My latest guilty pleasure is an independent website called hotghettomess.com. I turn to it whenever I am fed up with the Serious Debate on African-American Personal Responsibility taking place among black writers, academics and politicians and the entertainment crowd that mingles among them. There are no big-time black intellectuals to be found on hotghettomess, no policy wonkery tricked out in hip-hop meter as favored by University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson. No, at hotghettomess you get the nitty-gritty version of the debate.
But before you go clicking over to it, be forewarned: It is not for the faint of heart. And before you look, a primer is in order: The nature of the debate (a k a “How Come We Still Have Millions of Blacks Mired in Poverty and Self-Destructive Behaviors?”) is best described as complex and enervating, centered as it is on a slippery mix of history, cultural beliefs, institutional inequities, politics and values.
The Serious Debate is not new; Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois clashed over it, as have Black Panthers and civil rights activists and comedians like Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Sinbad and Dave Chappelle–most recently, in the last case, over blacks’ use of the word “nigger.” Whites have chimed in too, notably former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who caught hell from all sides in the 1960s by suggesting that the notion of black personal responsibility had a role in the public-policy debate over welfare. Throughout, the debate’s rhetorical contours most closely resemble a snake eating its own tail.
Overwhelmingly, its highest-profile combatants are men. Most recently these have included Bill Cosby and journalist Juan Williams, who argue that more black Americans must step up their games, i.e., take better care of their children, focus on education, be willing to take low-rung, entry-level jobs. Their seemingly socially conservative message is not directly at odds with the traditional, moral-suasive, government-aided approach. Yet it is perceived as “blaming the victim” by a segment of black commentators and academics who might be seen as representing “the street.”
In 2004 Cosby got up at a Brown v. Board of Education fiftieth anniversary event in Washington’s Constitution Hall and delivered a rambling tirade about how today’s “low-income” blacks have failed to live up to the promise and ideals of the civil rights generation. In response, Dyson unleashed a tome called Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? In the book and subsequent public appearances and op-ed articles, Dyson purported to out Cos as a bougie Old Fart who blames poor blacks for institutional inequalities beyond their control. Late last summer, Dyson and Williams engaged in verbal fisticuffs on a National Public Radio program about blacks, in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Williams, who has positioned himself as Cosby’s chief sympathizer and defender, is the author of a book titled Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America–and What We Can Do About It. Listening to their exchanges on that NPR broadcast of Talk of the Nation gave me a headache. In the end, both men had plugged their respective books. But it was hard to tell if any valuable information got through to listeners.
I don’t doubt their sincerity; I simply think it is worth questioning whether large male egos will continue to smother in the cradle a more productive approach. Certainly the assignment editors and bookers who continually give them airtime seem unable or unwilling to encourage discussion of what should be the core of this debate: the elusive internal spark that must be found, nurtured and fired up before “personal responsibility” can lift anyone up.
To be sure, there are a few more reasoned calls for a new approach, including by black male intellectuals like Chicago publisher Haki Madhubuti and Duke cultural studies professor Mark Anthony Neal. Neal argues in his 2005 book New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity that the classic image of the “strong black man,” an image of stoicism and emotional imperviousness internalized by blacks and subscribed to by whites as well, may in fact be detrimental to positive change in black communities. But such voices rarely get much attention.
Black women–we who increasingly outpace black men in the workplace and in schools, and who experience in real time the dismal results of black self-hatred and poor self-image, particularly among our men–know that the current discussion fails to unpack the more feminine elements of the personal responsibility debate, namely, most black men’s inability to admit emotional or psychological vulnerability. The stigmas surrounding displays of “weakness” are deeply entrenched in many black Americans’ generational history; they are linked closely to the notions of “respect” and “being hard” that inhibit many a black man’s chances of improving his lot. Women understand this, but other than Oprah, who is regularly derided as a New Age Mammy, few black women writers or intellectuals are included in these high-decibel discussions. The general tone of the conversation, then, characterized by male posturing and duels at twenty paces, leaves many of us feeling marginalized.
By contrast, at hotghettomess, there is little verbiage but lots of tragicomic images of unnamed black Americans from undereducated, sartorially challenged “low-income” communities around the nation. In snapshots and video clips from nightclubs, backyard barbecues, street corners and salons, we see image after image of blacks with gold “grills” on their teeth and mile-high lacquered hair, unsmiling men in flamboyant pimp-style clothing and black children unashamedly performing their best approximation of stripperesque dance moves popularized on some rap videos. The photos and video clips are sent to the site from around the nation and, in a nod to the class-trumps-race school of thought, the site includes a section called “token whites” that features whites engaging in “ghetto” behavior: snapshots of pink Caucasian babies with liquor bottles propped in their tiny laps and white women who have taken the trouble to get some “GhetToes”–the two- or three-inch-long painted and bejeweled toenails apparently sprouting from the sandaled feet of a growing number of women in low-income communities.
Hotghettomess is a cri de coeur from the site’s creator, Jameela Donaldson, a 33-year-old black Georgetown Law School graduate and DC native. The site’s subhead, by the way, is “We Got To Do Better.” On its homepage, Donaldson makes an impassioned plea for a return to common sense, self-respect and greater civic involvement among blacks. She refrains from naming names. Donaldson is acutely aware of the longstanding black mindset that says we shouldn’t air our “dirty laundry” to the wider world, but she presses on anyway: “I am just holding up a mirror to my community, so don’t blame me if you don’t like the reflection,” Donaldson writes. She adds, “Yes, I know there is racism, there is inequality of opportunity, gross disparities in education and health care. But…BECAUSE there are all these things it is even more imperative that we look inward and strengthen our communities ourselves.”
A recent fellow at the DC Legal Aid office focusing on housing issues, Donaldson told me she conceived the website a few years ago after reaching a psychic and spiritual low point owing in part to her work. “Victimhood is absolutely killing us,” Donaldson told me. “But so is class inequality and racism. We still need large-scale movements and the civil rights models, but at the same time if you say, ‘Damn, can’t we all just use common sense when it comes to respecting ourselves and raising our children properly?’ you get called a neocon or worse.”
On hotghettomess, Donaldson wisely lets the site’s visitors contemplate the existential question beneath the black personal responsibility debate: Is this really who we are? And if not, how do we reorder our collective values and spark up that elusive element, the self-love that is dormant in so many of us?
Donaldson, who comes from a working-class family and was educated in Washington public schools, does not profess to have all the answers. When I spoke with her in October, she told me she put up hotghettomess as an attempt to reach the next generation of blacks. “It is a confusing mess out there for a lot of black people, even the so-called middle class,” she said. “I want the site to inspire people”–to spark self-recognition and snap them out of their inertia. She gets thousands of hits daily, she says, but adds, “I don’t expect to change the world with this, but I felt that maybe the Internet is a place to reach lots of [younger] people, and people who feel as I do.”
As I click through the laugh-to-keep-from-crying images found on hotghettomess, it occurs to me that Donaldson is taking the increasingly omnipotent media machine and girling it up in an effort to get at a damnably tough problem. The images are not abstractions, Donaldson says, not formulas or theories; they are our brothers and sisters. If we can’t muster the common sense, courage and compassion to meet them where they live, what does that say about us?