What Would WEB Du Bois Tell Henry Jenkins and Soulja Boy?

The Criteria for Negro Art in the Age of Computational Media

In June, 2008, I attended a presentation in which Henry Jenkins, then Director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, contemplated the lessons of Soulja Boy Tellem’s use of what he calls “participatory culture” to create a career as a hip-hop star. Jenkins described how teenager DeAndre Ramone Way (Soulja Boy)  built a fan base by posting the music and a home video of his song, “Crank Dat,” and encouraging listeners to remix it, make video responses to it, and share it freely. (The presentation video is only available to members of the New Media Consortium.)

The process illustrates Jenkins’ concept of “spreadable” culture — a term that he argues is more accurate than the  “viral”   model, since viruses proliferate by attacking their hosts, while “spreadable” culture invites voluntary participation. He showed examples of fan videos of “Crank Dat,” including produced by his MIT grad students. Then Jenkins paralleled Soulja Boy’s encouragement of artistic appropriation and the cultural borrowing employed by Herman Melville in crafting Moby Dick.

In his blog, Jenkins mused about Soulja Boy’s precocity:

I can’t decide what fascinates me the most about this story: the fact that this teenager broke into the front ranks of the entertainment industry by using tools and processes which in theory are accessible to every other person of his generation or the fact that he has recognized intuitively the value in spreading his content and engaging his audience as an active part of his promotional process.

Jenkins did not address the actual lyrical content of Soulja Boy’s music, and the actual ideas being packaged in the catchy beat and the playful dance steps. The content wasn’t the point of the presentation. The lyrics offer the kind of  puerile vulgarity one might expect from a boy who is trying to impress his peers with stories about his sexual prowess and toughness.  “Crank Dat” includes such lines as:

“Soulja boy off on this hoe…

“Then Superman that hoe…”

“I’m jocking on your bitch ass
And if we get the fighting
Then I’m cocking on your bitch ass…”

The lyrics reflect the cliches associated with the worst of hip-hop:  degrading women while  declaring dominance over other males by feminizing and threatening them.  When Soulja Boy released “Crank Dat,” he was a 16-year-old high school student, and the song was spread largely by other teenagers.  The character that Way portrays in the video is the stereotypical black male hip-hopper: hypersexual, prone to violence, gaudily attired. But the implausibility of the lyrics suggest that, like most amateur writers, Way is imitating what he has heard or gleaned from listening to others, not writing from life experience.

Jenkins showed videos of smiling teenagers and young adults bouncing on one foot, cranking their arms and lunging forward to make the “Superman” gesture.

In conversations with other conference participants, I seemed to have been the only person who was profoundly disturbed by the content that Way, AKA Soulja Boy, his minions, and ultimately, his record company were spreading. In part, I later learned, that was because many of my colleagues weren’t familiar with the lyrics. There was also the fact that “Crank Dat” was only another in a long list of songs, cartoons, games and other media content that they knew kids were exposed too. It wasn’t the worst thing most kids would be exposed to. And after all, it’s not as if vulgar or even racially stereotypical music originated with remix culture.

I probably sounded like the scolds of the 1950s yelling about rock and roll, or the highbrows at the beginning of the 20th century inveighing against comic books and “pulp” novels. The Republic was still standing. I’m sure some thought I needed to smooth out that bunch in my panties and move on.

Or maybe not. The practice of analyzing form and distribution apart form content sits well within the tradition of media studies, going back to Marshall McLuhan’s declaration that “The Medium is the message,” and in rhetorical terms, “The medium is the massage.” However, I find Kathleen Welch persuasive when she argues that rhetorical analysis of both content and delivery is important to understanding the social justice implications of modern communications. If one follows the history of remixing trail of “Crank Dat,” one finds that its commercial success, facilitated by social media, led to the song being played in venues that would have been unimaginable in earlier times.

For example, a few months earlier, I had been sent a link to another performance of the song by a frustrated colleague and fellow member of the National Association of Black Journalists. It seemed that someone thought it would be fun to liven up a New York local morning traffic report with a performance of the song. The traffic reporter, Jill Nicolini, was part of the morning news “happy talk” format. A former Playboy bunny and occasional reality TV star, she routinely drafted men to dance with her after detailing the morning’s jams, delays, and alternate side-of-the-street parking rules. On this particular morning, she summoned Craig Treadway, the co-anchor, as her dance partner.

The Dancing Weather Girl – Watch more Funny Videos

The most telling moment for me was when Treadway broke into a tap dance.  What was Treadway’s shuffle? And what do we make of the black male crew member bunny-hopping in the background?

I don’t know Mr. Treadway, Nicolini or any of the other members of that newscast, and I have hesitated for more than a year about writing this post because I’m not trying to cast aspersions on him or any other cast member of the show. If this post does that, I apologize in advance.  They were doing their jobs, and perhaps they even had some fun. What I am trying to probe, as delicately as possible, is the meaning of the moment for journalistic norms in the age of remix culture.

Of course, the packaging of local television news as entertainment has been going on for a long time. A quarter-century ago, Neil Postman demonstrated the emerging parallels between the television news show and a television show designed as entertainment in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Entertainment (Penguin, 1985.):

“If you were the producer of a television news show for a commercial station, you would not have the option of defying television’s requirements…. You would try to make celebrities of your newscasters…. You would have a weatherman [sic] as comic relief, and a sportscaster who is a touch uncouth (as a way to relate to the beer-drinking common man.)  You would package the whole event as any producer might who is in the entertainment business.

“The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the world….” (p. 106)

I came of age professionally during the early 1980s, so as a news consumer and media professional, I understand the pecking order of news shows. The anchor might smile and exchange some banter, but the anchor stayed dignified. I wasn’t thrilled at Nicolini’s shtick, but I understood it for the reasons, Postman described. What I wasn’t ready for was an anchorman to be drawn into the clowning. It is very likely that what stuck in my craw was the sight of Treadway, who probably had to endure a great deal to attain an anchor desk in a major market, pulled out of the role on which, traditionally, his credibility rested.

There is one sense in which the problem is entirely mine, because it represents a collapsing of norms my generation of media professionals can’t quite stomach. It has become clear in recent years that there is a great deal of skepticism about the kinds of conventions that journalists traditionally adopt, whether it be certain standards of decorum, or a studied modesty about stating their political views.  Even a growing number of journalists reject that last standard.

Then, too, there is the shifting calculus of racial symbolism to consider. Surely, the sight of a black man dancing alongside a young white female in 2008 does not mean what it meant in my childhood during the 1960s. In those days, such a sight was restricted to Shirley Temple movies. Treadway and Nicolini’s performance occurred the same year that a man with an African father and a wife descended from slaves won the White House.

It’s unlikely that WEB Du Bois would have approved of SouljaBoyTellem’s art, or much of hip-hop, for that matter. The pioneering scholar, editor and activist hoped that those African Americans who gained access to the instruments of culture making would infuse high culture with the gifts of Africa. For him that meant spirituals (delivered Jubilee-style, of course) the vibrancy of traditional African art and artisanship, the nuanced poesy of a Jessie Fauset or Countee Cullen, with the occasional swinging riff from the deceptively accessible Langston Hughes. In his definitive essay on aesthetics, The Criteria of Negro Art, he implored:

“If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans; if your color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful; — what is it that you would want? What would you immediately seek? Would you buy the most powerful of motor cars and outrace Cook County? Would you buy the most elaborate estate on the North Shore? Would you be a Rotarian or a Lion or a What-not of the very last degree? Would you wear the most striking clothes, give the richest dinners, and buy the longest press notices?

“Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your hearts that these are not the things you really want. You realize this sooner than the average white American because, pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world; if we had the true spirit; if we had the Seeing Eye, the Cunning Hand, the Feeling Heart; if we had, to be sure, not perfect happiness, but plenty of good hard work, the inevitable suffering that always comes with life; sacrifice and waiting, all that — but, nevertheless, lived in a world where men know, where men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life. It is that sort of a world we want to create for ourselves and for all America.”

Part of Jenkins’ point is that participatory media expands the ranks of the tastemakers beyond Hollywood elites, intellectuals, and activists. Jay Rosen has been saying similar things about the shift to participatory journalism in essays such as The People Formerly Known as the Audience.” But when the ethos from which these new media products emerge can be tainted by values that are corrosive, a critical perspective is necessary.

In her essay, “Learning the 5 Lessons of Youtube: After Trying to Teach There, I Don’t Believe the Hype,” Alexandra Juhasz makes the argument that corporate dominance of this major media sharing site has turned do-it-yourself culture into a tool for replicating ideas and values that are fundamentally anti-democratic. In particular, she and her students found that depictions of African Americans that reinforce vulgar race and gender stereotypes are more popular, and thus more prominently featured, than those promoting more positive images or cultural critique.

And this is part of my concern, even as I contribute to this participatory culture and teach students to do it as well. The uncritical replication of negative images of black males in particularly is particularly vexing, because it undermines the effort to transfer of positive values from one generation to the next. In some ways, the current environment is arguably more challenging than the pre-Civil rights era, because in those days, there were alternative, black-controlled civic institutions that promoted images that countered the stereotypes of the dominant culture.  Byron Hurt’s 2008 mini-documentary demonstrated Barack Obama’s rise exposed a deep-seated confusion and ambivalence about the possibilities of success, respect and power for black men in an era that is supposed to be “post-racial:”

I thought about this ambivalence as I watched clips from DeAndre Ramone Way’s videoblog, which has since been removed. He has been known to talk about his interests in art, education, and business along with his  “beefs” with other rappers, his jewelry and his cars.  Pop culture never was a good place for a complicated persona. When pop culture goes “spreadable,” what gets lost? Sometimes I’m afraid it’s the substance of a culture that we can’t afford to lose.

Of The Meaning of Progress: Today’s Black Journalists Within the Veil

Author’s note: This part of my unpublished 2002 essay, “Not the Subject but the Premise: Postcards from the Edge of Du Bois’ Black Belt,”  is reproduced here for comment and as fodder in the body of work upon which I am drawing for my sabbatical project. I consider it to be a failed work with some useful nuggets.

There were few institutions that escaped Du Bois’s critique, and the media was no exception. As editor of The Crisis, “[H]e challenged African-American newspapers to report on more serious social matters than weddings and murders,” David Levering Lewis recalled. (Biography, p. 416) Near the end of his life, Du Bois delivered his own considered judgment on the function and impact of mass media under monopoly capitalism. In a 1953 article in the Monthly Review, he declared,

“The organized effort of American industry to usurp government surpasses anything in modern history. From the use of psychology to spread the truth has come the use of organized gathering of news to guide public opinion and then deliberately to mislead it by scientific advertising and propaganda. This has led in our day to suppression of truth, omission of facts, misinterpretation of news, and deliberate falsehood on a wide scale. Mass capitalistic control of books and periodicals, news gathering and distribution, radio, cinema, and television has made the throttling of democracy possible and the distortion of education and failure of justice widespread.” (Lewis, Reader)

Just as the journalism of Du Bois’ era reflected the technological, political and cultural impact of the emergence of monopoly capitalism, contemporary journalists are struggling with the impact of the information-driven post-industrial economy. Black journalists are struggling not only to hold their own in an uncertain industry, but with their own sense of personal and professional mission.

“The media have an agenda,” says Natalie Byfield, former reporter for the New York Daily News, “and the agenda is to put across the message that the system works – whether it does or not.” (Byfield) Depending upon their experience and their underlying belief system, their conclusions about what’s not working may vary, but the disillusionment does not. As former Washington Post staffer and New York University professor Pamela Newkirk explained, “While black journalists occasionally succeed in conveying the richness and complexity of black life, they are often left…restricted by the narrow scope of the media, which tends primarily to exploit those fragments of African American life that have meaning for, and resonate with, whites.” (Newkirk, 5) Interestingly, Newkirk’s borrowed Du Bois’ metaphor for her book about black journalists’ experience in mainstream news, Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media.

Today, the number of minority students who seek journalism training is still relatively small. The number of journalism students of color who seek or stay in journalism careers is paltry. In the last decade, multiple studies and memoirs by black journalists and their professional organizations report that black newsroom staffers frequently find their expertise discounted, their news judgment questioned, and their work unfairly evaluated. (NABJ, Newkirk, Nelson) And while a flagging economy and corporate restructuring has hurt reporters of all races, the decline in the number of black journalists has been particularly steep.   (NABJ Journal, April 2002, pgs. 7-8)

Today, as the world’s dominant military and cultural power, America is loved and loathed, treasured and terrorized. The news industry is being simultaneously squeezed by corporate mergers and consolidations, and fragmented by social dislocation and the uneven proliferation of new technologies that make it possible for the economic elites of say, Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire to have an instant news and communications with Anaheim, California.

On the other hand, many working and middle-class Americans are less likely to read any newspaper at all, and millions rely on alternative news sources, such as late-night comedians and talk-show hosts, and news outlets with an explicit religious or ideological bent. Where the newspaper industry was expanding 100 years ago, both circulation figures and network news ratings have been sliding for years now. (New York Times Magazine) The industry’s response to these pressures has been bad for newsroom diversity.

As [Tom] Rosensteil, co-author of the book, The Elements of Journalism and executive director of the Washington DC-based Project for Excellence in Journalism told the NABJ Journal. (Davis, p, eight) “You need to have African Americans bringing different perspectives to the newsroom. The basic problem at the moment is that the newspaper industry does not seem to be interested in building circulation, but instead interested in building profit….”

Building circulation and building profit once were synonymous, but that’s no longer true. That’s partially because conglomerates now own many news organizations whose primary business is something else — and the earnings expectations are driven by the parent industry. So, Viacom, which owns the once-revered CBS News operation, expects its news operation to keep production costs down and ad revenue up. That mindset means such staples as investigative reporting and foreign reporting become luxury items. Reporting on poor neighborhoods and urban issues has been given short shrift as publishers chase advertiser-attractive suburban consumers.

In 2001, the highest-ranking African American in the newspaper industry, San Jose Mercury News publisher Jay Harris resigned to protest the industry’s devaluation of that larger social mission. Other respected veterans followed Harris’ lead. Sylvester Monroe, an assistant managing editor at the Mercury News, left the company in August, 2001 — ending 18 years as a staffer for nationally-recognized newspapers and magazines. Monroe told the NABJ Journal,  “My decision to leave was not just about possible layoffs. It was about what the unrealistic profit targets set by Knight Ridder [owners of the Mercury-News and several other major metropolitian papers] was doing to the character and culture of the newsroom. I went from hiring 16 people to identifying people for potential layoff in less than one year.” Monroe is now writing a book about the personal price that he and other black members of his Harvard undergraduate class as a foot soldier for Ivy League integration.

(Dawkins, p.11)

Journalists generally, and minority journalists in particular, are trying to understand what it means to function in a post-modern cultural environment in which truth claims, personal identity and community structures are contingent and contested. I bring this up in contrast to Du Bois’ contention that African American identity is shaped by opposing forces of racism and resilience that, depending upon white America’s response, would to either renew or destroy the nation.

Du Bois’ biological and intellectual hybridity make him the embodiment of his argument about the centrality and value of African Americans in the American project. It is reasonable to infer that he would feel African American journalists are equipped to make an essential contribution to the achievement of the Hegelian self-consciousness that he felt that the achievement of a society’s democratic potential required. However, the increasing corporatization of news that Du Bois perceived decades ago, along with the emergence of postmodern culture, complicates the realization of Du Bois’ ideals.

One measure of the distance between the nascent modernism of the era in which Souls was written and our own time is consider, momentarily, how difficult it would be to infer how someone with Du Bois’ ancestry, upbringing and education would define himself today. Would he, as Du Bois did, see himself as fundamentally African and American? Would he be part of the ‘multiracial movement” that succeeded in forcing the US government to change its categories in the 2000 US census? Given his careful delineation of the African American class structure, would he necessarily see a connection between his own destiny and the future of the one-third of African Americans who, according to the most recent government figures, remain below the poverty line?

It would be madness to presume to know the answers, but the point here is that African Americans’ responses to these questions, and the larger society’s response to African Americans — are more complex now than it was 100 years ago. Even if a modern-day Du Bois did perceive racial inequality as an important issue that affected him personally, one cannot logically infer that he would assume that he bore some mantle of racial loyalty or responsibility as a result. He might find himself in agreement with African American Harvard University Law professor Randall Kennedy who contended in a 1997 article for the Atlantic Monthly that, “The fact that race matters, however, does not mean that the salience and consequences of racial distinctions are good or that race must continue to matter in the future. Nor does the brute sociological fact that race matters dictate what one’s response to that fact should be.” (Kennedy)

Kennedy, a Princeton, Yale and Oxford graduate whose siblings are also Ivy-League educated legal professionals, argued that it is unjust and unwise for African Americans to claim kinship, pride or responsibility on the basis of race. African Americans should strive, Kennedy said, for the abolition of racial distinctions. Privileged blacks bear no special responsibility for the advancement of social justice; that responsibility belongs to all Americans.

Finally, Du Bois and his peers were acutely aware that whether they wanted it or not, their views and actions would affect racial policy and politics. Frederick Douglass called for the abolition of racial categories, but he knew that his pronouncement would be viewed as a black leaders’ statement about the aspirations of black people. The generation of leaders that followed him at the turn of the century held conferences to debate the future of the race; these evolved into political, fraternal and civic organizations that became the infrastructure of the black bourgeoisie. Since integration, the tight web of black colleges, greek-letter organizations, secret societies and church networks has become more diffuse, and the charge to” be a credit to the race” is not as consistently heard. Today, while one can speak of blacks in leadership positions in the news industry and elsewhere, it is more difficult to predict what, if any, racial responsibilities they think they have.

To be sure, black journalists and their allies have made prodigious efforts to improve the depth and sophistication of news coverage of African Americans and others who have historically been underrepresented or misrepresented in the news, and there are notable achievements, such as Bryant Gumbel’s successful effort to broadcast NBC’s “Today” show from Africa for one week. What’s more, the presence of blacks and other journalists of color in mainstream newsrooms has sometimes resulted in ground-breaking efforts to confront racial issues — most notably, The New York Times’ series, “How Race is Lived in America.” However, for every success, there are tales of frustration over what continues to look like a failure to assign equal value to the lives of people of color.

As I write this, for example, daily headlines for the last three weeks have covered the disappearance of affluent Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart. According to noted Black Studies scholar Lenworth Gunther, more than 800 stories have run on Smart. At the same time, Alexis Patterson, an black girl who disappeared three weeks before Smart, has been featured in fewer than 100 stories. (Gunther) These and other examples demonstrate that much work remains if the stated goal of serving democracy by covering all communities fairly is to be realized.