MESSAGE FOR MY BROTHERS
By David Ikard
Friday, October 9, 2009.
So rapper Nas wrote an open letter to black male teens that condemned the senseless killing of honors student Derrion Albert and issued a plea to young black men to stop taking their social frustrations out on each other. He writes passionately:
“Killing each other is definitely played out. Being hurt from the lost of a love one was never cool. Dear Young Warriors fighting the wrong war! I know that feeling, that frustration with life and needing to take it out on someone, any one. But we chose the dumbest things to go the hardest for. I remember seeing deaths over 8 ball jackets, Filas, and name plate chains. Deaths over ‘he say she say’!!!!! ‘I’m from this block or I’m from that block”, or ‘my moms n pops is f***ed up now the whole world gotta pay!!!”
Even though Nas’s words hit home for a great many black and brown folks that are forced to contend with such violence on the daily—either from each other or the criminal justice system—there were several feminist groups that were quick to indict his gesture. Referring to Nas as a “washed up” and “sorry azz” rapper, blogger Sandra Rose refused to post his open letter on her blog, writing
“Here’s a man (and I use the term loosely) whose violent lyrics helped contribute to the environment that bred the wild children who opened up another child’s head with sticks and laughed while doing it.”
On the politically progressive website whataboutourdaughters.com—whose expressed raison d'etre is “to use economic power to impose economic sanctions on those who are producing destructive images of black women and girls”—the acid attacks on Nas continue. Zeroing in the Nas’s reference to young black men as “warriors,” one blogger writes, “Let’s call these people what they are URBAN TERRORISTS! Their war is against US—innocent black civilians trying to make our way in the world the best way we know how.”
The terms “savage” and “savagery” emerged time and again as references to these young urban black men on other blog entries. This is not to say that there weren’t other blogs that avoided such jabs because there were. The most insightful engaged our nation’s preoccupation with thug images of black masculinity, a preoccupation that works directly to undermine the presence and productivity of honor students such as Albert.
I focus here more on the acidic ones because as a black man invested in progressive anti-sexist, antiracist, anti-capitalistic models of empower, I don’t see how these gendered attacks against Nas and young urban black men help us initiate the kinds of substantive dialogue about hyper-black masculinity and culturally sanctioned violence against black women that we advocate.
There is no debating that Nas’ patriarchal rhetoric reinforces the hyper-black masculinity discourse that is partly to blame for why these young men acted out in the vicious ways that they did. But, he clearly does not see that. Even though he does not possess the critical and historical frameworks to fully understand his complicity in the status quo, he clearly knows that something about the ways that black men are thinking about their manhood and expressing their anger is wrongheaded. He also knows—and is indeed trying to fend off with his references to this young men as “warriors”—that the tendency in the public domain is for our nation to write these boys off as “savages,” “thugs,” “urban terrorists,” and the like.
However impolitic is his expression of concern, Nas is rightly trying to refocus the debate on the patterns of structural inequality that encourage such black-on-black violence. Rather than attack the brotha’s language and shortsighted patriarchal politics, we should reach out to him. Send him what Mark Anthony Neal’s calls a “black feminist care package,” including books by scholar-activists like Barbara Smith, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill-Collins, Michael Awkward, Nellie McKay, Mark Anthony Neal, and Joan Morgan. We should think of this intervention as—dare I say—a “teaching moment” for Nas and the male-centric black communities.
And, since good teaching is always a two-way street, we should also remain open to what we can learn from Nas and those brothas and sistas that come out of these environments. Indeed, street literacy in the form of understanding how black masculinity is performed and read in certain ‘hoods can be a matter of life and death.
However productive and smart we might think our theories for resolving these problems are, if they are divorced materially from the realities on the ground, then they are essentially bankrupt. If someone is hungry, she is more likely to hear and appreciate your theories about resolving her hunger after you address the most pressing concern and give her something to eat. No matter how smart or useful is your theory for resolving hunger, if you skip this vital step, you lose the interest—and perhaps even the respect—of your audience.
Suffice it to say, that if our goal is to reach out and help transform our communities on issues of gender and violence, then its high time that we start “keeping it real” about the limitations of our vantage points and theories. To riff on Mohandas Gandhi’s poignant words, “we have to become the change we want to see” in black communities.
With thanks to New Black Man.
DAVID IKARD, Assistant Professor, Ph.D, University of Wisconsin-Madison (2002), specializes in twentieth century literature (with a specialty in African American), black feminist criticism, hip hop culture, and black masculinity studies. In 2007, he published his first book, Breaking The Silence: Toward a Black Male Feminist Criticism and was also awarded a Ford Postdoctoral Fellowship.
His current book length project reconsiders rigid identity-focused approaches to African American Literature with an eye towards developing expansive critical models of black humanity.