Years ago, a rumor circulated that the recipes of a popular restaurant chain contained a secret birth control agent that sterilized black men. The KKK was alleged to have masterminded the operation. They named the restaurant Church's, after the most revered institution in the black community, and they specialized in fried chicken.
Even as speculation about the nefarious plot caught fire like a burning cross, black men continued to eat the diabolically delicious chicken. Yet the African-American birthrate stayed right on schedule. So much for any truth to the sperm-killing three-piece dinners. While we're at it, let's go ahead and also debunk any lingering conspiracy theories about syphilis-injected buttery biscuits.
The point? Sometimes misinformation will auto-correct in the public mind, as with the myth of the racist chicken proprietors. But sometimes it won't. Our fascination with the down-low brother is a prime example. To dismiss him as an urban legend would be to refute the facts of his existence, but it's certainly reasonable and, frankly, responsible to relegate him to an urban exaggeration.
The predicament in which DJ Mister Cee of New York's Hot 97 has recently found himself embroiled certainly doesn't help matters. The popular DJ's arrest last week for public lewdness involving the alleged receipt of oral stimulation from a male practitioner in his car has been red meat ever since for gossip sites and rival New York radio personalities. Even if the tawdry allegations are true, the reaction to it seems to say more about us than it says about him.
Stories like his always seem to dredge up discussions about the down low and all the misplaced blame for the health and relationship woes of black women, whose relationships with black men have been complicated by the down-low brother. They despise the idea of being betrayed by him and fear the consequences of his recklessness and deceit. Yet many black women are perversely entertained by his story from afar.
Oprah invites a down-low brother over for coffee, candor and cameras. He sits on her couch and dishes on the double life that some of his bisexual brethren, of all races, lead. His books are New York Times best-sellers. He confesses and confides. He explains and exploits his story simultaneously.
Black women are part horrified, part hypnotized. He's their tour guide to the underworld, where seemingly straight men go bump in the night. But he's something else, too, even though he may not mean to be. He's a public disservice announcement.
By now, we've all heard the reports. Black women disproportionately make up the fastest-rising demographic of new HIV cases. Their rate of infection is nearly 15 times that of their white counterparts. To call it alarming is an understatement. But is the relatively small percentage of bisexual black men the reason for the high rates?
Popular culture would have us believe so. Look no further than the story line in Tyler Perry's version of For Colored Girls, which has Janet Jackson's character contracting HIV from her down-low husband. Whether it's real life, trifling gossip or an overly ambitious script, stories that mix down-low behavior with HIV only reaffirm the false belief that it's a gay disease.
Time and time again, the message is delivered with the subtlety of a freight train crashing through the side of a mountain. We're all too familiar with it: Women, raise your antenna and beware of the new-millennium bogeyman lurking in the shadows of sexual uncertainty. And men, if you must cheat, do so only with the opposite sex — the world is safer that way.
Of course, that safety is negated if a man is having sex with a woman who, unbeknownst to him, is having sex with another man who, unbeknownst to her, is having sex with another man. I call this unfinished screenplay Sex Degrees of Separation. But according to popular culture, if you are socially and sexually savvy enough to follow those heterosexual rules, HIV will stay over there. You know — in gay land.
Never mind the findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that conclude that black men who carry on unsafely in a heterosexual fashion are far more responsible than bisexuals are for the staggering rates of HIV among black women. That doesn't sell as many books, newspapers or movie stubs. And we can't let the facts get in the way of a good story, can we?
And there you go: From the absurdity of the fried-chicken vasectomy to the salaciousness of a popular DJ on the down low to the seriousness of HIV, we find ourselves spinning yarns of conspiracy theories and other haphazard notions just to end up entangled by a bunch of half-truths and sometimes full lies. Knowing when to separate fact from fiction is a trait that, at the very least, can help us sound as if we read more than just viral emails and, at best, can be the difference between life and death.