It was just before twilight on a warm summer evening, as I finished the last two blocks of my daily walk. Although drenched in sweat and eager for air conditioning, I still drew pleasure from the sensual joys around me-- fireflies flashing like tiny heat lamps, crickets raising their fine, shrill chorus, birds twittering in a magnolia tree as they settled in for the night.
Then my quiet joy was shattered. A car glided past, its windows down, its speakers blaring. And from its depths came a rap songs message. A message so full of hate, so littered with foul words describing women and their body parts, that I felt a cold shiver on that hot August night.
Oh, Ive heard these words before, these so-called songs. Youd have to live in a cave to avoid them since gangsta rap hit mainstream culture some 15 years ago. Usually they assault me when Im idling next to another car in traffic, and at times Ive responded by rolling down my window, turning up my own radio full blast,... and. ... drowning out the obscenities with whatever might be playing-- Strangers in the Night, Summer Breeze-- and I laugh at myself as Seals and Crofts try to quell Snoop Doggy Dog.
That night, though, it was no laughing matter. I was stunned, angry, sick at heart. When did it become okay to unleash this perverted excuse for music on the airwaves? When did the rights of some misogynist take precedence over my right to enjoy an evening walk? When did it become okay to defile women-- to defile humans-- and call it art? Its not okay.
Indeed theres so much thats not okay, so much that we as a society--especially those of us who try to be open-minded, to live and let live--are forced to accept or feel helpless to change. Fearful of taking action, of being labeled as some right-wing nut, we shrug these things off, shut them out, say, Its a free country, as if that excuses everything.
Its not okay that a record number of Tennessee children have been surrendered to the state because their parents cant handle them anymore, or have been taken into custody because mom and dad would rather smoke, snort, shoot up, and pass out than give their kids a decent life. Its not okay that hundreds of these kids have been beaten, burned, or raped by family members, and have spent half of their young lives in foster homes.
Its not okay that the only form of discipline some parents know is to scream and curse. Not long ago outside a convenience store, I witnessed two young women yanking at a little boy whose only crime seemed to be his presence on the earth. Get in the car, m_____ f_____! yelled one of these so-called adults. Get in the car before I bust your ass!
I stared, glared, wanting to vent my horror at this person for screaming the vilest epithet imaginable at a preschool child. Instead I watched the women drive away, their tongues still lashing, the boy in tears. I kept my mouth shut, and lived to tell about it, thinking any comments from me would only make things worse.
Well, evil prevails when good men do nothing. Or so a good man said, and I wince now to recall those words.
Its not okay that half the children born in Shelby County are illegitimate -- an old-fashioned word that will draw some smirks, Im sure. But weve got girls -- and I do mean girls, not women -- having six kids before theyre 19 years old, girls who themselves dropped out of school, barely know their babies daddies, work at low-paying jobs, or live on the dole. Who can deny the price we pay for this -- more unemployment, more illiteracy, and countless social ills. Meanwhile, too many of these kids are sent to school unfed, unwashed, unloved, and unprepared, while teachers are expected to pull them from the mire.
We raise hell with programs like Head Start for not fulfilling their obligations to at-risk children; we find fault with schools, day-care centers, the Department of Childrens Services -- and God knows theres sufficient blame to go around. But what about the parents? How about holding them accountable for having children they cant raise? I know this strikes at the very core of our rights as individuals. And I can already hear the hue and cry from the American Civil Liberties Union. But where does it end? When do we say, This is crazy. Its pulling us down and has to stop.
Certainly there are many single moms who are doing a heroic job of child-raising while working multiple jobs, with support from fathers thats sporadic at best. Others have made a conscious decision to have a child on their own, knowing they can provide for that little one, and their decision I respect. Still other single women are reaching out to other peoples castoffs, fostering or adopting kids in need, and these have my profound admiration.
But what I cant respect are parents who shun the responsibilities that come with their rights -- the men who plant their seed with no more thought than tossing a beer bottle in the street; the women who, despite access to free birth control, crank out these babies like they were a chain of paper dolls -- and expect their families or the government to subsidize their care, or take the children off their hands.
For awhile I volunteered in the pediatric critical care unit of a local hospital, rocking, feeding, and simply holding babies with serious physical problems. Several were crack babies, born to mothers addicted to drugs and thus addicted themselves. They cried a lot, I recall, and could not be comforted. Some had been abused in other ways; at least one had shaken baby syndrome. She was beautiful, like a big porcelain doll, with blue eyes that could no longer see and legs that stayed bent and contorted. But the saddest ones were those who had virtually been abandoned, who throughout the months of their stay there had rarely known the comfort of their mothers arms. Were giving the mother one more chance, a nurse once told me while she changed the feeding tube on a baby girl whose stomach wouldnt work properly. She hasnt been up here in weeks, so well have to call the state. And what about the father? The nurse just smiled and shook her head.
What does all this have to do with gangsta rap, with the savage message that blasted through me that August night? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. A couple of years ago I wrote an article on the high number of babies born to low-income, unwed mothers in Memphis. Because some 70 percent of the mothers were nonwhite (according to local health department figures), I asked Johnnie Turner, head of the local office of the NAACP, her thoughts on the issue. She said that while the organizations youth council encouraged productive activities so kids wouldnt get into trouble, outside influences take their toll.
Said Turner: Kids hear rap music that glorifies sex and abuse of women, they see movies where anything goes. Theyve got parents who wont talk to them about sex and will let them watch anything on television. But worst of all, theres no stigma. Its become so accepted.
I know rap has its defenders, and indeed other types of music contain their share of offensive lyrics, while the media bombards us with sex and violence -- all in the name of freedom of expression. But again -- what of the responsibility that comes with that freedom?
Recently I read where a Hollywood type was whining about veiled threats of censorship, saying he liked to push the envelope. I say he and his ilk like to push the shock button till it bleeds, and good taste and common decency be damned.
Maybe gangsta rap truly reflects the hard, ugly reality of ghetto life and one of arts functions is to hold a mirror to ourselves. And some of the lyrics no doubt offer poignant glimpses of the hope-forsaken life too many young blacks face -- if you can get past the hateful talk of bitches and hos and the vicious acts the singer has in mind for these women. Consider the old blues artists, who sang their own brand of sorrow and despair and lived as hardscrabble a life as any rapper ever faced. Their songs could be bawdy, yes -- but brutal and profane? I dont think so.
As my anger finally cooled that evening, I felt pity for the guy in the car who, instead of hearing birdsong and childrens laughter, filled his head with hate and violence. To each his own? So they tell us. Just dont suggest that I could turn it off. I didnt have that option.
But even as our culture hits new lows, theres much to celebrate. Parents and children who rise above bleak expectations; people who help and dont count the cost; and yes, movies, books, music, and art that elevate and inspire.
Later that night I recalled words spoken by William Faulkner when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1950, words that represent for me what the best art can achieve. While the thoughts of a dead white man arent likely to sell with the ghetto gang, they still hold true, a half-century later:
Its a privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor . . . the compassion, pity, and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poets voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the . . . pillars to help him endure and prevail.
Lifting hearts. Showing honor and compassion . . . . I wish more rappers would give it a shot.
[This article originally appeared in Memphis
(You can write Marilyn Sadler at firstname.lastname@example.org