lit” accurately represent the totality of black literature? No, as Chiles himself attests, there are a variety of black writers on diverse topics. Do the explicit and violent lyrics pushed by the music industry reflect the totality of rap music? No, Hip Hop is exceptionally diverse with numerous other genres to choose from. So if there are competing artists, why are the more adult themed genres used and marketed as the face of black popular culture, as the face of Hip Hop? And allowing that there is a place for explicit “gangsta” or “thug” rap—much as there’s a place for pornography—is it as the face of mainstream black culture, or should it be somewhere else?

When I was younger I watched comedian Red Foxx on the hit sitcom Sanford & Son. I thought his funniest joke was the heart attack routine where he’d exclaim, “This is the big one!” and tell his deceased wife, “You hear that, Elizabeth? I’m coming to join you, honey!” What I didn’t know at the time was that there was another side to Red Foxx, one that told jokes that were considered crude and sexually explicit. And it was no wonder. The Red Foxx of the nightclubs was not fit for mainstream public consumption—certainly not for my young ears. There was no way that persona was going to have a show on regular television. So I got Fred Sanford. Adults were allowed to hear Red Foxx.

This has shifted today. Black music videos and lyrics that are considered explicit due to graphic violence and sex are no longer simply marketed to adults. In fact, in great part they are presented as mainstream black culture—fully approved for young ears. Images and words that I would have had to sneak in my adolescent curiosity to find are now played daily on black radio and television. It’s as if the world was turned upside down, and I had been reared on depictions of a raunchy Red Foxx as mainstream black culture instead of Fred Sanford.

This however, is not the norm across the board—especially when we take race into account. The Sopranos, Deadwood and ROME are highly rated TV shows. Graphic and violent, filled with explicit sex and language, they are relegated to premium cable channels and can be seen mostly in primetime. Given their popularity, it’s obvious there’s a substantial market for this type of entertainment. But it is entertainment that is marketed to adults. It’s recognized that a show like The Sopranos, while popular, simply doesn’t fit the definition of mainstream. Instead the mainstream is left for shows deemed suitable for mass public consumption.

Yet the same distributors and media outlets do just the opposite when it comes to black entertainment. Videos and lyrics that are filled with sexual imagery and violent content that should be considered adult themed, are pushed as mainstream black culture. It is a distinct double standard. This is not to say that rock and pop videos do not often “push the envelope” when it comes to sex and violence. Certainly Christina Aguilera and Madonna stand as prime examples. However there is a difference between “pushing the envelope” and sanctioned gratuity. What is more, rock and pop are allowed a diversity of images so that no one depiction becomes the norm. As I point out in the next essay, this privilege is not extended to Hip Hop.

Next: Thug Life, Right-Wing News and the Iraq War: How the Media Manufactures Consent by Stifling Diversity

For more on the exploitation and marketing of violence and sex as black culture see:

The Pimping of Black Death in America- Chuck D

Hip Hop Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Is Hip-Hop Really Dead?- DaveyD



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