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Ghettonation: Dispatches from America's Culture Warby Cora Daniels
The thought police were at it again.
Around my way the thought police is the block party. Not the organized neighborhood celebration that makes appearances in Hollywood films attempting to depict an idealized New York. But par-tay over here, par-tay over there. The kind of unruliness that comes from alcohol and a boomin system that can make any block a party.
A par-tay is never that hard to find because every ghetto vehicle has a system. If only one thing works in the ride it will be the radio, souped up and customized so that it no longer resembles a car radio but should be in a club, and thus has to appropriately be called “a system.” I was tailgating a Mr. Softee truck one Friday night to remind my thirtysomething bones what it was like to go out again and shower myself in the music from its system. Welcome to my ghetto.
As the ice cream truck snaked its way through Brooklyn, Lil Jons trademark “Okaaaaaay” screamed from its speakers. You could almost see the entire block bounce. If that wasnt enough to put the sighting in the ghetto hall of fame, the truck had been turned into a booty billboard on wheels. Literally. Instead of pictures of Good Humor choices, the enterprising driver had sold his truck sides and turned the vehicle into one of those mobile advertisements. This Mr. Softee was a moving billboard for Apple Bottoms—Nellys clothing line to celebrate the, uh, curves of a womans body.
Nelly held a Miss Apple Bottoms contest on VH1 when he launched the clothing line a few years ago. The show attracted young women from across the country eager to appear on TV butt-first so that Nelly and his entourage could rate their booties. Most of the women didnt even get their faces on TV as the camera stayed at hip level. It gets worse. Heres how VH1 actually described the show in its official press release:
Multiplatinum artist Nelly is not alone in his love of a womans curves. But few urban entrepreneurs have taken their affections to the next level quite the way St. Louis representer Cornell Haynes has. Following tightly on the heels of the runaway success of his mens line, Vokal, Nelly wanted to capitalize on the momentum and still kick it up another notch yet with his womens line, Applebottoms. So the idea of a Vegas blowout launch after a six-city tour culling six finalists with serious junk in their respective trunks from across the land of Oh Bootyful, for Spacious Thighs was born.
(Inside)Out: Nelly: The Search for Miss Applebottoms follows the minds and bulging eyes behind the coast-to-coast scouring for a regular girl with an irregular waist-to-ass ratio. Thousands of women came out to show him what they was working with but only one would win. VH1 followed Nelly and his Team Lunatics cohorts as they scoped every jiggle, bounce and strut that swings their way to find the new “booty” behind their new clothing line. From the Big Apple to the City of Angels and everywhere in between, from the show to the after-party to the hotel lobby, from bushels of apples to applesauce, its all there. VH1 gives you an all-access pass for ass. Enjoy.
Except if that is how they are addressing journalists, can you imagine the level of pathology and disrespect that is slung when the network interacts with the young knuckleheads they are actually trying to get to watch these shows? Nothing exists in a vacuum, either. VH1 is owned by Viacom, one of the largest media companies in the nation. The corporate giant is large enough to own MTV, BET (they made Bob Johnson a billionaire), Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and Paramount Pictures. When you digest all that they are working with, then there really cannot ever be enough said about that all-access pass for ass, can there?
So the Mr. Softee, with the system, was covered in larger-than-life pictures of arched backs and booty as it greeted kids lined up for their soft serve. (It was still an ice cream truck after all.) Par-tay.
The system is so important because music is the most effective weapon of the thought police. There is a point at which if you play music loud enough, you will not be able to do anything—including thinking—but bop your head along. The guys with the system know that threshold instinctually. It is as if allowing the block to get stirred up by its own thoughts is a danger that cant be allowed.
One of the methods of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad got little attention amid the revelations of the pyramids of naked prisoners, hooded detainees, simulated sex acts, and The Leash; it was “exposure to loud music.” Really. Comb through military reports and youll find that it wasnt the first time this tactic had been used. Loud music was also a favorite form of torture used at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. At Abu Ghraib, Iraqi prisoner Khraisan al-Abally testified that while he was bound and blindfolded, he was also kicked, forced to stare at a strobe light, and blasted with “very loud rubbish music.” “I thought I was going to lose my mind,” said al-Abally, a burly thirty-nine-year-old man whose wrists were still scarred from plastic cuffs more than a month after his release. (1)
So I was at home trying not to lose my mind when the par-tay outside began. Even my bones were vibrating to Fat Joes “Lean Back” (the album version with every explicit lyric intact, of course). My husband bobbed past me on his way to the kitchen. Our minds tried to resist even as our heads still bounced, in unison. As I struggled to write, to read the paper, to make my “to-do lists” even, I started thinking about the meaning of ghetto.
The easiest thing to believe is that ghetto is a class. That makes it easy for us to distance ourselves, talk about those people and them. Because no matter how low on the economic totem pole we actually are, ghetto is those folks underneath us.
But ghetto is not a class but a mind-set. And that is the problem. Not every have-not is ghetto and not all the haves are ghetto-free. Ghetto is a mind-set that we all have to fight to get out of.
Because ghetto is a state of mind, it is hard to define but easy to recognize. A good friend of mine is in a mixed marriage. Their differences have nothing to do with her southern African American roots and his Caribbean ancestry. Nor do they stem from the fact that he was raised in Europe and she in the States. Instead she complains to me all the time that she is in a mixed marriage because in her mind her husband is ghetto and shes, well, not. Without explanation I just accept that she is probably right.
At its heart, though, ghetto is thinking short-term instead of long-term. Today is the most important because tomorrow doesnt matter.
During my travels I didnt want to discover that this was true. I failed. “Sometime it feels like I got to get mine right now or it aint gonna be get,” said Eric, (*) sitting on the stoop outside his Brooklyn home a few blocks from mine. It is the middle of the day and the sixteen-year-old should be in school. His face looks tired and much older than it is. I broke eye contact to try to hide my surprise when he told me his age. He is constantly rhyming under his breath, grooving to a beat that only he hears. There is no telling how long Eric will continue to sit on his stoop: I suspect it aint gonna be get, then.
Not everyone I talked to on the corners expressed such hopelessness. But enough did. The shrinks and self-esteem repairmen will tell you that sometimes if you hear something enough it doesnt really matter anymore if it isnt true. It becomes truth. And Madison Avenue has certainly put its cash behind the tomorrow-doesnt-matter message.
In 2005 Reebok came up with a flashy ad campaign dubbed “I am what I am.” With apparently no memory of Popeye, the hard-to-miss billboards instead displayed stunning portraits of celebrities and athletes spouting irreverent one-line comments that tried to express more who these people are than what they are selling. My favorite of the series showcased Mark Zupan, a tattooed quadriplegic athlete who was the center of the documentary Murderball about the rough sport of wheelchair rugby. Zupan is shown in a custom-made wheelchair that looked dark and dangerous and bad-ass, his billboard quote reading: “I play wheelchair rugby. Whats the worst that can happen—I break my neck? Again?” Sure, the I-can-do-anything spirit was uplifting. But I liked the dark humor. I saw the billboard only once—when I went to the Reebok Web site. The “I am what I am” billboard that I saw most often around my way featured 50 Cent with his stale, trying to be badass frown. His quote, displayed against a police fingerprint sheet, read: “Where Im from there is no Plan B. So take advantage of today because tomorrow is not promised.” Of course, how could we forget?
The truth about thinking short-term is that it has consequences. The first time I met Sanjay, a teenager from Bed-Stuy, I thought his name was Mohamed. That is what the high school sophomore, whose parents had emigrated from India, is called around my ghetto. Immediately, Sanjay didnt seem to fit in, and it wasnt that he was a minority in a predominantly Black neighborhood. At first I thought that maybe he was just the class nerd—bearing demarcations that my grown-up eyes couldnt see anymore. True, Sanjay is completely out-of-date from head to toe in his choice of clothes. His no-name jeans cling too tight on his skinny frame, the polar opposite of the baggy denim we are used to seeing hanging off teenage butts. In fact, his jeans reminded me of the dark straight-cut boys Lees that my mom used to get from the discount store and hem up herself for me to wear when the rest of the girls in my class were sporting formfitting designer duds like Jordache and Sassoon. Tucked into Sanjays jeans is usually a short-sleeve plaid shirt with a collar—something I somehow dont think Jay-Z had in mind when he called for button-ups. His sneakers also stood out not so much because they were name-brand rip-offs but because the white leather was worn and dingy as if he had plucked the shoes from the lamppost graveyard.
Back in the day in neighborhoods like mine, sneakers, worn to their last thread, werent retired to the trash. Instead we tied the shoelaces together and flung the sneakers up to the sky to catch on the lamppost on the corners, or even better the telephone wires that hung over the street. Im not really sure if we were marking our territory or trying to give our sneakers respect with such a showy burial or both. Officially my parents wouldnt allow us to participate in the ghetto ritual, but that didnt stop my brother and me from wasting one afternoon desperately trying to throw our matching Nike rip-offs high enough to reach the post. It is harder than it looks and not much fun.
Seeing Sanjays worn soles, my memory hit rewind and it all came flooding back. Donna Summer even started spinning in my head. (Didnt you know? Sound tracks to memories are always old-school.) During my ghetto journeys I discovered that the tradition has been updated. I was walking in Lower Manhattan exploring the streets in the heart of NYU territory. There, amid the elegant town houses bordering Washington Square Park, I spotted two cans of Red Bull—tied together and hanging from a lamppost. (Ghetto.) It was a classic case of the remake being worse than the original.
Despite his tight jeans, plaid shirts, and aging footwear, Sanjays language and swagger is 100 percent hip-hop. Out of sight—heard talking on the phone, for instance—he fits in completely with his peers and surroundings. Still, something just didnt feel right. Then he stumbled into my kitchen one day while I was watching TV. His eyes got as big as the satellite dish on the roof of my house. I was watching Law & Order on whatever cable station it happened to be on at the moment. After the signature L&O “ba-dump” he asked meekly: “Is this cable?” It was as if he had just sighted a UFO. And it clicked. I knew why Sanjay stood out so much in the neighborhood. He, and his family, were actually living within their means. So his was a life without cable, no new sneakers, no cell phone, no bling bling, no sound system even. In Ghettonation, living within your means just isnt done. There is no need to when you think tomorrow doesnt matter. Not living within your means has become such a blatant problem that even hip-hop has noticed. Missy rhymes in her aptly titled track “Wake Up”: “I got the Martin Luther King fever / Ima feed yah what yah teacher need to preach yah / Its time to get serious.” “Wake Up” goes on to be the equivalent of a lyrical slap upside the head with its chorus: “If you dont gotta gun (its alright) / If yah makin legal money, (its alright …) …" Too bad “Wake Up” was never released as a single, because folks surely need the slap. (Its not alright.)
Make no mistake, this issue is not just an urban phenomenon. (Thinking that such behavior exists only in neighborhoods like my Bed-Stuy is, well, ghetto.) My first journalism gig was at a newspaper on the Jersey Shore. The Shore has had its ups and downs. So when I arrived there were definitely some seedy areas to its boardwalk landscape—but nothing that couldnt be made to shine again with a little gentrified TLC. Deal, New Jersey, was one of these little Shore towns wedged between some of the aging neglect that had already been brought back to shining. Every block was filled with huge mint-condition homes with immaculate front lawns. When I would go to take the police blotter for Deal, the cops were almost embarrassed that they wore uniforms when all they could hand over was at most a stolen bicycle incident. At Deal, in contrast to some of its more poverty-stricken neighbors back then, like the cities of Asbury Park and Long Branch, weeks would go by during which there was nothing at all for the police blotter to report. It was the most uneventful 1.2 square miles I had ever experienced. As a proud city girl, honestly I was a little freaked out by its peacefulness. It seemed unnatural to see nothing out of place …ever. There was never a toy left on a lawn or even a garbage can untidy. Nothing ever seemed to be off, not even something little. (In the official 2000 Census count 1,070 people lived in Deal—535 men, and 535 women. Really!) Instead it was just huge home, next to huge home, next to huge home.
Then I heard the rumors. The cops actually told me them first. Surrounding towns were eager to spread the gossip, too. The deal with Deal was that those big houses were supposedly empty inside. The rumor was that people would spend so much of their savings buying their big houses that they couldnt afford to fill them with furniture. Deal had a reputation for being all for show. (Ghetto.) Of course, without going into every house there was no way to separate fact from fiction. But the median price of a home in Deal was a little over $1 million while the median household income was only about $58,000. Do the math. It is a good indication that some folks were eating on the floor. (2) The rumor alone, though, was enough to make the point that ghetto had no boundaries. And the city girl in me was eager to believe the rumor since it was the only thing that seemed to make sense of the Stepford-perfect picture.
What makes the ghetto mentality of living for today so disturbing is not just that tomorrow doesnt matter, but that maybe tomorrow could be worse.
From the Hardcover edition.
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