Call it a comedy of editors. Looking back on the initial media blitz surrounding Love and Consequences, the auto-myth-ography by Margaret B. Jones (nee Margaret "Peggy" Seltzer), laughs come first, but anger comes hardest.
Take last week's 2,000-word New York Times profile about the author and her tall tale of gang life in South Central Los Angeles.
In it Seltzer, acting as her hard knock life alter ego "Jones," says her first, big drug-money purchase was a burial plot. She claims that a large pit bull tattoo is "the most ghetto thing" on her body, and that her daughter was the first white baby she'd ever seen. (Apparently Seltzer's never looked at her own baby pictures.)
Seltzer's home, according to Times reporter Mimi Read, smelled "of black-eyed peas, which were stewing with pork neck bones" and guests were offered the "house cocktail" — Hennessy and Coke — to wash down Seltzer/Jones' homemade buttermilk cornbread.
Love and Consequences, explains the Times article headlined "Refugee from Gangland," is a "visceral" tale of gang life in the inner city where Seltzer was raised by "a stern but loving black grandmother." Her name is Mammy, er, "Big Mom."
The cover of the now-recalled book shows a dark-skinned and gray afro'd older woman hugging an alabaster-skinned and pig-tailed little girl with her "giant, fat black arms" (as Seltzer describes Big Mom's arms on page 46).
What's so offensive, besides Seltzer's boilerplate ghetto-isms and Harriet Beecher Stowe-style caricatures, is how easily and completely the media happily devoured them.
Within days of publication, the memoir earned that coveted publishing designation, "critically acclaimed." Oprah magazine called it "startlingly tender," NPR found it "heartbreaking" and an Entertainment Weekly reviewer found the book to be "a powerful story of resilience and unconditional love."
To me, the first 50 pages feft like I'd watched Menace ll Society, Boyz n the Hood and South Central in close succession. Every word that, in English, begins with a 'c' is spelled with a 'k' instead. Here's Margaret B. Jones' description of her first few moments in Big Mom's house, where the elder woman doles out steaming helpings of sugar-coated truisms:
" 'I know it ain a lot, but it's home an we got each other, we got love and we got God. An that child'—she paused for a moment, for effect—'that is worth more than all the riches in the world.' "
Seltzer, who has admitted that she mashed up her story from the true accounts of friends, is no Zora Neale Hurston when it comes to the use of colloquialism. "Big Mom?" laughed one book publicist, "It's Big Mama."
I call my mother's mother "Grandma."
After Seltzer's real sister, Cyndi Hoffman, blew the whistle on her — they grew up in middle-class Sherman Oaks and "Peggy" graduated from private school –- the disgraced author offered a half-eaten mea culpa, telling The Times: "I was really torn and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don't listen to."
Lame - and a lie. There are any number of real gangsters who don't need any ghostwriters to tell their story. For example, Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, who played the ruthless killer "Snoop" on HBO's The Wire, penned a 'hood to redemption tale, Grace After Midnight in 2007.
That true story tells the tale of Pearson's real life experiences growing up in East Baltimore, being convicted of second degree murder, spending nearly 6 years in state prison and then landing a role on one of the of the most critically acclaimed (there's those two words again) television shows in history.
In a recent phone interview, Pearson summed up Seltzer's situation in one word, "crazy."
"It don't make me angry — it's sad," said Pearson, who wondered aloud whether Seltzer gave any of her book advance money to these voiceless masses she claimed to be helping.
Love and Consequences, like Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is high-minded, abolitionist literature that seeks to rescue those trapped south of the Santa Monica freeway by telling their story to the world. And like Stowe's novel, Seltzer's "memoir" is more depressing than uplifting.
The basic question here is whether anyone has a copyright on the "true ghetto story?"
"It's my story," said Pearson with particular emphasis on the "my." And Snoop would know: "I get to tell my story," she said.
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root.