By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Buying an African American for labor is illegal, but now whites can rent one for their next business social or rooftop garden party. Or at least that's the promise of Rent-a-Negro.com, a satirical Web site started early this month by damali ayo, a conceptual artist who is fed up with whites asking to touch her dreadlocks, or compare their skin tone to hers.
"I thought that maybe I should be paid for this," said ayo, who lives and works in Portland, Oregon. "Black people are not only expected to learn white culture, but to teach white people about black culture, all without compensation."
On her site, ayo presents herself to potential renters as an articulate, easy-going African American companion for whites looking to diversify their portfolio of friends.
"The presence of black people can advance a business and social reputation," reads the site's sales pitch. "Those who claim black friends and colleagues are on the cutting edge of social and political trends."
Whites eager to show off their connections (real or imagined) to darker-complected people can fill out an online rental agreement and submit payments via PayPal. Visits start at $350 an hour.
ayo also takes on racism through gallery exhibitions and her personal Web site, damaliayo.com. The site includes images from "wanna taste?"a commentary on the Rolling Stones song "Brown Sugar"and an audio download that repeats insensitive remarks whites have made about blacks in ayo's presence.
ayo derived all of the "satisfied customer" testimonials at Rent-a-Negro from comments whites have made to her in the past. One of them reads: "After seeing me with her, people have wanted to know more about me!"
Rent-a-Negro is pure satire, but not everyone seems to be getting the joke. ayo has received about 100 e-mails per day since May 5, many from African Americans who are incensed by her indecent proposal. "It is sad that one of our own has come up with this," read one letter she received.
"People today seem very literal-minded," said ayo. She now responds to angry e-mails with a message explaining the points she is trying to make.
Others catch on quickly to ayo's message about how whites use blacks for social advancement. "Those of us who have been the only African American in classrooms and board rooms all of our lives know the feeling all too well," one person wrote. "I hope there are enough white folks out there who get the satire to make a difference."
Some also noted the similarities between ayo's site and Black People Love Us (www.blackpeopleloveus.com), a satirical depiction of Sally and Johnny, a white couple who pat themselves on the back for having African American friends.
ayo says she's trying to cajole white liberals out of their self-congratulatory attitudes toward racism, which has manylike Sally and Johnnyboasting about their relationships with black people. "If they only knew how ridiculous they sometimes sounded," ayo said.
ayo hopes Rent-a-Negro will prompt whites to be as open about racism as they purport to be while talking to black people. "That (same) conversation needs to be taking place when black people are not around, and it isn't," she said.
ayo has no immediate plans to expand her site, but she may find a place for it a broader enterprise, which she described as a DIY reparations project. Part of that project will include a live performance.
"I will be panhandling in the streets for reparations," ayo said.