By Jabari Asim
WASHINGTON—If you find yourself hurtling through your house in the middle of the night, the smart thing to do is turn on some lights. That’s common sense, I know. But I’m one of those folks who has to smash a kneecap on the corner of a table just to get his brain cells in gear. My latest bone-cracking collision occurred as I was sprinting—make that stumbling—through the pre-dawn darkness in search of Nina Simone.
I knew, of course, that Simone, one of jazz’s all-time great chanteuses, had died in 2003. But it was her voice I needed, specifically a greatest-hits CD featuring her riveting composition “Four Women.’’ One of the characters Simone portrays in the song is a tough-talking, brown-skinned woman who’d just as soon cut you as shake your hand. “What do they call me?’’ she taunts. “My name is Peaches.’’
It takes a genius such as Simone to turn such a harmless sounding name into a completely credible threat. It was her Peaches that I wanted to hear and remember—because another, quite different character had disturbed me from my precious slumber. This one, Peachez with a Z, was less like Simone’s rough-edged temptress and more like Aunt Jemima off her meds. She was ludicrous, half-crazed and oddly masculine, with an oversized blue wig resembling a cheerleader’s pom-pom, fingernails like eagle talons, and a suspiciously masculine physique beneath her oversized clothes.
She crashed my dreams, that crazy crone, waving a bottle of hot sauce and a cooking fork.
Like Chris Bliss the juggling guy and Lonelygirl15 before her, Ms. Peachez has emerged from the cybersoup of YouTube.com to reign briefly as a full-fledged Internet curiosity. “She’’ stars in “Fry That Chicken,’’ a music video that engages—no, embraces—racial stereotypes. With a catchy beat to propel her simple, singsong rap, the brown-skinned Peachez brags about her passion for poultry. She plays with raw chicken parts and dances around a ramshackle outdoor cooking establishment with a homemade sign that says “Peachez Getto Fried Chicken.’’
And she half-sings, half-chants repetitive lyrics that are all variations of “Everybody wanna piece of my chicken.’’ Meanwhile, a background chorus encourages her to “fry that chicken, fry that chicken.’’ Yes, it is the stuff of nightmares.
The most disturbing part, though, is the prominent role children play in the video. More than a dozen young people—most of whom look no older than 12—cavort to the beat while deliriously stuffing themselves with chicken flesh and sucking rapturously on the bones. It vaguely reminded me of a scene in “The Birth of a Nation,’’ D.W. Griffith’s Dixie-porn fantasy about a Klan-like group wresting the post-Civil War South from carpetbaggers and their dangerous Negro sidekicks. I put aside for the moment my search for Nina Simone and instead popped in my copy of “Birth.’’ (Of course I have one. You don’t?)
I fast-forwarded to the scene in which black lawmakers—actually white actors with burnt cork on their faces—have used the gains of Reconstruction to take over local politics. The titles onscreen provided a dubious introduction: “The negro party in control of State House of Representatives, Columbia, South Carolina, 101 blacks against 23 whites. A historical facsimile of the actual photographed scene.’‘
I got that sickening feeling I always have when watching that film, massaging my temples at notorious depictions of blacks guzzling whiskey and frolicking mindlessly while “the helpless white minority’’ looks on. But my nausea soon passed. Maybe I’ve seen “Birth of a Nation’’ too many times, but it suddenly seemed mild when compared with “Fry That Chicken.’’
At least D.W. Griffith’s vulgarities could be attributed to his racist beliefs, which were hardly out of step with his times. Black activists, writing before the outbreak of the Civil War, had asked, “What American artist has not caricatured us? What wit has not laughed at us in our wretchedness? ... What press has not ridiculed and condemned us? ... Few, few, very few.’’ Seen in that context, Griffith was just continuing, a half-century later, a revered American tradition. But how can anyone explain black performers willingly—and apparently joyfully—perpetuating such foolishness in the 21st century?
I enjoy a laugh as much as anyone, and have been known to chuckle at jokes that come perilously close to crossing the boundaries of propriety. In that spirit, I tried and failed to find anything worth a giggle in hot sauce-hefting Ms. Peachez. Call me old school, humorless or just plain uptight, but I’m sticking with Nina Simone.
Jabari Asim’s e-mail address is asimj(at symbol)washpost.com.