Those Kids Today
In case you didn't know: Getting old is a slow, ongoing multiple pain in the ... uhh ... butt. And, dammit, I'm getting there (or am there, depending how I feel and what my shrink or MD says).
I am a black baby boomer, official "old school." I prefer the sweet swinging of African-American voices and musical rhythms to the rhyming and rhythmic recital of bad poetry, even African-American mostly-would-be poetry/rap, loudly in my ears, over and over. And I don't need recordings of cuss; I know cuss. Very well. Cuss don't bother or impress me. S'ahlrite now and agin. And I do remember being 17 and on the other side of the black generational cultural divide. But I'd read fully a third of Donnell Alexander's "Ghetto Celebrity" (Crown Publishers/Random House) before I realized this celebrated book had a story to tell. It even manages at times to bubble to the surface.
What initially upset me, as a thinking black boomer, was Alexander's style, his self-consciously "hip hop" approach, which, like so much of the art form, is steeped in vanity.
Plus, I don't like the term "ghetto" as applied to American black communities. Except internally -- among members of that community -- I believe the use of the "n-word" is incorrect and demeaning. Even if you don't feel thus, many black folks do; so using that term publicly, whatever your intent or race, amounts to cussin' at somebody's mother. (I know: old school.)
So here's this some kind of new Negro, a would-be new school writer, launched as a lonely black star of the white-dominated alternative press -- he did a stint at the LA Weekly -- with a tale about his search for his missing black daddy. And, of course, about himself. And the new school.
Raised during the '70s in the largely black section of Sandusky, Ohio, Donnell Alexander learned about his father from family accounts, neighborhood tales, and later, interviews. His father was a kind of ghetto legend. (Black boomers woulda called him a street niggah/bad dude.) Alexander reconstructs his parents' lives -- how they met, dated, screwed, their relations with their own parents.
At Sacramento City College out west in Cali, Alexander discovers talents for both music and, at the local college rag, writing. He moves on up to Fresno State University. Along the way he develops an attraction to a substantial variety of illegal drugs. The reader gets lots of sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock & roll 'n' 'specially hip-hop.
I gotta wonder: If I were hypothetical Suzanne Former College Student's Daddy/Mommy, would I want to read that: "Suzanne sucked my dick. And as this hadn't been something that had happened with any real consistency in my life ... I fixated on her expert slurping." Or maybe Suzanne's name isn't real. Still, the episode doesn't advance the story. It's "ME" (Alexander) who's important. Who's really hip. Who learned to be hipper than hip. Who, you know, finally grew up with writing talent to be so cool that you'd want to read about him -- no matter what the supposed main plot.
That's the tamest of all the Suzanne sex descriptions and accounting.
On the other hand, Alexander can write, although he badly needs an editor. Once in a while, "Ghetto Celebrity" casts a political/social eye on something other than Alexander or his last/next white female. These tidbits can be both interesting and informative: "Even the most academically slack white kids at SCC regarded writing as a right and so dominated print studies, and suddenly, there were all of these Caucasians in my face ... in my [previous] life overall the melanin-deprived just didn't have the numbers. ... Now ... I was in the trenches with the journalism kids, slack ones and strivers, going all out for the Express newspaper. And they had game. ...
"Still, I'd found a college just obscure enough to work. ... Fresno State University was known for agribusiness, football and a j-school past its prime. For my first day of classes at FSU, I wore a T-shirt from the Run-DMC/Beastie Boys show in Sactown that summer. The message on my back distilled my worldview: 'Get Off My Dick!'"
Writing about both music and sports gives brother Alexander a series of steps up into various alternative press outlets. They really don't have a clue, apparently, how to deal with him. But he's successful. And the white girls -- uh, women -- love him, as do the customers. Finally he gets a chance (now having married, with apparent true love, one of his Caucasian pick-ups) to move up into the Really Big Time with your favorite sports cable channel based back East. Some of Alexander's most insightful sections have to do with his raggedy relations with alternative press publications, which provided him entry to larger fame and recognition. I'll be the first to co-attest that it takes a certain ego strength to be an African-American writer/ reporter. Especially, perhaps, coming out of the alternative press.
But remember? This story was about finding Daddy. Besides being a basic hustler and occasional gangster -- or, rather, as part of those identities -- Daddy has been a pseudo-Muslim imam and combo Muslim/Christian preacher. Along the way, Alexander tracks down Daddy both in stories and in person. He relates, doesn't relate, helps support, doesn't help support, and shares with us far more details of both his own and Daddy's sexual escapades than this daddy, at least, found interesting or relevant.
"Ghetto Celebrity" reeks of a kind of "n-word" nationalism, in which wildness, irresponsibility, cursing and fucking are all good and shiny things to be publicly displayed and commented on. The book may add a chapter to our larger cultural history. If there is such a thing as hip-hop culture (as opposed to fast hip-hop music); if there's something literate to hip-hop and punk ... well, you're reading, so ... if you have a serious interest in contemporary black history or American contemporary cultural history in general, you may very well enjoy Alexander's book. After all, there is probably nothing more American or African-American than "Me!"
As an old head, old school dude, I'm just glad most of the generations behind me haven't gone this way. Ghetto celebrity, ghetto rat. All new material. Bush's next army.