Make no mistake: This donation is historic. It appears to be the largest gift by a black man to any college or university, comparable to the gift Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, gave to Spelman College in 1988. Some 25 years later, their $20-million gift (about $39 million in inflation-adjusted dollars) is still the largest-ever private gift to a historically black college. Dre gave USC almost triple the amount Oprah Winfrey has given Morehouse College over the years. Sean “Diddy” Combs gave $500,000 to Howard University in 1999, which he attended before launching a successful career.
A hip-hop icon is now the new black higher-ed philanthropy king. We’ve never seen a donation to rival this from any black celebrity — musician, athlete or actor — and that fact must be celebrated.
But as the president of a black college, it pains me as well. I can’t help but wish that Dre’s wealth, generated as it was by his largely black hip-hop fans, was coming back to support that community.
USC is a great institution, no question. But it has a $3.5-billion endowment, the 21st largest in the nation and much more than every black college — combined. Less than 20% of USC’s student body qualifies for federal Pell Grants, given to students from low-income families, compared with two-thirds of those enrolled at black colleges. USC has also seen a steady decrease in black student enrollment, which is now below 5%.
A new report on black male athletes and racial inequities shows that only 2.2% of USC undergrads are black men, compared with 56% of its football and basketball teams, one of the largest disparities in the nation. And given USC’s $45,602 tuition next year, I’m confident Dre could have sponsored multiple full-ride scholarships to private black colleges for the cost of one at USC.
The comparison has been made before between Lena Dunham and Beyoncé as feminist icons. Mainstream white feminist organizations don’t question whether Lena Dunham, a self-professed feminist, is feminist enough. Though her show Girls has come under fire in more progressive wings of feminism, mainstream feminist organizations embrace her, happily framing her as a new face of feminism. Dunham openly swears, walks around naked, and simulates sex onscreen, but there is no larger mainstream questioning of her feminist credentials. But when Beyoncé, a fierce, independent woman of color flirts with the feminist moniker, the backlash begins. How interesting.
Dunham has appeared fully naked on her show. She has both appeared in and written some highly provocative and often controversial sex scenes. Her character has been shown snorting cocaine and having one-night stands, yet no one questions Dunham’s feminist credentials. And they shouldn’t — her choice to appear naked and in simulated sex scenes is not anti-feminist. It’s a choice that she made, an artistic choice meant to explore sexuality, sexual expression, and the limits of her character.
And yet, Beyoncé is often roundly criticized in feminist spaces because of her “slutty” outfits, herovertly-sexual dance moves, for her lyric choices, for using the moniker Mrs. Carter, and her occasional use of the word bitch. Who are we, feminists? Is this who we want to be? You sound like Phyllis Schlafly. She wears a unitard — she can’t be a feminist! She is gyrating and shaking her butt — how inappropriate! She said the word “bitch” — that’s a feminist no-no! Do you hear yourselves, white liberal feminists? Do you hear what you are doing to this strong, independent black woman?
That Olivia Pope is the new darling of network television is less surprising than you might think, if you really take the time to think about it and to consider it within the context of America’s strange relationship with its dark racial past. After 40 years without a leading black female in a network drama – 40 years which has seen the likes of cornrows at Wimbledon and the White House – it’s more than about time, it’s way overdue (interestingly, if you Google “black female accomplishments of the past 40 years,” Kerry Washington’s Wikipedia page is the sixth entry). But the hype aroundScandal feels different than the catharsis traditionally felt when glass ceilings are nudged by nappy or nappy-in-spirit heads of hair. This is at least in part due to the show’s success lying in not only one fictional black woman’s double-duty reign on the mountaintop and roll in the hay; Scandal’s real shocker is that it represents a trifecta of black female power, visibility, and influence in the entertainment industry. The show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, who, according to Willa Paskin of The New York Times, is “one of the most powerful show runners in the business,” the real-life inspiration for its protagonist, crisis manager Judy Smith, and its leading lady, the hybrid star and character, brown bombshell Kerry Washington/Olivia Pope, who is brilliant, cunning, and stunningly beautiful.
Rhimes is a crafty one, to say the least. She learned the hard way “how to be a boss and a leader at the same time,” forced to transition from a self-sequestered screenwriter into the powerhouse Midas she is now, as her first network effort, Grey’s Anatomy, turned directly into prime-time gold. Paskin’s NYT piece paints a picture of a woman who earned and owns the right to write the counter-culture D.C. of Scandal,where “America is run by an African-American spin expert, a scheming first lady and a mercenary gay guy.” Furthermore, Shonda Rhimes’ facility with social networking has made her show the industry’s darling test-tube baby of multi-media engagement and viewership, prompting the Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara to crown Scandal“the show that Twitter built.” Rhimes regularly sends Tweets of gratitude to 350,000 followers and fans, who include among their number former-D.C. mayor Marion Barry; while cast members Tweet from the set, and fans respond in kind. All of this has made the show a social media phenomenon, and the first to achieve the multi-screen orgy network execs have been trying to pull off since prime-time ratings started falling.
While I was a teenager during the grunge and Riot Grrrl era, for some reason I was (at the time) more drawn to hyper-masculine, testosterone-saturated grunge and metal bands and was not that interested in what was happening on the other side of the scene. As Hanna’s talk was intriguing, I took the opportunity to check out The Punk Singer, part of the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.
About 10 minutes into the documentary, I knew that I had made a colossal mistake.
Well, actually, as soon as I saw a snippet of 17 year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson waxing poetic about an era she was not even alive to witness, I knew that I would not be able to put my personal biases in regards to my age—and more importantly, my ethnicity as a black woman—aside when watching this documentary.
From watching The Punk Singer, I realized why I had never been that psyched on the Riot Grrrl scene. It wasn’t for me. It was for white women.
At the most basic level, there’s nothing any more wrong with aspiring to be a rapper than there is with aspiring to be a painter, or an actor, or a sculptor. Hip-hop has produced some of the most penetrating art of our time, and inspired much more. My path to this space began with me aspiring to be rapper. Hip-hop taught me to love literature. I am not alone. Perhaps you should not aspire to be a rapper because it generally does not provide a stable income. By that standard you should not aspire to be a writer, either.
At a higher level, there is the time-honored pattern of looking at the rather normal behaviors of black children and pathologizing them. My son wants to play for Bayern Munich. Failing that, he has assured me he will be Kendrick Lamar. When I was kid I wanted to be Tony Dorsett — or Rakim, whichever came first. Perhaps there is some corner of the world where white kids desire to be Timothy Geithner instead of Tom Brady. But I doubt it. What is specific to black kids is that their dreams often don’t extend past entertainment and athletics That is a direct result of the kind of limited cultural exposure you find in impoverished, segregated neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are the direst result of American policy.
Enacting and enforcing policy is the job of the Obama White House. When asked about policy for African Americans, the president has said, “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of all America.” An examination of the Obama administration’s policy record toward black people clearly bears this out. An examination of the Obama administration’s rhetoric, as directed at black people, tells us something different.