Framing Rosa Parks in Reel Time

Article excerpt

Two high-profile controversies in recent years reflect the disputes over Rosa Parks's legacy that have emerged in African American popular music and film. In 1998, the rap group OutKast, along with its production company LaFace records, was sued by Parks for "Rosa Parks" included in their 1998 album Aquemini. Parks argued that the song appropriated her name and also included vulgarity in its lyrics. Similarly, the 2002 comedy film Barbershop directed by Tim Story generated controversy because of a heated debate that it stages on Parks between two of its characters, Calvin Palmer, Jr. (Ice Cube) and Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer). In this scene, Palmer, who is sitting in a barber chair eating, remarks that "You've got to give it up to Rosa Parks because they was deep, they was on the front lines in the 1960s." But Eddie retorts, "Who the hell is Rosa Parks?" He then asserts that "Man, she was tired. That's what you do when you're tired. You sit your ass down. Rosa Parks ain't do nothing but sit her black ass down... I'm gon' give her her just due because what she did, her act, led to the movement and everything, but she damn sure ain't special. No. It was a whole lot of black folks sat down on buses and they got thrown in jail. And they did it way before Rosa Parks did. The only difference between them and her was that she was secretary of the NAACP and she knowed Martin Luther King and they got a lot of publicity. That's all."

In her study Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, Melissa Harris-Perry identifies these dynamics in the barber shop as the foundation of the black public sphere in their grassroots, community contexts. She points out that "Ordinary spaces of everyday talk among African Americans serve as forums for dialogue that contribute both to the development of individual ideological dispositions and to the revisions of ideologies across time" (3). Harris-Perry further observes that "Churches, political organizations, news outlets, fraternal clubs, mutual aid societies, barbershops, juke joints, and labor unions that constitute the black counterpublic are internally contested spaces. Identities of gender, class, color, sexuality and privilege crosscut the terrain of a racially homogeneous public sphere" (6).

If Eddie's comments acknowledge Parks's precursors who had been arrested in Montgomery as well as their relative invisibility in narratives of civil rights history, his purposefully iconoclastic and irreverent comments are also grounded in the widespread, though misleading, myth that being "tired" that evening was the primary reason that led Parks to remain seated on the bus. This portrayal of Parks also seems reductive and suspect in light of Barbershop s primary investments in endorsing black conservatism through Palmer's admiration of entrepreneur Stedman Graham. Furthermore, Eddie's comments, inflected by profanity and the use of "black" as an epithet, are ironic given that they are voiced by a young black male at the beginning of the 21 st century (though costumed on screen portraying a senior black man) recasting forms of disrespect, devaluation, and humiliation to which Parks was subjected by the white bus driver James F. Blake, who was known for routinely insulting black women in the Jim Crow South. This scene also seems ironic considering that Parks's husband, Raymond, was a barber. Indeed, director Julie Dash's made-for-television 2002 movie The Rosa Parks Story depicts Parks's husband Raymond (played by Peter Francis James) as criticizing the NAACP because he disapproved of their strategies for dealing with the Scottsboro Boys case. As he cuts hair, Raymond claims that "The NAACP just a bunch of scared old men who blow hot and cold." Released in the same year, The Rosa Parks Story had a far more limited audience than did the blockbuster hit Barbershop.

The Outkast album and the incidents in Barbershop have been shaped by generational tensions and political sensibilities mediated by hip-hop. …