Tuesday, July 17, 2007

INTERVIEW: Cora Daniels

If you haven’t seen Cora Daniels on TV or read her pieces in Fortune, the New York Times, Essence, O: The Oprah Magazine, USA Today, Heart & Soul, FSB: Fortune Small Business, Savoy, Working Mother, well you need to put down those Tyler Perry DVDs and that Playstation 3 controller and take note. Cora has served as an expert on diversity and business issues; she’s been a commentator on ABC News, CNN, CNBC, BET, NPR, and the Charlie Rose Show. Her first work of non-fiction, Black Power Inc., got the critical and reader acclaim due an author and journalist of her caliber.
But it was her most recent book, Ghetto Nation, A Journey into the Land of Bling and the Home of the Shameless, which has burned up the talk show circuit, message boards, letters to the editor. It may have even percolated to the very folk who don’t watch talk shows, log into the Net for information, or read a daily paper—causing everyone regardless of education, income, geography to THINK. And how timely this book is, coinciding with Bill Cosby’s comments on character and poverty, over the Don Imus rau and the debate over Hip Hop’s current excesses and lack of redeeming creative or social values, over crime and class, over white America’s—and America’s corporate media & image giant’s—obsession and adoption of things “ghetto.” Taking, to paraphrase Prof. Todd Boyd, “everything but the burden.”

Cora, welcome to the blog.
Let’s jump right in with recent events. BET heads Reggie Hudlin and Debra Lee have taken a lot of flak for this new show, “Hot Ghetto Mess” (which I lampooned in the July 16 post). Major sponsors have abandoned the reality show aimed largely at BET's usual teen audience; BET seems to have tried dress up the show as social satire/public affairs debate of sorts! What’s your view on this controversy?

CD: I think the reason why some people are worried about BET's Hot Ghetto Mess is, well, because it is BET. There is not a very good track record there for dealing with issues sensitively or thoughtfully. Why not be nervous, then. I am always up for honest self reflection. I do not believe there is such a thing as dirty laundry. So in general a potential show dealing with these uncomfortable issues doesn't bother me. But if the goal of this show specifically is really to inspire thought, and action, and "get us to do better", as the website that it is based claims, then why have a comedian host? That signals to me that its primary goal is to make us laugh, and in this case, laugh at the expense of other Black folks. That's the problem. It is unfortunate because Hudlin has not been part of that history that makes us distrust BET so. And he's right, we don't know how things might play out in his hands. I am also encouraged that we are starting to realize the power of our consumer dollars since that is always a more effective protest than marching with signs. But, the swift reaction to something that no one has seen yet is striking considering that on a sister station there's a minstrel show called Flavor of Love that too many of us have indeed seen. And the fact that that hot ghetto mess continues to draw more viewers than protestors is shameful.

So you think America--and black America if there is such a monolithic thing--is getting tired of "ghetto?" In sports for instance, the hood hero patina has worn off of folk like Mike Vick, Allan Iverson, "Pacman" Jones, "Tank "Johnson; Lonnie Baxter shoots off a gun near the White House and FedEx's another. We're seeing more "nerd" urban leaders like Adrian Fenty and Corey Booker rather than the old school Marion Barry types or slick new-schoolers like Kwame Kirkpatrick. Hip Hop sales are down. Black professionals in the suburbs are fighting Section 8 housing in their neighborhoods; my favorite target BET's even doing a reality show called "Baldwin Hills." Have we turned some sort of corner or reached a saturation level?
CD: Hmmm. Are folks getting tired of ghetto? I hope so. You have no idea how much I hope so! Seriously, I do think there is a lot of much needed healthy self-examination going on at the moment which is good thing. That said I am not sure I would lump everything on your list into the ghetto category. No need to insult Section 8 residents by putting them in the same breath as Pacman Jones. :-) And that perhaps is a big point we should get out of the way first. Ghetto is a mindset. Ghetto is no longer where you live but how you live. It is a mindset that celebrates and embraces the worst. I think the mindset can thrive because our expectations -- of ourselves and each other --are too low. We have gotten to the point where behavior that shouldn't be acceptable has become acceptable. And that type of thing happens in both Baldwin Hills and Section 8.

To the meat of the book. Agree or disagree: these two passages from Ghetto Nation best sum up the book's theme-" 'Nothing frustrates me more than to see guys acting stupid to assure themselves that they are Black.'" [says an African American student at T.C. Williams High School here in the DC area] and "It was culture of self-destructiveness that was holding these [black men in depressed economic areas/situations] back." [referring to studies by sociologist Orlando Patterson]?

CD: Wow, it is a bit weird to have your own words quoted back at you like that. I think they are at the crux. One of the biggest misconceptions is that being ghetto makes you more Black. Sorry, it just makes you more ghetto. Black and ghetto are not interchangeable and is about time we realize that.

Here's a related question: some folk say "ghetto" a merely creature of corporate America, of MTV and Reebok a la Benjamin Barber's Jihad versus McWorld, while I say it's purely the polar opposite of what black conservatives like Shelby Steele (and indeed more sinister right wingers in general) would call "the culture of responsibility." Do you come down closer to consumerism or Chambers? (smile)

CD: I don't think ghetto was created by corporate America I think it was exploited by corporate America. And perhaps full disclosure is necessary here: I am a business journalist by training, having spent most of my career at Fortune magazine so I can never ignore the bottom line. It is the job of companies to make money by any means necessary. So if we are dumb enough to degrade ourselves we shouldn't be surprised when companies figure out how to make a buck off our degradation. I don't consider myself a Black conservative by any means but I also don't think "culture of responsibility" is a conservative notion. It may not be fair but Black folks have to be twice as good, always. (Maybe even 3x as good.) That is the reality of being Black in a white run land. I think too many of us have forgotten that burden. We are a people who fought of hoses and dogs so that our children could have an easier life. I am one of those children - a post-civil rights baby. Unfortunately with those "easier" lives many of us got comfortable. And the truth is Black folks don't have the luxury of being comfortable. Not when we are still climbing and have so much farther to go. Call me a cynic but I think the isms we battle will always be there, we can't really control that. What we can control is what we do to ourselves because often that makes it easier for the isms to hold us down. To me that thinking is neither conservative or liberal or any political leaning. It is being a realist.

Despite your discourse regarding some of Bill Cosby's controversial comments on class, some critics of Ghetto Nation still maintain it's an elitist, anti-poor person or "bourgie" rant ipso facto tacit support for Cos. Do they just misunderstand you or are they in denial? Columnist and curmudgeon-in-chief Stanley Crouch has gone as far as to label many black academics and activists--many of whom took issue with some your themes--"ghettocrats" who seek to legitimize the apparent nihilism and excess of contemporary Hip Hop culture. Your take?

CD: The truth is there was one critic who dropped the elitist bomb and honestly I do indeed think he missed the point. Unfortunately, his review was syndicated, so what are you going to do? By far the majority of feedback from critics, reporters, radio hosts, and most importantly readers has been exactly the opposite. Most say that it would have been easy to allow GhettoNation to become an elitist rant but it doesn't. I don't think any of us are above being ghetto -- including myself. That is why I didn't shy away from putting my own business out there in the text. I think when folks call the argument I am making an "elitist, anti-poor person, bourgie rant" they are revealing their own biases. They are making an assumption that I am talking about poor Black folks. But nowhere in those 200 pages do I limit ghetto to poor or to Black. And there have been some at my book signings who have been disappointed when I steered the discussion away from going in that direction. To me folks who think these issues are just a poor Black thang are just as ghetto. That is part of the problem. It is too easy to point your finger and think that other folks are at fault. It removes you from any culpability. But this is all our fault. We are all part of allowing this mindset to perpetuate - and the most basic contribution made is our silence, (and most of us are indeed silent) because our silence is an endorsement. And getting back to your first question of whether we are at a turning point, I worry that the fact that most of us only see it as a problem of others will mean that we are going to continue to be drowning in ghetto for too long.

Let's talk about publishing and journalism. You devote a decent portion of space in Ghetto Nation to the negative effects of "ghetto" on black literary/creative output. Is this just a reflection of what's going on Hip Hop, sports...entertainment in general? Nick Chiles and Martha Southgate in the New York Times, and Brandon Massey in the Wall Street Journal have all sounded an alarm, yet "thug lit" and raunchy soap opera books still reign. Should white publishers and editors take some of the blame, as white TV/music/advertising/sports owners might--or do black readers just have simpler tastes and we're getting what we want? Has "ghetto" stifled cutting-edge black non-fiction? What about journalism, public affairs discussions and analysis--has "quality" suffered in those spheres due to "ghetto" culture?

CD: I think ghetto has infected every aspect of our lives. So you are right ghetto is reflected in Hip Hop, sports, entertainment in general, you name it. I am a writer and a journalist so for me highlighting the effects of ghetto on the publishing world is personally meaningful. Does ghetto stifle "quality" analytical thought? To paraphrase her heinous Ghetto Queen Whitney Houston, hell to the yes! Let me tell you -- it is hard out here for a Black woman who writes serious non-fiction. A Black woman who wants to stir our thoughts up? Honestly, It's not a voice that gets much support from the powers that be. It is not just books but movies, music, etc. Our ongoing struggle is that through white eyes we are seen as one. Diversity of Black thought and creativity is not acknowledged. So it becomes that much harder for a variety of our voices to be heard. I don't think Black readers have simpler tastes. Black readers are just not being given much of a choice. Ghetto is a slice of us and so it is natural to be attracted to it -- that is why it sells. The problem is that instead of being just a slice it has taken over - and for that we can blame the publisher AND the rush of folks willing to participate by producing it. What we truly need is balance.

Would you like to see Ghetto Nation as a documentary film? Do you think it would be tougher to get interviews (as folk tend to chafe a lot more on-camera than in print)?

CD: Funny you should bring that up. I have actually been approached by several film companies about turning GhettoNation into a documentary! I think there is great potential there and I remain hopeful. The challenge will be to bring complexity and thoughtfulness that are natural for the printed page to the screen. But I'm not too much of a print snob (smile) say it can't be done.

Ha! Maybe Reggie Hudlin should take heed and produce the documentary. So then what's up next for you?

CD: I have a couple of book projects swimming in my head at the moment. Not sure if any are ready to share but as a journalist I hate it when folks dodge questions so I'll let you have a peek: an anthology, a novel, and another serious work of non-fiction. And not necessarily in that order. In hopes of getting at some solutions to GhettoNation I'd like to put together an anthology of a series of interviews of thought provoking Black women. As I travel the country talking about these issues I am struck by the notion that many of us feel that "when we grew up" there was some watchful eyes in the neighborhood who kept the young folks in line, typically these eyes in our memories belong to women. I'd like to gather that collective wisdom and give us what we think is missing from our neighborhoods today. In my mind I call this book: Mama Said: Lessons from the Windowsill. I am also writing a novel. I know, I know I am a journalist committed to serious non-fiction and challenging argument. But after writing two such books back to back (Black Power Inc. and GhettoNation) my mind needed to exercise some different muscles so I couldn't help myself and immediately within days of finishing Ghetto Nation I started writing this fictional story that has been unfolding in my mind for a while. That said, the journalist in me is constantly reporting and thinking about different leads for my non-fiction topic to explore next. I have a few ideas at the moment, but those I'm not ready to share yet. (smile) Both my parents had jobs not careers. They punched time clocks, my dad wore a uniform every day, and after a day of work meant that your muscles physically ached. I feel very privileged to be able to pay my bills with my passion -- writing. So talking about what I'm working on sounds so, I dunno, fantasyland to me. It is what can happen, though, when you keep your expectations high.

Cora thanks so much for your time and insight. This debate’s not going away—and you see it even seeping into the words of our political leaders and clergy. Fanboys & girls you can check Cora’s website for public appearances, buy the book there, on my blog or at a store near you. By all means give her feedback on the site and leave you comments here.


Anonymous said...

I have the book (or rather my wife has stolen it and is reading it). Good interview! Newer angles on this thing. I am curious about the comment that some folk said she didn't go far ENOUGH Bill Cosby style! My wife was telling the book does read like a personal observation rather than a news study, but she's into it and I'm egaer to get my copy back.

Bruh you could be the tan Charlie Rose haaaaaaaaaaaaa!

Lisa said...

Good interview and now I'm certainly recommending this for our club. We don't usually do non fiction but a lot of us have been lobbying for books like this rather than Wendy Williams autobiography!

Anonymous said...

I like the book. I think it could have been a more substantial study of society and culture rather than a persona view, but it was good. I don't understand why some people have called it "elitist" when most of the points are common sense.

Tafari said...

Great interview & I am happy that I am not one of the Tyler Perry DVD junkies!

"Ghetto is a mindset. Ghetto is no longer where you live but how you live." This is so true!

I hope the book becomes a documentary eventually. It would be interesting to see it played out visually.

Peace & Thanks for a refreshing & relevant post.


Anonymous said...

There has been a number of commentaries discussing what's wrong with "ghetto culture".

My question is what good things have emerged from "ghetto culture"?

Finally, we all comment on the problem but very few have offered any solutions and even less have put their money (or their time) where their mouths are. What are some solutions we can implement on an individual basis to combat this mindset?

Anonymous said...

I think you both are haters-jealous because we are selling more books than you do because we give readers what they want. I think you ARE elitists and think the readers are indeed all stupid and thus disrespect them. I am not impressed with Cora Daniels and I utterly expected her to show opinions she showed. Instead of attacking people she should try to help them.

Chicama Vineyard said...

If the central premise is that behavior and attitudes are not only a hinderance but can be destructive as well, then why would you want to attack Cora Daniels? Unless you agree with some of the "ghetto" culture this should a must-read.

Pebbles Flintstone said...

I disagree with "Anonymous." Firstly we tried to pick this book for our bookclub and one person vetoed it so we read it individually and everyone liked the themes and the specific stories. We were a majority who was bullied by a minority viewpoint (she has since left the club because her Guard Unit was mobilized for Iraq) and this is a good analogy for what is going on in African American culture with books (we no longer pick "street fiction" and are looking for new non-fiction) movies and especially hip hop and other images in videos, etc. I think there are many people who want to tell the rest of us that good sense, home training and good taste are somehow not "black enough" or "elitist," and unfortunately this message is going to our children.

I am glad the interview asked the question about marketing and corporate America because that is part of the problem, too. I wonder how much AfricanAmerican authors, and hip hop artists and even athletes are getting paid as opposed to the white owners and marketers who help pitch "ghetto." The controversy about Hot Ghetto Mess is not about black people it is about ratings and marketing, because you get a bigger audience, especially of young people, if you dumb things down and make them tawdry. That has nothing to do with reality or what's going on "in the hood" and other excuses. How many of these books or hip hop songs truly reflect "reality?" If you want that then watch a documentary or a news show. My husband says The Wire on HBO has more street realism than 90% of these books or lyrics!

Finally, what we can do as individuals is firstly support authors like Daniels, intelligents books, TV, educational programs and possible use the churches. We can stop being silent just as old school our grandparents called out bad behavior. This would include calling hip hop artists and even book authors on the carpet just like with BET and tell them to stop making excuses because there is a majority of folk out there who they can market to who don't want this negativity. I would say his includes schooling white people to stop mimicking this "culture" and say it's not cool,funny or cute! We can also sponsor mentor programs that instill VALUES and not just playtime after school. We must make our leaders address this issue too.

Anonymous said...

Presently, I don’t think the problem in the African American community lies is “ghetto culture”. “Ghetto culture” has always been an element of African American life because we have always been on the fringe of the American mainstream. There have always been white people and a small number of members of the Black bourgeoisie ready to instruct Black people of less fortunate circumstances what they need to do. You think DuBois didn’t complain about the cakewalk. You think the Black middle class celebrated ragtime or jazz when they first heard it.

Our problem lies in the fact that a lot of young people in our community have no hope and they see no value in their lives. What Black elites and whites are failing to realize is that denigrating someone because of life and lifestyles choices made based on the options available to them isn’t uplifting. Constantly reminding people what’s wrong with their lives isn’t the best way to affect change. It has made matters worst. It’s like every lesson we learned about our culture and identity has been forgotten and we are beginning to accept the stereotypes white America believe as the truth.

What we are doing is setting ourselves up for intra-racial class warfare and for us this will be cultural suicide.

Taking all of this into account, if you can’t present alternatives for people who “are ghetto” or inspire them or offer hope, then your opinions are worthless. They are truly doing more harm than good.

Christopher Chambers said...

Points well taken, Yeah I Said It, but perhaps the culture itself bears some blame for people being on the fringe? Being on the fringe as an empowerment tool? Or perhaps using the hopeless as an excuse for even more counter-productive behavior? And then our so called role models are out truly modeling that behavior and setting up an impossible ethos--on that only "corporate America" and the owners of the media-marketing-industrial complex benefit from. It's the images, the culture, the attitude that denigrates. That's what Cora's getting at. All the mentors and "job training" and big budgets in the world mean nothing unless the culture adapts. That's a fact. Hard fact, cruel fact, but a fact nonetheless and we need to get behind it becuse what you are touching on either hasn't worked, or proved unworkable.

In addition, you trivialize the themes. This isn't just objecting to bad taste or "low class stuff." This isnt about high falutiness, blah blah. Those are just the symptoms. We're talking about a pervasive, pernicious problem that derails or diverts from the more concrete solutions (structural) I think you and I would agree are needed and necessary.

Let me be real blunt: no other ethnic groups in this nation's history...and check out the Hispanics, too (with the exception criminal elements in their society) celebrate being poor or ignorant or "ghetto." We, the descendants of slaves. Ironic isn't it. Look, no one's going to aspire if they are constantly told that their lifestyle choices--and they ARE choices, when boiled down to the basics--are cool, ok, blah blah. You aspire when you see that your life sucks and you want to change things. We are telling ourselves that the basest, most ignorant aspects of our society well, aren't so bad. Sort of cool. White people can aford to play that game. We can't, and we shouldn't, and Yeah I Said It, sooner or later we won't have even have the luxury of your point of view. And guess what, white folks wil be making a buck over our intellectual Soweto-ization at that point too. And they'll still be using our slang and measuring us by the coarse messages weourselves tolerate and put out there.

Anonymous said...

Good interview and good debate. However I have to side (relunctantly) with author Chambers and author Daniels on some of these matters. It looks like we are hard wiring ourselves to bad options.

Anonymous said...

I was lucky enough to sit on two panels with Cora at the Buffalo Book Fair this month. She had many powerful things to share, and this interview is a much-needed addition to the discourse on where we're headed.

Snowman said...

Speaking from long experience, white people have a history of stealing "black" culture, and then making generalizations about all black people based on this "hip" and surly stereotype that on the other hand many whites love to imitate. George Carlin did a bit on this way back in '73.

It appears to indeed be a fact of life that character and culture are going to be factors in any group's advancement now, rather that throwing tax money at a problem, don't you think?

I am recommending this book to some friends of ours (Afrian American) who were talking about this very issue just this ast week. They are not "elites." Our friend's husband is a teacher in the Anne Arundel County Public Schools here in Maryland, and she is a nurse. I would think these are the type of people you would want young black kids in depressed areas to emulate, yet they aren't worthy ofan opinion because they are opposed to "ghetto" behavior?

Anonymous said...

Brave that a white man would comment! LOL

Very good interview. Will have to look for the book.

the last noel said...

I will definately check her out. Uh, I don't have a television, so I don't keep up with much on BET or any other station. But read a book? Hot damn!

Anonymous said...

yeah i said it, I think your post is one of the better, more clearheaded commentaries I've seen on this issue. You just blew a whole lot of so-called intellectuals clean away. At this point, when the sickening spectacle of black people spouting eliminationist rhetoric against other black people is threatening to enter mainstream discourse, we need more people like you to speak up. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

It is no accident that you both are light skinned and thus attack our culture!

Brian said...

Excellent interview!!!

I love Cora Daniels. Another much needed voice.

I will also be linking this interview.

Anonymous said...

It is no accident that you both are light skinned and thus attack our culture!

Skin color has nothing to do with this debate. That comment was just plain ignorant.

Anonymous said...

Bill Cosby doesn't have light skin.

Cluizel said...

Good Interview.

I am actually reading the book now. I just happened to be wandering around Borders and the cover caught my attention. It read very well...its like a conversation...

I will have to pick up her first book too... ::hangs head in shame because I haven't read it already::

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