Keepin' It Unreal

$elling the Myth of Bla¢k Male Violen¢e, Long Past Its Expiration Date

A true narrative of "the streets" and the black men who inhabit them would depict a deadbeat ex-con, fleeing mounting child support, unable to find work, and disconnected from the lives of his kids. It would chronicle his gradual slide off the American radar even as his mother, daughter, and girlfriend (not wife) make inroads. It's a story that doesn't lend itself to romance. More importantly, it doesn't fit the image of black men in the American imagination.

White America has always had a perverse fascination with the idea of black males as violent and sexually insatiable animals. A prime source of racism's emotional energy was an obsession with protecting white women from black brutes. Since the days of Birth of a Nation up through Native Son and now with gangsta rap, whites have always been loyal patrons of such imagery, drawn to the visceral fear factor and antisocial fantasies generated by black men. Less appreciated is the extent to which African Americans have bought into this idea. At least since the era of blaxploitation, the African American male has taken pride in his depiction as the quintessential man in the black hat. It is a desperate gambit by a group deprived of real power—even on our worst days, we can still scare the shit of white suburbanites.

"These are corporate-made images," says Kelley. "It's not that the image is new, it's an image that always sold, this idea of a dominant black man—they are violent, they are out of control. But we've established that a lot of these narratives are just made up from Italian gangster movies."

The narrative of the post-crack era black male—poor, unemployable, and long resigned—is a direct challenge to that mythology. The inglorious plight of the black male is a disturbing reality that might make for compelling art. But for the record industry, that's a nonstarter.

Too bad. Because those few exceptions to this rule offer a glimmer of what post-gangsta hip-hop could look like. OutKast began as gangsta rap but evolved with the times and came up gold with—among other gems—"Ms. Jackson," which brilliantly evokes the complexities of black America's skyrocketing rate of out-of-wedlock births. Or think of Andre 3000's verse in the Grammy-winning "Whole World." Instead of clichéd crack dealers, Dre shouts out laid-off airport workers.

OutKast is a platinum act several times over, but rappers pledging loyalty to "the streets" have been uninclined to follow suit and observe the ghetto through an honest lens. What they do instead is live out an overblown stereotype. That such an image has little resemblance to reality is irrelevant. The image of black men that sells to the rest of America wasn't mapped out by Biggie Smalls, but Bigger Thomas.

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