By Guest Contributor Lamont Lilly
Dr. Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of five books including Soul Babies (2002), New Black Man (2005) and the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013). He is also co-editor of That’s the Joint! (2011) and is host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. After sitting-in on one of his classes, we paused for a few questions. Read along as Neal speaks quite insightfully on Spike Lee, Nas, Black feminism, and the n-word.
Lamont Lilly: Dr. Neal, in your book New Black Man, you describe how you were first tagged a “Black male feminist” on the BET Tonight Show. Being that you embrace this tag, can you share with us the meaning of a Black male feminist?
Mark Anthony Neal: (Laughing) Well, when I first began graduate school I was introduced to something called Feminist Theory, a body of work that attempted to intervene in both political discourse and everyday realities regarding the notions of equity between men and women. The idea that men inherited a certain amount of privilege from their maleness was a privilege even more complicated when factoring race into the equation. I was taking classes in the English Department and became curious to the question, “Where are all the Black women writing about this?” There I was, reading Barbara Christian and Barbara Smith, and on my own I began to seek out sisters like bell hooks.
I remember purchasing my first bell hooks reading on me and my wife’s first wedding anniversary. It was my first attempt at critically engaging that type of material. Hooks is one of the most important figures out there on studies of gender, sexuality, and race in the last 20 years. She’s written 15 or so books and none of them with footnotes. She was taking this high theoretical language and writing it in a way that was both applicable and accessible to everyday folks. It was under this context that I was introduced to not just feminism, but Black feminism.
I realized at that moment that I wasn’t taking women (Black or white) seriously. I wasn’t walking around calling sisters “B’s” and resorting to violence. I was more of the Casanova, the romantic cat. However, it became clear that just because I was nice to women, didn’t mean that I valued them intellectually, politically, or even spiritually. From bell hooks, I linked up with Alexis De Veaux for my doctoral studies. I was the only male sitting for my first Feminist Theory class – this 25-year-old hip hop kid consuming the likes of Patricia Hill Collins and Angela Davis as well as male writers like Frederick Douglass. In turn, from pop-culture to hip-hop, I was beginning to reflect upon various social, cultural and historical dynamics through the lens of Black feminism.
Lilly: Speaking of hip-hop, what do you think about the current state of hip-hop? As Nasir Jones (aka Nas) suggested, is hip-hop really dead?
Neal: I think our good brother Nas was mainly being provocative–and necessarily so–while at the same time raising a very pertinent question. There’s no doubt he was introducing a conversation we needed to have. And I think he possesses and demands the kind of respect from the hip-hop community (young and old) where he could make that claim and people had to listen. With that said, I think we romanticize the early days. From the period of 1986 to 1993 grew a generation of young people who were suddenly connecting hip-hop with an on-the-ground grassroots political movement. These political and cultural movements were largely stimulated by the presidential runs of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, in addition to the reemergence of the Nation of Islam via Louis Farrakhan. This is also the first wave born after the heyday of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement who are now in college. On the university level, there were Black Studies programs popping up all over the country. Jesse, Farrakhan, and Sister Souljah were on television programs and news interviews. Mixed with hip-hop, it was the perfect storm.
You had this new generation of folk taking political and artistic energy, creating a subset movement of socially and politically conscious hip-hop. It became the approved preference for this particular era. You had Public Enemy and the X-Clan rhyming Black Nationalism and Afrocentrism, KRS-One introducing complicated intellectual spins on Caribbean politics. You had Five-Percenter emcees like Brand Nubian and young thinkers like A Tribe Called Quest. It was an entire generation’s way of becoming politicized, and hip-hop was the muse.
However, it very quickly got rendered a style. When a new style emerged, political hip-hop somehow became less popular. Whether this decision was made by the Black community or by the record labels and music industry, conscious hip-hop got pushed to the side (as it does today). So when we think about hip-hop now, we get nostalgic for that seven-year period. We fail to understand that those five to seven years were just snapshots of a 35-year-old genre. If we reflect correctly, hip-hop has always possessed some elements of violence, sexism, misogyny, and even drug narrative. But these constructs haven’t just occurred within the vacuum of hip-hop. Gangsta rap first evolved out of the context of the prison industrial complex, “three strikes,” and crack cocaine. Police brutality and unemployment doesn’t just happen in the vacuum of hip-hop. The music was telling us something and still is. In many ways, hip-hop simply reflects what’s going on in our communities. Whether the rappers speak critically or not is a different issue. But even the material we deem problematic is reflective enough to be taken seriously. Good or bad, there’s still something there to be learned.
Lilly: What’s up with Generation Hip-Hop and the n-word? On one hand, hip-hop legends like Nas & Talib Kweli defend the word’s usage, while members of the old guard like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson say, “Let’s bury the ‘N’ word.” What exactly are the dynamics of conflict between the two generations?
Neal: First of all, it’s a word! To what extent we choose to decide the relevance of a word in the conversation of Black life in America, both historically and contemporarily speaking, is up to us. For the hip-hop generation, they’ve taken a word that’s always been used in many diverse ways. Folks love to claim that hip-hop was the first to embrace the word in terms of endearment or brotherhood, or even in resistance, but let the record speak otherwise. If you read James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man, in that text, he uses the word “n-gger” in a way that affirms. And in N-gger in the Window, Helen Jackson Lee discusses how she had developed a multilayered understanding of the word “n****r by the time she was three years old. She reflects on how, in the Black community, you could pull it out to describe many things and people, in both a positive and negative light. If we look at the Civil Rights mainstream (i.e. Dr. King and company), even they were using the word in loving terms. Listen for yourself; it’s on the FBI tapes.
Michael Eric Dyson actually details in his book, Is Bill Cosby Right?, Bill Cosby’s public use of the word in his younger days. I think what the debate is really about: this theoretical and philosophical attack on a word is in hindsight about the eradication of “real n-ggers.” There is a segment of Black political discourse that is not only concerned with the popular masses of Black Americans’ usage of the word, but that they themselves could possibly still be viewed as n-ggers, in a literal sense. What they actually want to eradicate is “those kind of folk” and the ‘you people.’ That’s part of what Bill’s “Pound Cake Speech” was, in essence.
It really refers back to Randall Kennedy’s book N-gger. But Greg Tate makes the point [in The Village Voice] that he’s “less concerned with the word “n-gger,” as opposed to the type of white supremacist activity that underscores the word.” What’s worse, being called a n****r or being treated like one? I think Aaron McGruder articulates this point quite well through his controversial, yet iconic television series The Boondocks. What about The Last Poets, who said, “N-ggers Are Scared Of Revolution,” or folk like N.W.A. who were rapping in 1991 that, “Real N***az Don’t Die?” How about Richard Pryor, who in 1971 was joking, but insightfully stated that, “If you really wanna know who n***as are, n***as are the ones who survived the Middle Passage!” Here, Richard was using the word as a mode of resistance, as an expression of resilience and outright defiance. Personally, I’m always going to want to protect my right as both an intellectual and writer, to use whatever language necessary to converse and connect. So that’s where I stand on the n-word. I think the word possesses an incredible amount of historical, artistic, and creative relevance.
Lilly: In the fall of 2009 you taught a class entitled “Black Popular Culture: The Spike Lee Aesthetic.” In reference to Spike’s cultural and artistic contributions, what were some of the ideas and substantive elements you were hoping to drive home to the class?
Neal: The first thing I must state is that no matter how you feel about Spike’s films, Spike Lee is one of the most important, if not the most important Black artist of the 20th and 21st century. His do-it-yourself efforts and obvious commitment to use his art in the service of addressing race, class, and the disparaging conditions of blackness in America is unparalleled. And in doing so, it hasn’t always translated into a money-making process. Whether it’s a film about Malcolm X or a documentary on Jim Brown, whether it’s race in Brooklyn in Do The Right Thing, or Spike’s daring masterpiece Bamboozled: the brother comes correct.
With works like When The Levees Broke and 4 Little Girls (the historical documentary on the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church), Lee’s paid his price to speak, literally. So I thought it was important to celebrate Spike and the experiences and realities he articulates for our community. If we don’t celebrate him, we’re not going to generate the next generation of young folk who’ll also reflect through art. Because his work has functioned largely in the world of abstract appreciation, as opposed to mainstream Hollywood, you have a whole generation of people who aren’t familiar with Spike Lee, particularly our young Black students. They may have seen Inside Man only because it crossed over. So it was important to place his films in the proper context, and as a class, to examine the Black political, social, and cultural discourse of the mid-1980’s that helped produce a Spike Lee in the first place.
Nelson George referred to this era as “The Post-Soul Aesthetic.” It was this generation of young people who were just coming of age with a public voice, using their art to continue the ongoing conversation of economic disparity and racial inequality. They were also speaking back to this conservative channeled view of Blackness, or what it meant to be Black. In the mid-1980s, that meant speaking back to the Black church, the old Civil Rights guard, our models of leadership, and to the few Blacks within “the academy” (the figurative institutional body of higher learning). The challenge was to engage a cultural history of Spike’s films within a framework of the social and political implications ahead. In many ways, there’s no Barack Obama without this particular period’s artistic contributions. This was just a portion of the conversation.
Lilly: One last question. You and hip-hop producer 9th Wonder have co-taught the “Sampling Soul” class at Duke University for three years now. What is the chord that strikes such commonality between “soul music” and the black aesthetic?
Neal: One of the things that 9th Wonder and I have tried to do with the Sampling Soul class was to get students to see that hip-hop, like soul before it–in their best instances–are governed by aesthetic practices that are the legacy of two centuries of Black American vernacular culture. Soul became such an important entry point for this discussion because, as a musical genre, it helped to mainstream Black musical traditions in the 1960s via voices like Sam Cooke, Rev. James Cleveland and, most famously, Aretha Franklin. As cultural practice, soul became a powerful symbol of Black aspiration.
Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press, Human Rights Delegate with Witness for Peace and organizer with Workers World Party. He will also host North Carolina’s first Spike Lee film series, playing March 16-April 13 at Golden Belt Studios in Durham, NC. He is a freelance journalist based out of Durham, NC. Follow him on Twitter @LamontLilly.