Baracka Flacka Flames and Hip-Hop Minstrelsy

Yes, the Tea Party images of Obama as a witch doctor, and Fox News' endless racist antics, are highly problematic. But when it comes to dehumanizing black people, hip-hop wins, hands down.


It is always a good time to talk about racism and poisonous images pumping through the mass-media pipeline. What is most interesting is the traditional but unpredictable source of the trouble. Whenever critics point at Tea Party posters of Barack Obama as a witch doctor or as a garishly dressed pimp attending a ball at the White House with Michelle, it is easy to realize that the Tea Party, Fox News and the rest of their ilk are not the worst offenders. Hip-hop minstrelsy, taken to an extreme, has repeatedly outdone all crude, vindictive and simply clumsy whites whenever it comes to dehumanizing black people. Hip-hop obviously, and no less insultingly, does it better.

Byron Hurt is a hip-hop fan from way back, but when he took a critical look at what it has become in its most thugged-out extremes, the filmmaker created a devastating documentary, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. It makes the strongest case for connecting hip-hop imagery with all that was demeaning and commonplace in 19th- century minstrel shows.

Though losing the ball as often as he recovered it, Spike Lee served us all well with his Bamboozled by looking high and low until he reached something uncomfortably close to the absolute truth, which always cuts both ways. The Brooklyn, N.Y., director and filmmaker finally recognized that simple-minded "street brothers" can come up with an angry black nationalism as shallow and unconsciously pernicious as anything done in the long Hollywood tradition of stereotyping black people for laughs.

That is what Thomas Chatterton Williams meant in The Wall Street Journal when he recently described Lil Wayne as "a modern-day minstrel who embodies the most virulent racist stereotypes that generations of blacks have fought to overcome. His music is a vigorous endorsement of the pathologies that still haunt and cripple far too many in the black underclass."

And now, under the banner of humor or satire, yet another minstrel monster has raised his video head from the gutter once again in the brand-new "Head of State," which has been seen on YouTube more than a million times.

Shouldn't Barack Obama almost always be moving through an open season for satire? Without a doubt. Any American in a position of power has to be ready for a pie in the face. It goes with the job description; it's a frequent tool used by those from the lower depths of society in order to get vital revenge against those who pretentiously give commands from above.

Others have parodied Obama, including Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen and YouTube star Alphacat, aka Iman Crosson. But "Head of State" is not actually about satire or taste or any sense of the judicious. It is grounded in what Arthur Rimbaud termed the "love of sacrilege" in his 1873 book-length poem, "A Season in Hell."

The willfully outrageous rant is one of the blueprints for irresponsibly childish petulance in the face of a constricting bourgeois order. Sacrilege and combative rejection of the rules become basic tenets of individuality. In the American matter of race, with so many innovators apparently committing themselves to defilement, what group can we expect to go further and better express disdain for the middle class than those loud and obnoxious people who were not born white? After all, they live in the scalding underbelly of society, where "reality" never takes a backseat.

Observing the bull rage through the china shop has become both a form of liberation and entertainment. Crash -- and it's done. The only thing left standing is the destroyer, especially charismatic if embodying the joy of the child ruining a bloated and pompous form. The first black person to benefit from literal destruction in performance was Jimi Hendrix. He concluded his act by setting fire to his guitar and beating it against his amplifier. Minstrel anger and symbolic violence became central to the rock audience's appetite for thrills bound to anarchy.

But the image of the Negro in cinematic comedy has, more often than not, been far less than compassionate or aware of this fact: Truly great comedy moves very close to pathos, tending in its most extraordinary moments to embrace the bittersweet feeling of human frailty. Profound recognition of human frailty is always collective, and the exclusion of black people from that equation of universal fact is the perpetual problem.