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Blackness as Public Nuisance

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Sunday, May 13, 2018.

It was not lost on me, that as the so-called “Baristas Fired at Duke for playing rap music” story began to circulate on social media, and my employer was about to be summarily dragged (again), that I personally had no idea who “Young Dolph” was.  Then I listened to “Get Paid” the song that inspired the firing – at least I tried to listen to it – and quite honestly under similar circumstances, I might have asked the baristas to turn it down or move on to the next track on the playlist.  For me it would have been a simple courtesy, and we’d be done with it once I got my Joe Van Gogh “Stout” and my muffin.

As a Black man, I would never presume to get anybody fired for playing music that I didn’t like -- which in my mind is more of an offense to my aesthetic tastes than my moral grounding; at least not in a country in which the Commander-in-Chief gleefully recalls grabbing “pussies,” and on a campus, that as recently as three years ago, a noose was hung in a public area. Not in this body, and not in this country would I ever presume such privilege, especially where we can witness law enforcement officers beat, harass and kill innocent and unarmed  American citizens – more often than not Black and Brown – and never fear losing their jobs.

That Duke University’s current Vice-President of Student Affairs Larry Moneta, acted with a level of privilege and hubris that is beyond my grasp – and this after the workers had in fact complied with his demand that the music be turned off (and that compliance thing don’t ever seem to work for Black folk; see Philando Castile) – seems beyond the point. One can easily surmise that Dr. Moneta might have felt that the music was a form of public nuisance, and the workers should have been fired for the source of that nuisance.

A “Public Nuisance” is defined as “an act, condition, or thing that is illegal because it interferes with the rights of the public generally.” As historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad and LaShawn Harris noted in their respective book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America and Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy there has been a long history in this country of Black bodies and Blackness writ large framed as public nuisance, hence the litany of laws that policed Black folks from congregating in large numbers or that sought to curtail the potential of public nuisance among Blacks by criminalizing leisure.

Unspoken, but assuredly understood, is that the “public generally” is generally a White public.  Indeed in a recent article in The New Republic,  Georgetown Law Professor Peter Edelman links public nuisance to the criminalization of poverty, noting “Today in the United States, the poor are often punished simply because they are poor, and especially if they are people of color.”

The noise that Dr. Moneta perceived that day in a campus coffee shop which generally services 18-25 year olds, for which songs like “Get Paid” are literally millennial muzak, finds resonance in the Black Yale graduate student who was interrogated by campus police for #NappingWhileBlack, the University of Florida students who were damn-near horse collared on stage for #GraduatingWhileBlack, Chikesia Clemons, who was assaulted by law enforcement for #AskingWhileBlack at The Waffle House,  and of course the two Philadelphia Black men who were arrested for #SittingInStarbucksWhileBlack.

As such Dr. Moneta’s hubris is not isolated, but reflective of a larger culture that always already assumes Blackness as vagrancy, for which there is not too fine a line between illegality and criminalization, where the burden is always on Blackness and Black people to prove innocence – and an innocence that has to be validated by the State and other such institutions, like the campus registrar, in the case of Yale graduate student Lolade Siyonbola.

Ironies, of course, abound.

For the last eight years, I’ve co-taught a course on The History of Hip-Hop with Grammy Award Winning Producer 9th Wonder (Patrick Douthit), and there are many occasions when we find ourselves offended by what the students consider  “Hip-Hop” and worse still, what they consider “good” Hip-Hop. In one of the more brilliant moments of season two of the FX series Atlanta, the writers capture the surreal position that Hip-Hop holds in our culture, as the fictional White Frat-boy – the kinda dude that helped Hip-Hop crossover with the Beastie Boys and RUN-DMC 30 years ago – talks about the genius of the fictional Trap artist Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and Post-Malone who has been legitimately dragged for being a “culture vulture”.

Even at the same Duke University where those baristas were fired, the campus’s legendary LDOC event (Last Day of Classes), which is sanctioned by the office that Dr. Moneta oversees, has featured artists like Travis Porter – whose song “Pussy Real Good,” might make Young Dolph blush. In 2013, Travis Porter performed, despite protest from students regarding the sexist and misogynistic lyrics of their songs. One wonders if Dr. Moneta would have responded the same way if R. Kelly’s  “If I Believe I Can Fly” was playing in the coffee shop, given decades of charges that Mr. Kelly is a serial underage sex-offender.

Regardless of the specific circumstances of the incident involving the former baristas – contract workers who are not accorded the same labor protections of other Duke employees – part  of the public dragging of Duke University has to do with how out of touch Dr. Moneta and the university seem to be. It was only a month earlier that Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for his album Damn, which quiet as it's kept, is not any less profane than Young Dolph.  


Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies.  The author of several books including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (NYU Press), Neal is the host of the video podcast Left of Black, now in its 8th season.

Blackness as Public Nuisance

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