What a week!
Everybody digs “Empire,” but if there was ever a time we needed “Soul Train” back in our lives, it’s now.
It seems like Blackness, or at least everything happening around it, is making the news. If it ain’t the Department of Justice springing a cop that shot a black kid for doing something that white kids seem to get away with, then it’s that cop’s boss quitting his job.
Or another kid, this time in Wisconsin, being shot by a cop making it seem like shooting black boys is turning into a national hobby.
Or it could be a violent, malevolent cult in Nigeria that hates women and kidnaps girls, deciding they want to be aligned with another violent, malevolent cult in Iraq and Syria that decapitates journalists and aid workers.
Or how about a jury deciding that yeah Marvin Gaye really was ripped off by Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams.
But probably the most talked about of all was a group of frat boys in Oklahoma singing an “Ol’ Dixie”-derived song and the whole freakin’ country acting brand new about it.
By now the fallout from the video of the University of Oklahoma’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon chanting about “n*****s” never getting in and hanging people from trees has spread far enough that it’s become the talk of classrooms, dinner tables, water coolers and for damn sure newsrooms.
Still, it’s puzzling as to why everybody seems to be behaving like those SAE members were the first to commit this sin. No, not at all. They’re just the first to get caught doing it in our social media world, filled with almost instantaneous viral videos and a 24-hour news cycle, hungry for just this type of thing. This is a business predicated on making everything look like it’s the first time it ever happened.
Truth is, this type of thing goes way, way back in Americana. More than a century and a half ago, songs like this were called “coon songs” and depicted blacks as shiftless, stupid, lazy and ugly sub-humans. They became popular enough to develop into a genre of music and ironically even influenced African American music of the time. Some black musicians even participated in the cooning as minstrels (sound familiar?).
Possibly the most popular was a song written by Ernest Hogan, a Black man, entitled “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” This makes clear that this kind of hurtful, racist music was so popular in America that people were willing to pay good money to be entertained with performances of it by the very people it was intended to degrade.
Eventually, as young men went off to college and joined Greek-letter societies, fraternal orders, and exclusive clubs, such music and ideas went with them and found its way into musical lore.
Now, it’s not clear if the song SAE sang goes back that far, but in his apology one of the ringleaders, Parker Rice, said the song was taught to him and the others who sang it. That indicates it has a history.
While it’s true that part of the traditions of fraternal orders, collegiate and otherwise is to have a catalogue of songs sang for the purpose of bonding, it is also true that the attitudes of the prevailing culture can leak their way into that bonding and, as they say—old habits die hard.
We shouldn’t say that every SAE is a racist, or that every chapter goes around singing racially-charged lyrics. The fraternity’s chapter at the University of Texas at Austin emphatically denied that they do anything close to what their OU brothers got busted doing. Nor can we say that everyone in any fraternity is a bigot.
But what we can say is that racial slurs, language and the culture that grows up around it and sustains it is not new. It tends to survive long enough for new generations to breathe life into it. People who don’t know the historical sting of what these words mean. People who don’t understand the psychology of denigrating a person based on skin color.
We don’t know if busting people on social media will ever really stop this kind of thing from happening. All you have to do is hop on the Internet and you can find any type of ignorance you want, racial or otherwise, so maybe not. But perhaps what will stop it, in time, is people not participating in thoughtless behavior until it finally dies and becomes non-existent.