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Forum series. . .

“Race, Media, and Representation in Public Spaces: Black Music and Humor”


Presented on Oct. 11, 2005

The second forum in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies’ fall 2005 series was titled “Race, Media, and Representation in Public Space: Black Music and Humor.” This event, smaller in scale than the first forum, featured four panelists speaking on topics concerned with how African Americans are designated and represented to the public.

The discussion was organized around a cartoon that ran in the Alligator, an independent publication distributed to students at the University of Florida at Gainesville. The cartoon, which excited outraged protest among students, faculty, and the Gainesville community, depicted Kanye West, dressed in baggies, stating that President Bush “doesn't like black people” and Condoleezza Rice, one hand on her sassily extended hip, replying, “Nigga, please!” AAADS Professor Valerie Grim, chair of the department, introduced the topic as part of the continuing conversation on race and posed several questions to the audience, as well as to the other panelists: Was the cartoon designed to spark dialogue, as its originators claimed, or was it blatantly insensitive to racial issues? Who is “nigga” and who has the power to apply that label? Could those present support the protest against the cartoon at the University of Florida? She also presented a brief overview of the debate between free speech and hate speech.

Professor of History Amrita Myers sketched out the history of racial oppression and the misrepresentation of blacks in the United States in order to put the University of Florida uproar into focus. Because of close connections to faculty at that institution, she was able to present a blow-by-blow account of the controversy. She called for a coming together of all people against hatred and for social justice, stating that “race issues are everybody’s issues,” and not just for “minorities.”

Ethnomusicology Professor Fernando Orejuela discussed the role of hip-hop in promulgating and diffusing the use and impact of the “N-word” among both blacks and whites and gave a hip-hop history of that word in public use. While the current generation of young people is, perhaps, overly comfortable with the “N-word,” said Orejuela, it remains acceptable only for black use, and even that is controversial.

AAADS graduate student Matthew Booker, who is doing research on black humor, addressed the role of humor in the black vernacular as it is evolving from a private racial space to the public arena. He cited comedians, such as Chris Rock and Dave Chappell, who use humor to create dialogue, and concluded that humor allows for honesty when African Americans talk about race to each other.

Following the four presentations, the audience joined the conversation, with several people pointing out the “commodification of black people” in numerous ways, including through the widespread use of black vernacular. Words as power and as one contemporary manifestation of racism were recurring themes in audience comments. One person summed up such misuse by saying that society was “making the victim their own oppressor by saying it’s OK to use the ‘N-word’.” No one present advocated use of the term by either blacks or whites. At the end of the evening, the question of supporting the protest was again asked, with virtually all of the audience agreeing that the cartoon and those who promoted it must be opposed. Grim and Myers offered to write a letter of support to the protesters and to give everyone present a chance to sign the letter with them.

The forum was co-sponsored with the Department of History, the Black Graduate Student Association, and the Black Scholars Collective.