By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
A version of this article appeared at Truthout.
People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned. ... People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become, and they pay for it, very simply by the lives they lead.
We have come a long way from the struggles that launched the civil rights movement over fifty years ago. During that historical period, brave men and women marched, integrated white only lunch counters, defied orders to sit in the back of the bus, challenged police brutality and put their bodies in the face of danger for civil and economic rights. Many of them were beaten, attacked by police dogs, and jailed. They fought for a higher cause, and in some cases gave their lives in the face of insufferable injustices. They embodied the ethical grammar of hope, one that demanded courage, struggle, and the creation of social movements. One display of such collective courage took place after Emmett Till, a young 14-year-old, African-American boy, was mutilated and tortured by white racists in Mississippi in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman. The widely distributed image of his tortured and disfigured body made visible a vile racism that could no longer remain unchallenged. Thousands viewed the horrible image of this young boy’s mutilated body and rose up in anger and determination to take part in a social movement that challenged the toxic racism that had become normalized in the United States.
It is hard to view, even contemplate contemporary America in that historical march towards justice and democracy. We live in a historical moment when money corrupts everything from how we view social provisions and schools to what passes as entertainment and popular culture. We live at a time when politics serves the bankers, hedge fund managers, the corporate elite and free market fundamentalists. The legacies of the past now become fodder for advertisements, revolutionary slogans are trivialized, and the pictures of modern day heroes and freedom fighters are used to sell T-Shirts. Even memory and the practice of moral witnessing are commodified, if not corrupted.
One particularly egregious example comes from the rapper Lil Wayne who in a remix version of the song “Karate Chop” by rapper Future mocked Emmett Till with the lyric: “beat the pussy up like Emmett Till.” While a critical response was swift from members of the hip hop community and community leaders, it mostly focused on Lil Wayne’s racist remarks. What many critics failed to do was to look at the underlying conditions that make such racist, sexist blabber and historical amnesia possible. They also largely failed to raise crucial questions about how and why such ethically and politically demeaning music, videos, and lyrics are allowed to flood the culture with so little resistance. Moreover, little was said about why such poisonous lyrics, representations, and representations are measured more for their shock value rather than for the ways in which such material denigrates history, individuals and social movements. Lil Wayne’s racist and sexist comment exceeds bad taste. And then, of course, there is L. L. Cool J “Accidental Racist” song (“If you forget my gold chains, I’ll forgive the iron chains”). There is nothing accidental going on here. What is clear is that both comments are symptomatic of a deeper order of racist ideology and commodification that is pushed to the margins of discourse in the neoliberal age of color blindness. Such racism and sexism point to a society in which economics is divorced from ethics, profit is the ultimate measure of success, and disposable populations are now fair game for ridicule, harassment, and insulting behavior. Lil Wayne is just one example of the moral dead zone that too many artists, individuals, institutions, intellectuals, and politicians occupy in a land of massive inequality of wealth and power.
Lil Wayne’s allusion to Emmitt Till in his lyrics represents more than stupidity. It represents how normalized the culture of cruelty has become and how it wraps itself in a popular culture that is increasingly racist, misogynistic, and historically illiterate. This is neoliberalism’s revenge on young people in that it elevates profits over justice and the practice of moral witnessing and in doing so creates artists and other young people who mimic a racist and authoritarian politics and are completely clueless about it. Celebrity culture is the underside of the new illiteracy in America, the soft edge of fascism with its unbridled celebration of wealth, narcissism, and glamor. My comments on Emmitt Till in the beginning of my book, “Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability” point to a different use of memory, one that engages in moral witnessing and tries to prevent justice from dying in each of us, in the public sphere, and in our relations with others. It is worth repeating as a counter narrative to Lil Wayne’s complicity with the modes of lyrical fascism that now circulate in the media like a poisonous toxin.
What was left of Emmet Till arrived home in Chicago in September 1955. Determined to make visible the horribly mangled face and twisted body of the child as an expression of racial hatred and killing, Mamie Till, the boy’s mother, insisted that the coffin, interred at the A.A. Ranier Funeral Parlor in the South Side of Chicago, be left open for four long days. While mainstream news organizations ignored the horrifying image, Jet magazine published an unedited photo of Till’s face taken while he lay in his coffin. Shaila Dawn points out that “[m]utilated is the word most often used to describe the face of Emmett Till after his body was hauled out of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. Inhuman is more like it: melted, bloated, missing an eye, swollen so large that its patch of wiry hair looks like that of a balding old man, not a handsome, brazen 14-year-old boy.” The Jet photos not only made visible the violent effects of the racial state; they also fuelled massive public anger, especially among blacks, and helped to launch the Civil Rights Movement.
We live at a time when heroes of the civil rights generation such Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Davis are now replaced by business tycoons such as Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, and Henry Paulson. The older pioneers sacrificed in order to alleviate the suffering of others, while the new “celebrity heroes” of the media drawn from corporate culture live off the suffering of others. Celebrity culture is a cesspool of greed, over paid financial looters, and spineless media pundits who reproduce the market-driven and politically paralysing sexist and racist grammars of suffering, state violence, and disposability. Maybe Lil Wayne should read about the history of the civil rights movement before he fashions lyrics that sound as if they were written by the racists that killed this young man. Maybe the American public should go further and ask what kind of country creates people like Lil Wayne and what can be done to create a formative culture that would stop this kind of racism and sexism in its tracks, rather than reward it.
1. Henry A. Giroux, Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability (Boulder: Paradigm, 2006), pp. 1-2
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