Most of you will recognize a part of this blog's subtitle--"today's hits and yesterday's jams"--as a catchphrase on what used to be called black radio (now urban radio). I should admit at the outset that I haven't listened to "today's hits" since R. Kelly's "Feeling on Your Booty." I remember it clearly: R. Kelly was doing melismatic runs and riffs (boo-hoo-hoo-hoo-oo-tee) and then there was a flash. I think I stabbed my car radio. I don't know where the ice pick came from. Today, my iPod and I do just fine without Wacka Flocka. I get some Earth Wind and Fire going or some Chaka Khan and I am having Bill Withers' Lovely Daaaaaaaaay.
I actually did not hear of the aforementioned Wacka Flocka until the hilarious parody of his "Hard in the Paint" appeared. After laughing my face off, I decided to go check the original. All I could think was: Shouldn't you die of shame in the rap game if a bougie comedian has a better flow than you? I mean, better by a lot. And, by the way, if your pseudonym sounds like something Fozzie the Bear used to say on The Muppet Show, don't you give up all claim to being hard core?
I don't keep up with celebrities, except by accident. I was quite pleased for a long time that I didn't know Kate Hudson... or Kate Gosselin. I suppose I take a perverse pride in not recognizing people who haven't made a meaningful contribution to my world. I know Cate Blanchette and Judi Dench. I feel Alfre Woodard and Sanaa Lathan. I am amazed by Delroy Lindo's versatility, Anna Deavere Smith's cast of characters, and by Edie Falco, in every single project. I don't think I'll run out of viewing material.
Now, I realize that these preferences indicate how partial I am to "yesterday's jams." The youngest person on that list is kicking forty in the behind! But this might explain why I've always felt a bit out of place in my own generation. When I was in college, some friends and I used to muse that we could launch a new Harlem Renaissance from our campus. And there are times when, looking back at the art and politics of the 1920s, or even of the civil rights/Black Power eras, I think: I was born too late. They were on their shit back in the day! You might say that I find the past more appealing because I didn't have to live it. You might be right.
As a graduate student in the self-styled hippest of all American Studies programs, I was made to see the danger in my finding the past more appealing than the present. This attitude tends to produce unnecessary railing against young people and pessimism about the potential to ameliorate society. Basically, it produces grumpy old men--and women. Or, in the words of one of Gloria Naylor's women of Brewster Place, one concludes that "All the good men,"--the ones who could do something to make a difference--"are either dead or waiting to be born."
I concede that romanticizing the past makes heroes of all predecessors and cowards of all the living. Yet, I also think this view is a helpful counterbalance to the more widespread belief that progress--especially of the technological kind--is bringing about Heaven on Earth with no assistance from God or Man. The Android phones will bring about World Peace all by themselves. There's gotta be an app for that...
I doubt very seriously that android phones can do any such thing. In fact, I don't think Twitter and Facebook are the causes of the rebellious activities in the Middle East. There have been revolutions before--from France and Haiti to Watts and Newark. Human beings are the agents of revolution; technologies are our tools (apologies to Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, whose fascinating ideas about the uncanny agency of technologies I agree with at other times).
Consequently, I find myself in search of human energies. I want to know how human beings think up ways to organize life and then summon the enormous energy necessary to bring those ideas to imperfect fruition. I want to know how some attempt to constrain and humiliate and how the put-upon slyly or brazenly disrupt these designs. These questions have sent me burrowing into the past--obviously not because these world-making efforts have disappeared but because it is sometimes easier to recognize the patterns when they are not, precisely, one's own (the way that other people's problems always seem so much easier to solve).
And so, in this digital age, I find myself fascinated by ink. In Aristotle's Athens, the enslaved were marked with ink tattoos, icons know as stigmata or charagma, the root of words that remain quite useful to use, stigma and character. As England sought to enter the new Atlantic economy, one play called for white boys to enter the stage and black their faces with inkwells, in imitation of apes. Othello fatally stabbed himself, then an onlooker screamed "O bloody period," as if the blackamoor's blood could make a mark of punctuation. Sometimes the medium differed, but the conflation of alphabetic character and human character continued. In the nineteenth century France, public slaves were branded with the letters TP (travaux perpétuels). When the blacks of St. Domingue overthrew their French masters on the most prosperous and deadly of the sugar islands, a secretary in the new government proclaimed that the most apt declaration of independence would use the blood of a white man for ink, his skull for an inkwell, his skin for parchment, and a bayonet for a pen. And, of course, we cannot forget Hawthorne's famous Scarlet Letter, made of cloth, yet affixed to Hester Prynne's breast as if it were a permanent ink tattoo. With all of today's emphasis on character education, racial/terrorist profiling, the broadcasting of private sexual acts, the removal of stigma--it seems to me that these earlier moments give us an opportunity to watch how others have wrestled with similar problems and learn from their efforts.
As I go into a reverie about Aristotle and the Scarlet A, you might begin to think I am against the new simply for its being new. That's not so. But I often think that American popular culture--and scholars of it--celebrate the new simply for its being new. I feel that we as scholars have an amazing opportunity. We get paid to look into things.
However, our focus on contemporary popular culture and relevance sometimes runs the risk of abetting rather than enriching the 24-hour news cycle's emphasis on new news. I mean, if we are not bringing something different to the table, then what is the point? We are uniquely positioned to seek and then popularize narratives and interpretations before, beside, and beneath the current conventional tale. And so, even though I'm not hip to today's hits, I do hope that the occasional ones that cross my radar offer me a chance to contribute to offer more context than what is immediately apparent. Otherwise, we are marooned on an island of the present. And no android phone could make that tolerable for me.