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Hip-Hop and the Ghettoization of the the American Mind: Another "meme" in the American Family Portrait

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A book Review of Cora Daniels' Ghetto Nation

In this half self-confession, half-autobiography, and half-hearted report from the "hood," Mrs. Daniels, a black Yale and Colombia graduate and noted Journalist, gives us all the "down side" of Hip-hop culture, without giving us the "up side," and, arguably, without in any way investigating its causes to see how it is otherwise attached to the larger American socio-cultural family portrait.

The short version of her book is that the Hip-hop culture is a convenient symbol of a fast moving self-destructive ride on the "down escalator" into the subbasement of American culture. It is her view that in recent years, Hip-hop has had the unwelcome and unintended consequence of spreading this mental version of "cultural Ebola," to the white suburban youth mind. This single fact, that Hip-hop culture is now taking down white culture too, seems to be the only reason the author has belatedly rushed to white society's rescue. Like the best volunteer fireman, she has dutifully rang the societal alarm bells with this book.

She cites chapter and verse from her own Brooklyn experiences, both to justify her point of view and to establish her bona fides as an "authentic ghetto resident." However, all she seems to see "as facts on the ground" are the daily parades of: baby-mamas in mini-skits, pushing strollers with their boots or high-heels on, wearing blonde wigs, and their babies sucking Pepsi cola from nippled bottles. And too, just across the street, she sees the baby-daddies, those man-boys still standing on the corners at age 38, proud of their multiple kids, with their pants hanging off their butts, and holding onto their manhood like they fear it may be taken away from them at any minute, while still hawking female passersby, and doing so during working hours, while still living in apartments paid for by their mommas.

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Sadly, these facts in the author's graphic portrayal are indisputable. But her Brooklyn affectations are not. Her overall message betrays her feigned sympathies for the ghetto that she claims to have grown up in. It is transparently obvious that the author has staked out a one-sided position in which one of the symptoms of the illness "that is American society" -- Hip-hop -- has been mistaken for the disease itself. And as a result (in her mind at least), these self-destructive symptoms have become their own cause?

Accordingly, with this kind of "blame the victim" analytical posture, one is led to doubt that the author's deeper sympathies lie with the "down-and-out" classes of any inner city -- with or without Hip-hop culture, whether or not she lives there, and whether or not they are white or black.

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At the author's level of analysis, and arguably, she is looking at American culture through the wrong end of the socio-economic telescope, the details of the picture we get from her, summarized graphically in the paragraph above, seems focused too rigidly on an isolated, detached, ground level view of American culture. And while it is true that she does mention as an aside, the fact that the entrepreneurial vultures are constantly hovering over the black ghetto, (even if they do so at a standoff distance equal to the distance of the nearest suburb), ready to pounce and pull out any morsel of exploitable creative talent they might spot, she does not mention that, at least in the US itself, they show absolutely no interest in the art form of Hip-hop itself beyond its profit potential. These "culture vultures," somehow hoover over this graveyard of death and despair without once acknowledging that it too is an integral part of the US family portrait.

I say this because a great deal of their money is made on advertising and selling Hip-hop as "positive American culture" outside the US to other nations. So why they make the very thing they profit on, a national scapegoat beats the hell out of me? Why tear it down at home while selling its positive virtues abroad?

I know this is true because, if you go anywhere from Paris, to Rabat, to Bamako, and everywhere in between, Hip-hop culture is alive and well and is not denigrated as is done in this book, but is celebrated on the streets and in the clubs. I saw some of the best Hip-hop groups to be found anywhere in the world in Manila, in Seoul, in Phenom Phen, and even on the beaches of South Spain and France.

Which gets me to the crowning point of the book, her claim that the level of self-destruction, despair and low-expectations emanating from the black ghetto today, is unique to this, the Hip-hop generation?

I am sad to have to admit that there is indeed a kernel of truth to this claim, a kernel of truth that should disturb us all. But I believe it is better captured in a reference made by Stanley Crouch in his recent book about Charlie Parker called "Kansas City Lightening," than by the attempts at "tough love" used here to try to do so by embarrassing Hip-hop culture:

Crouch too has sensed the same phenomenon that Daniels has singled out: that we blacks, somewhere between the 1960s and the Hip-hop generation, have lost that vital ability to "live in a segregated world" without allowing it to produce in us "a segregated mind" -- that is, without allowing our minds to be infected by America's continued "top-down" racist cultural structures.

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In the world that we grew up in -- the 1940s to the present -- the astute among us, knew well the challenges a segregated world presented, and we were not about to allow racist rules create fences in our minds (as they were intended to do!). We never developed a segregated vision of the world, or of human possibility, or of our own ability to achieve, or indeed, of our own humanity. We saw, and still see, "racism of the mind" -- that is to say, America's structural and existential racism -- as a "white only" disease, a moral disease that is a fallout of living in the fetishized and fantasized dreamworld of white supremacy, one that in the past, as much as it tried, was unable to affect (let alone destabilize) the black mental condition.

But now, I must agree with Daniels and Crouch, that this no longer seems to be the case. The Hip-hop generation, even with a "scared do-nothing mulatto" as president, whose mantra was hope and change, no lest, does indeed seem to be giving up all hope for this country.

But again, at the risk of repetition, I must say that even "their giving up hope" is just a symptom of a larger disease, "the disease of American society," not to be mistaken for the disease itself.

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)

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