Many people seem to feel that the recent firing of Don Imus did not fit the crime. Columnist Kathleen Parker offered the opinion in The Buffalo News that Imus' "public scourging . . . bordered on the ridiculous." Imus supporters say that the shock jock suffered an unfair witch hunt, that black people themselves frequently use such language about themselves, that people should just generally lighten up and such.
But I couldn't help remark, as a local professor of American literature, the extent to which Imus' statements confirmed the outcries found in many of our greatest writers of color. A major theme in this literature is that one of the great legacies of slavery and its attendant racism in America is that African-Americans are reminded again and again in our culture that they don't measure up to our mainstream image of beauty. The resulting poor self-image burns like an acid, and decays the abilities of people of color to live the lives of opportunity and freedom most Americans take for granted.
A case in point is "The Bluest Eye," the beautiful and angry debut novel by America's only living Nobel Prize winning novelist, Toni Morrison. In it, Morrison contends that black people, and black women in particular, are constantly reminded of their perceived ugliness, and this perception ruins lives. Her story centers around a family -- Cholly, Paula, Sammy and Pecola Breedlove -- who are told again and again they are ugly. They are each told it so many times that they come to believe it themselves, and it destroys them, each in a different way.
Morrison was writing in 1970, 37 years ago. Things are supposed to have changed. But what was it that Imus was saying to the Rutgers women's team with the "nappy-headed hos" quote other than, "You're ugly. You may have accomplished something on the basketball court. You may have gone further in your tournament than people expected. But my producer thinks you're ugly, and I agree with him."
It's not only Morrison who made this observation about self-regard in the black community. No less an African-American leader than Malcolm X noted in his autobiography the same deleterious effect of disparagement of African-American appearance. "When you teach a man to hate his lips," said Malcolm, "the lips that God gave him, the shape of the nose that God gave him, the texture of the hair that God gave him, the color of the skin that God gave him, you've committed the worst crime that a race of people can commit."
Literature profs like me often hear that what we teach lacks everyday application. But literature never tires of revealing hidden currents in our daily lives. The meaning of what Imus said is deeper than just a comment about hairstyles or use of rapper language. It participated in a framework of oppression that is centuries old in America.
Don't be blue for Imus. Catch up on your reading.
Ted Pelton is an associate professor of English at Medaille College.