Monday, October 8, 2012

Jackie Donahue: Casualty of the Hip Hop Wars

In 2003, the rapper Nelly was at the pinnacle of his music career when he decided to launch a campaign to find a bone marrow match for his sister, Jackie Donahue, who had acute myelogenous leukemia. He also wanted to promote donation awareness. Nelly’s status as a globally recognized hip hop artist enabled him to gain the attention of black youth across the nation, and the black press, educating them on the disparities in registration and medical donations between African-Americans and whites. But then Nelly’s Jes Us 4 Jackie drive came to an abrupt halt when students at the historically black Spelman College held a rally to boycott his campaign in response to the misogyny and sexism in his video “Tip Drill.” Eventually, Essence magazine, a dominant voice in the black press, sponsored a year-long campaign of articles and blog conversations to “Take Back the Music.” The movement invoked the well-worn political rhetoric and community disciplining strategies of the black church women who sought to “uplift the race” through education and public health campaigns at the turn of the century. Reid-Brinkley explains:
"... Black women need[ed] to perform or mimic some degree of white femininity to gain patriarchal protection. The sociohistorical context in which black women develop the strategy of respectability must be understood as a 'discourse of resistance'(White and Dobris 2002). The strategy of respectability serves to destabilize the racist representations of black women and black people in general. However, as sexual and class strife demonstrate, respectability can be used to sublimate inappropriate performances of black womanhood and [manhood]."
Following the pattern of others interested in restoring the image of respectable black womanhood, one contributor overlooked the immediate health concerns to invoke the hackneyed racial politics of respectability. She wrote, “It is our responsibility to change the worldwide image of African-American women and restore some sense of dignity, value, and respectability before it is too late.”
Garnering the support of prominent black media sources, CNN and NPR, Spelman’s faculty and all-female student body received the weighty support of black male intellectuals and cultural activists. In the end, the politics demonstrated its area of greatest influence: policing other African-Americans. The spectacle at Spelman College, and in the black press, derailed the fervor behind Nelly’s health campaign, and arguably his career in the music industry. More tragically, without a donor, Jackie died at an early age of 31-year-old.
Since the ‘70s, the experience of poor African-Americans have involved ubiquitous criminalization. Linda Tucker and Michelle Alexander have produced scholarship that enables us to percieve and uncover the structural processes of stigmatization as they happen figuratively, in mass media, and literally, with the mass incarceration of black males. As a consequence, many black youth have embraced outlaw identities and “ghetto” culture and lifestyles as a form of resistance. Of late, I’ve become in interested in the implications of the politics of respectability for the health of African-Americans on the margins of society due to their stigmatized status, which has led many black elites to dis-identify with the unrespectable culture and lifestyles of black youth involved in hip hop culture and the streets. In fact, the black aristocracy’s invocation of the old adage, “my color but not my kind” not only reveals a social cleavage among African-Americans but leads to injustice in the health arena (and others). The case of Jackie Donahue and African-Americans marginalized due to being infected with HIV/AIDS in the ‘80s and '90s are emblematic. In brief, more than cultural norms are at stake. The politics or respectability has repercussions for the further elaboration of justice, and the health of the black community, writ large.
According to philosopher Sara Goering and her colleagues in bioethics at University of Washington Medical School, the various justice frameworks offered in American bioethics are inadequate in their capacity to bring about a more just society. In response to an incompleteness in conceptions of justice, Goering and her colleagues have synthesized redistribution, recognition, and responsibility into a multifaceted approach to justice in community research. That is, they've called the medical and scientific community to acknowledge our own privilege and power to heighten a sense of responsibility to and for those less privileged. They implore human subject researchers to embrace a “richer conception of justice — one that takes seriously the perspectives of the often marginalized communities in which they work.” Although this approach is more complete and acknowledges that marginalization is a result of aggregate human actions in the socioeconomic sphere, responsive justice, as a lens of analysis and ethos for action, is unable to explicate class and cultural politics within marginalized black communities involving the elite’s policing of the boundaries of blackness leading to their dis-identification and the secondary marginalization of the black poor.
As a strategy for justice it is suspect and requires transformation due to its “replication, reproduction, and reconstitution ideologies of  [racial identity and other intersectionalities]  as they operate to confine and constrain the development of subjectivity.” Ideologies embedded within American medicine. Stated differently, resistance to notions of respectability among low socioeconomic African-Americans has evaded detection among those in the medical community interested in bioethics and health justice. Our engagement with gatekeepers in marginalized communities keep us from hearing the voice of those on the farthest margins. Why does it matter to me? As an African-American male of ambiguous cultural heritage (solidly unrespectable to aspirational respectability), I am personally ambivalent about exceptionality as a strategy for social mobility and earned recognition or political respect. Moreover, I contend that embedded within American bioethics is an inherent commitment to “ascriptive” racial identity and aspiring class and cultural assimilation that plays into traditional racial politics of respectability and renders invisible the unrespectable. In the end, I’d argue that pursuing justice (i.e., redistribution, recognition, and responsibility) among African-Americans is impossible without an ethos of empathy that transcends class and culture. In doing, I suggest that we aspire to what Law Professor Regina Austins calls the politics of identification that enables us to bridge the gap between “saints” and “sinners “ to encourage the latter’s voice and enable them to advocate for their own defined communites and the broader black community as well.
In loving memory of Melanie "Mimi" Evans (5 October 2012), Lincoln High School mascot, friend to many, and nurturer of all who crossed her path. Rest in Peace big homie.