Chain Reaction: Questlove and the NBC Cafeteria Menu

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By Special Correspondent Arturo R. García

Hmm HR?
- caption for this image, as posted by Questlove, drummer for The Roots, on Twitpic, Feb. 5

When i saw the sign i have to admit….i was DYING. like literally LMAO!!! maybe it was juxtaposition of the words: collard & history, jalapeno & honor, fried, black and nbc?? maybe it was the acculturative stress of having 28 days for this food that represents you but come march…pot roast for life kid!

Whatever the case, I found this funny and when I find something funny I like to let the world in on the joke (twitpic anyone??). in NO way did i ever think that this was some cruel insensitive joke on behalf of jeff zucker and his comrades at nbc (the cafeteria isn’t even owned or operated by nbc).

I kinda get where leslie calhoun (our culinary rosa parks) was coming from; fried chicken as a fragrant, tasty, honorable metaphor for the struggles and accomplishments of america’s black masses.

The problem is..in the blogosphere, things can take on a life of their own….. my twitpic was just me poking fun, a Questlove still life that was clearly intended as a joke. What’s even funnier: race issues in post racial America. Potluck anyone?????
- Questlove, as quoted in a release, Feb. 7

Actually, a bigger problem in just about any online forum isn’t taking things out of context – it’s not giving them one to begin with. With just a few more tweets, Quest might have been able to save his network and a well-intentioned woman a lot of grief.

To recap the saga: the image going up Friday afternoon stirred up even more bad buzz for NBC, which already showed a clumsy hand in the Jay Leno/ Conan O’Brien debacle. And as far as diversity issues … well, we’ve talked about Heroes enough on this site.

But it turned out the source of the menu was a black woman: chef Leslie Calhoun said she had been pushing to serve these dishes for years as part of a weekly special during February. According to The New York Post, her menu was approved and served without incident last year. Enter Questlove. As Calhoun told The Post:

“Questlove, who I serve every day and who enjoys my food, requested the neck bone [cooked in] the black-eyed peas and fried chicken, then got off the line, saying, ‘This is racist.’ The next thing you know, people were taking pictures of the sign and asking all the other black people in the cafeteria if this was racist. They said that it wasn’t.”

That quote isn’t included in The Post’s video for the story, but her reaction doesn’t seem to match up with the joking tone Quest presents in his statement. Nor did this post from him, issued shortly after the image went up:

i think i need a twitter break. i done started something. and now i must put out fire.

And this is where Quest lost his chance to set the record straight: At no point in his twitter feed – before or after posting the picture – does he mention that Calhoun is black, that the menu was her idea, or that it had already been well-received by other patrons.

They might not have stopped the image from generating discussion, but as The R’s Andrea Plaid pointed out when she sent me the link to The Post’s story, those facts could have led to some more well-rounded discussions:

* Could Calhoun have thought of something else besides fried chicken and greens to commemorate Black History Month?
* Has Questlove considered from whom in the blogosphere the criticism came?
* Does he himself really believe in “post-racial” America?

Discussing any of these questions, one would think, would be preferable to speculation about a joke that, at the time, only Quest was in on. So at that point, that lack of context or people “not getting it” is his bad. Twitter might be fun, but if you tweet the punchline without the set-up, the LOLZ end up on you.

Or, in Quest’s case, on the people who air his band’s show; NBC moved quickly to remove the sign as debate picked up during Quest’s “break,” but still couldn’t save itself from becoming a punchline: on The Jay Leno Show, Wanda Sykes said, “That’s how [NBC] celebrates. Oh, no, no, ya’ll don’t need to know about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Here’s some fried chicken.”

At least the story has a happy ending, as Quest also documented: he gave Calhoun a spa certificate and flowers for her trouble. And, presumably, everyone can eat lunch safely at NBC again. Unless Leno decides he wants the cafeteria, too.

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