‘Nappy-headed Hoes”. With those words, Don Imus, 66 years old, set off a firestorm of controversy. For me, a child of the Civil Rights Movement, what was most fascinating about the entire debacle was not that he said it, but how in 50 years, many aspects of the black experience (good and bad) has not only permeated white culture, but has been embraced by it as well.
I remember watching a basketball game where after every good play, the players would give each other five. The white sports announcer then asked one of his co-host announcers, “Why are they doing that?” Yes, there was a time when what occurred as common in the black community was not readily known, understood, or used outside of it. Give-me-five-on-the-black-hand-side, jive-talking, playing-the-dozens, signifying, selling wolf-tickets, and yo-mama jokes were all insular parts of the black community.
As comedians, sport professionals and others in the entertainment industry were allowed to play to mixed audiences, they exposed some of the aspects of the black experience to white America. And white America loved it. Now palm-slapping is more common than shaking hands. The soul-bother handshake, the soul-brother hug (soul handshake while embracing the other person), and the current fist-to-fist shake are so ingrained in America, that black people are no longer the sole purveyors of it.
We also have placed into mainstream America some of our less-than-proud behaviors/experiences/cultural biases. “Nappy-headed-Ho” is one of them. That three-word phrase has always meant fighting words. “Ho” is not just an Ebonics pronunciation of the word “whore.” It also means someone less than a whore. Add in the additional adjective, nappy-headed, and you have evoked/invoked and brought into play many of the biases we hold amongst ourselves that were perpetuated during and after slavery. You have the good hair vs bad hair bias, the light skin vs dark skin bias, the field Negro vs house Negro bias, the country vs city bias, the northern vs southern black bias, the educated vs uneducated bias, the South Side vs West Side bias-and on and on.
I don’t believe the average white person can even begin to understand the multiple layers of meanings that were spewed when Imus uttered that phrase. I’ve seen web postings and letters to the editors that all simplify it by believing that an apology for having uttered it was “good enough.” But was it? And which of the multitude of meanings that that phrase carried was he apologizing for? I won’t even begin to guess.
I tried an experiment on my job by walking up to black women I’ve known for years and asking them what would happen if I called them a “nappy-headed ho”? Needless to say, not one thought it was funny. I got stunned looks, looks that could kill, one put her hand in my face and told me very emphatically that “she doesn’t play that.” I was asked if I wanted my butt kicked and concluded that if asking those I’ve known for years got that kind of response, then I’d better rethink my going up and down North Avenue asking women I don’t know the same question.
Time magazine has an article asking, “Who can say what?” But one of the things I’ve learned from young black people (especially the women) is that when the rappers are using those derogatory phrases in their songs, the consensus among our young black females is that the song isn’t referring to them. Only that type of logic can answer why more women don’t get offended by the lyrics.
I’m glad the Don Imus situation happened. Thanks to his faux paux, we can begin as a community to do better because I am sure most of us know better.