Whose Black Culture Should Be Portrayed?

Article excerpt

Najee Ali leaves no doubt about his feelings for "Street Sweeper," a new book aimed at young black men.

Standing outside the offices of his small newspaper, he spews words such as "pornographic" and "vulgar," then reads a passage:

"Spinning, Jerome shot the guard right between the eyes. As the councilman struggled to crawl away, Jerome emptied his clip just to be sure."

To this, Mr. Ali, a Muslim minister, adds his verdict: "There is no point except to make money off young blacks and to glorify violence."

Across town, publisher Mark Gerald is dismayed: "We are aiming to enrich, enlighten, and entertain an audience which without us, has gone hungry for two decades - primarily young black men."

Between these opposites lies a debate that is splitting America's black community. The issue: How to portray the black experience - both to the African-American community and to the larger, multiracial American culture?

To some, literature, music, and film in the model of "Street Sweeper" is harmful, disseminating only the the worst of black culture. To others, though, it's indicative of a worthwhile effort to portray life as it actually is for some people, and not temper it to make it more palatable.

"New battle lines are being drawn right now," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of "The Assassination of the Black Male Image." "We are no longer just talking about images type-casted from movie studios and record companies owned by whites; we are also talking about the lyrics and images created for movies, MTV, videos, rap, and books by other blacks themselves."

Other examples abound:

* Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" - which hit theaters last week - is a cinematic diatribe against blacks and whites who have "sold out" to white culture by trivializing depictions of blacks. In widely published interviews and within the film itself, director Lee takes on top black entertainers such as Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy for perpetuating black stereotypes or "whitening" blacks for wider cultural acceptance.

* Earlier this month in Philadelphia, members of the Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolence protested against Allen Iverson's coming rap album "Non-fiction" outside two Philadelphia radio stations. Critics have called the songs on the basketball star's still-unreleased album antigay, antiwomen, and pro- violence. Mr. Iverson has since met with the group and has agreed to tone down his lyrics.

* The animated series "The PJs," produced by Eddie Murphy, has been derided for its images of blacks as whores, shiftless do- nothings, and crack heads. A write-in campaign to the Fox network asked for a toning down of language and the inclusion of more positive images of blacks. Fox has since dropped the show, which will now air on The WB.

* Variety Magazine reported Columbia Pictures may distribute an 80-minute film based on the online, comic-strip character, Lil' Pimp - a freckle-faced white boy who learns how to pimp from two black sidekicks.

"There is absolutely a divide in the black community right now over the sheer amount of these stereotyped images of blacks as lowlifes, pimps, whores, and no-goods," says Julie Stokes, a professor of psychology and Afro-ethnic studies at California State University in Fullerton.

Here in Los Angeles, activist Ali and several black ministers are speaking out against "Street Sweeper," which is co-published by black actor Wesley Snipes and will be released primarily in record stores - where the customers are generally younger. …