Ghettonation: A Journey Into the Land of Bling and the Home of the Shameless

Girl," Tarshel or I would begin, once the phone was picked up, "I just saw the Ghetto Moment of the Day!" And the tale would invariably be about a black, often young, person engaged in some socially or professionally inappropriate or embarrassing act.

A woman at a shoe store yells into her cell phone, "She pregnant again? By who?" Tarshel witnessed that one.

I overhear a young man standing in line at a store yelling into his cell phone, "That nigger in jail again? I just bailed his ass out!"

A man at a gas station tells another after a date, "Man, I'm about to take this bitch home." Tarshel hears that one.

Tarshel is a librarian and a journalism instructor at a two-year college with a mostly black student population. I am a reporter who has covered poor neighborhoods and communities of color for 18 years. And to arrive at these careers, we both had emerged from black childhoods in which limited educational, social and economic opportunities were the norm.

Now comes Cora Daniels's Ghettonation: A Journey Into the Land of Bling and the Home of the Shameless (Doubleday, 2007), which grew out of her own experiences, observations, and analyses. Like Tarshel and me, Daniels was born in the waning years of the civil rights movement after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Daniels looks at the everyday, practical matter of living in a racist culture and how difficult it is to resist internalizing that racism.

Ghettonation is as plainspoken as its title, identifying and addressing the practices and practitioners of "ghetto," defined by Daniels as "actions that seem to go against basic home training and common sense." She points out such actions in the streets and in office suites, from New York to Hollywood and everywhere in between.

She even starts us off with a history lesson on the word "ghetto," from Italy to Jewish neighborhoods in Europe to the blighted inner cities of the United States. From there, Daniels then brings us to the current understanding of ghetto, as a noun and primarily, for the purposes of the book, an adjective.

Daniels includes in her definition of ghetto the "common misusage" of the term to mean: "authentic, black, keepin' it real." She suggests that this way of thinking, by those inside and outside America's ghettos, assumes that to be black means to live and think in only one way -- driven by poverty and the unwillingness to speak proper English, among other things. Daniels points out that these are not, nor have they ever been, the experiences of all black people.

Daniels notes that pop culture expects black performers, writers and others to possess a stereotypical identity. She points to the case of the late hip-hop artist Ol' Dirty Bastard, née Russell "Rusty" Jones, who built his career on a biography that included welfare dependence and an absent father, neither of which was true. "So in the name of selling records," Daniels writes, "ODB takes on the character of a black man who grew up on welfare with no daddy because the stereotype is easier for buyers to digest than the reality. In reality, Rusty was the product of a loving mom and pop in a close-knit traditional working-class household in Brooklyn."

She then describes the mainstreaming of ghetto thinking and behavior. As an illustration, she retells the tale of white author James Frey. A Million Little Pieces, Frey's personal story of drug abuse, incarceration and other markers of desperate street life turned out to be largely fictive. In her view, Frey is just one of many celebrities ghettoizing themselves for money. "Remember when folks used to lie their way up?" Daniels asks incredulously. "Now folks are lying their way downward."

In one respect, the criticism of "ghetto" is tricky in that it risks echoing conservative attitudes. Daniels tries to avoid this, but it's an uneven effort.

For example, she indicts a tendency among the urban poor toward parenthood before, or instead of, marriage. "I could have a baby," she quotes one young man as saying, "but I don't think I could ever get married." She is quick to note that efforts to promote marriage among poor people, efforts that mostly scapegoat women, will not resolve issues such as poverty and abuse, and that such "solutions" may indeed make things worse. But sometimes Daniels' frustrations come with the taint of classism, as when she lambastes a common "ghetto" attitude: "Taking pride in being broke." But what, then, is the counter to that? Shame in being poor? Somehow keeping one's poverty a secret?

Despite our being on welfare, going without food at times and being evicted at least once, my single mother taught me and my four siblings not to say we were poor. It was among many conditions we were admonished not to "claim." This comes from a notion, found in many religions, including my mother's fundamentalist Christianity, that to "claim" something risked making it so. But it was also her response to the shame of poverty.

I would argue that what Daniels derides as misplaced pride is a deliberate, if overly defensive, act of resistance to the judgmental shaming to which poor people are often subjected.

Daniels' book does little to address the underlying social and political landscape on which ghetto takes root. And it clearly isn't meant to. With little more than a nod to the broader, deeper issues ravaging poor communities of color, she admits to identifying with and embracing Bill Cosby's well-publicized rant about the black poor. In a couple of places, she seems to be joking that the comedian had "lost his mind," but we can't be sure if she is laughing at him or with him.

Daniels, educated in the Ivy League, knows what it means to be granted access to the middle-class, mainstream world. And like many of us, she straddles the line between that world and the dysfunctional one in which she grew up. She laments that it can be a schizophrenic existence ("I am ghetto, and I am not ghetto"). Like Tarshel and me, she understands the culture of the privileged and that of the not-so-lucky, and she, like us, gets weary running back and forth over the line.

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