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The Don Imus affair, which shook the U.S. in 2007, barely rippled the surface in the Swedish duck pond, otherwise prone to storms over racial and ethnicity debates. Don Imus, 61, is an American radio show host and comedian with a talk show, Imus in the Morning, broadcast across the United States. In his live program on April 4, 2007, Imus and his producer were discussing, in a humorous context, the final game of the U.S. college basketball championship for women, between Tennessee and Rutgers Universities, with Imus commenting the Rutger players with the words “That's some nappy-headed hos”. The reactions to this faux-pas were immediate; racial tension is still only just below the relatively calm surface in the U.S., and the protests grew into a veritable storm. Even the then presidential candidate Barack Obama commented on the matter. There were voices to Imus’s defense as well, pointing to the comic intent. The result was, however, that CBS closed down the show after a week of angry debate and withdrawn sponsorship commitments. Don Imus was back on the airwaves in December 2007 with a new version of Imus in the Morning, now on ABC Radio. It attracted some attention when the black literature professor Michael Awkward, a specialist in African American literature and culture, published a book about the case, Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a Scapegoat (University of Minnesota Press), where he attempts to tries to tone down Imus’s statement while also questioning the reactions to it from black intellectuals and politicians. A further analysis of the case of Don Imus is offered by our reviewer, ethnicity professor David J. Leonard of Washington State University, through his thorough, insightful and nuanced reading of Awkward’s book. And by the way, the basketball girls from Tennessee University won the finals, 59 to 46, while the Rutger players will have to live with being referred to as nappy-headed hos for years to come.

Complex and challenging

David J. Leonard
Washington State University

Michael Awkward
Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a Scapegoat
207 sidor, inb.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2009
ISBN 978-0-8166-6741-3

In 2007, Don Imus, a nationally syndicated radio and television personality, described members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team with these five words: “That’s some nappy-headed hos.” His comments provoked outrage, protest, debate, anger, and supposed resolution (accountability). With Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a Scapegoat Michael Awkward takes up the meaning within/behind his comments, examining and reflecting on the racial spectacle that resulted in this moment.

Having finished Michael Awkward’s thought-provoking book a couple weeks back, I am still at a loss. While rare, I don’t know how I feel about this book.  Does this reflect its challenging conclusions, which undermine common sense arguments and discursive focus within the anti-racist left? Likely! Or is it a result of Awkward’s effort to reclaim complexity, contradiction, irony and context, putting to rest simplistic bumper sticker commentary and reactionary rally points? Surely! Could it be Awkward’s tendency to rehash hegemonic arguments about hip-hop that ironically feels like a scapegoat? Definitely! Maybe my ambivalence stems from a certain amount of surprise at his reclamation of Imus, especially given Michael Awkward’s anti-racist and feminist credentials? Or does it have to do with his probing rhetorical analysis of the comments that in the end results in more questions and confusion? My reaction isn’t surprising. Michael Awkward discussion seems to emphasize that public debates – public discourse – about race, racism, sexism, trauma and inter-group relations should not be satisfying or enjoyable. Why should a book about this topic be any different? This seems fundamental to Awkward’s project in that the shortcomings that he identifies within the Imus discourse (and broader social/political/racial discussions) emanate from the reductionist, pleasure-seeking, entertainment sound bite culture that he takes to task. 

Through this process, Awkward explores a spectrum of issues that intersect the debates and media coverage that resulted from Imus’ skit and the media fallout. Four of the more compelling themes are (1) his discussion of Imus as another “overblown racial skirmish” that while understandable is counter-productive. (2) His determination to provide ample context for Imus, the skit, and the racial conflict that played out in this instance; (3) race and jokes and (4) the influence of hip-hop. 

In one of the more powerful sections of the book, Awkward offers a literary analysis of each word/phrase uttered by Imus, painfully providing an epistemological explanation as to provide readers with an understanding beyond the individual words.
Anthropologist, John L. Jackson has described contemporary racial discourse as one of racial paranoia. “Racial paranoia characterizes the post-civil-rights generation of ‘affirmative-action babies.’ They are young black people for whom legal segregation is a glimpse at black-and-white images in a PBS documentary,” writes Jackson. “But they also have a sneaking suspicion that somehow the smallest slights and the most trivial of gestures may be a telltale sign of what has been called ‘two-faced racism’ — hidden racial animus dressed up to look politically correct. Such uncertainty gives rise to paranoia, especially if we stubbornly fail to discuss racism’s newfangled subtleties.”  While not identical, Michael Awkward’s deconstructive examination of the Imus affair offers similar conclusions: “At work ... is an abiding sense of racial mistrust -- and animus -- so deep that it appears to diminish the capacity of black Americans to ponder events rationally” (p. xv). Yet, Awkward pushes readers to understand this animus and its impact on racial discourse, pushing back against hegemonic claims about the “race card.” “I recognize the legitimacy of this animus, which I admit I too feel at times. But I suspect that its appearance in response to incidents like the Imus is largely the result of the still unresolved trauma from which black Americans continue to collectively suffer” (xv). Reflecting on “cultural wounds” and a history of dehumanization, Awkward seeks to understand the hegemonic reaction to/against Imus, a process where as a scapegoat “Imus was made to stand in for millions of well-known and faceless whites whom blacks ... want to desperately identify, put on trial, and excoriate because of ... centuries of racially motivated sins” (5). Yet, at the same time he seeks to push back against this type of response as neither helpful nor productive for the healing process and the struggle for justice. 

As part of this process, Awkward spends ample space within the book providing context. He underscores an importance of understanding the Imus skit within a larger context of the Imus show, humor, the devaluing of women’s sports, the broader dehumanizing experienced by African American women, and larger ideological processes. In one of the more powerful sections of the book, Awkward offers a literary analysis of each word/phrase uttered by Imus, painfully providing an epistemological explanation as to provide readers with an understanding beyond the individual words.  

Evident here and elsewhere is Awkward’s focus on the issue of racial humor. Beyond looking at the larger history behind the dialectics between race and humor, Awkward explores the various perspectives on this issue. He questions “the tendency of blacks to see white humor as a manifestation of racial hate speech” (p. 33). He offers context here and reflects on the broader issues at stake, but in doing so he ultimately challenges those who pass judgment, decontextualize, and otherwise flatten comedy and parody as a window into the soul and racial beliefs of a particular person. Commenting on the often cited history surrounding Imus, Awkward offers the following: It is preposterous to assume that he was expressing his own beliefs in a comedic skit lampooning, on the one hand, a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan desperate for mainstream validation, and on the other, the conservative, lily-white Reagan administration” (p. 28). To Awkward, to reduce Imus to his characters is akin to imagining that Richard Pryor shared “the same vulgar beliefs as his beloved character, the deluded wino, Mudbone...  (p. 28) – it is absurd as seeing “Tom Hanks” as “Forest Gump, a Federal Express executive cast away on a deserted island, Meg Ryan’s sleepless ideal lover...” (p. 29). While having real-life context and origins, humor is not a window into its practitioner’s belief system.

Awkward provides a rather disappointing exploration of the dialectics between Imus and hip-hop culture. While Awkward doesn’t seem to co-sign Shaun Powell’s simplistic conclusions that he quotes from (“When we really get to the root of the problem, this isn’t about Imus. This is about a culture we – meaning black folks – created and condoned...) he does see hip-hop as important to the discussion. He asks how does “an influential white senior citizen” “ignore the pervasive force of hip-hop?” (p. 94). As such, he argues that the Imus sketch is a parody, one that is both embodying and satirizing the ‘messages[s]’ of such ‘artists’” (p. 96). In other words, “the skit assumes the status of impersonation in which the participants speak not as themselves... but as young hip-hop-infused black males checking out, and commenting” on the black women of the Rutgers basketball team (p. 104).

What is ironic about the discussion of hip-hop is that at times the contextual discussion he offers in understanding the Imus sketch results in a scapegoating of hip-hop and its decontextualization. Just as Imus faced criticism that erased context, that treated a performance of an artist as “real” and a true glimpse at his ideology and personality, and that came about because of hyper concern for image and the politics of respectability, the indirect criticism from Awkward about hip-hop replicates this same formula. Beyond failing to think beyond intent, beyond the history of minstrelsy, beyond the violence embedded in language, and the political/ideological importance of satire, Awkward misses an important opportunity to push the public debate about hip-hop as he advances the discussion of Imus beyond the “knee-jerk” commentary that predominated the coverage. “The current national monologue about demeaning language and imagery is an exercise in scapegoating. What’s being challenged here?” writes Jeff Chang and Dave Zirin in “Hip-Hop’s E-Z Scapegoats.” “None of the critics who accuse hip-hop of coarsening the culture think to speak with members of the hip-hop generation, who are regarded as both targets and victims of the rap culture. And if they actually stopped to listen to the hip-hop generation they purport to be saving, they might be surprised at what they hear.”

At times, Burying Don Imus is a bit clumsy and organizationally unclear in that it doesn’t offer a linear narrative or even a methodical argument. At times, this can be disconcerting as readers may find themselves unclear where the author is taking them. Yet, what feels ambiguous and muddled also reflects the complexity of the book and Awkward’s determination to connect Imus to a myriad of issues from gender and hip-hop to black hair politics to Duke Lacrosse, Beloved, and Do the Right Thing.  His efforts to use the spectacle surrounding Imus to explore broader cultural themes and issues represent a strength in the end.

One of the book’s endorsements comes from Debra Dickerson, a prominent African American public intellectual. “Though I am thoroughly ‘dissed’ in it, maybe because of that thorough ‘dissing’ I cannot recommend this book highly enough.” While not directly dissed, I too felt challenged and questioned as I read this book. While not persuaded at times, and at others unsatisfied by Awkward’s tendency to decontextualize, flatten, and erase the contradictions of hip-hop (ironic to say the least given his arguments and analysis), Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a Scapegoat challenges those engaged public debates about race to reflect and move beyond the “endless accusation that those who violate the alleged public trust are all ‘ignorant boobs’” (p. 174).

© David J. Leonard 2010.

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