On August 21, 2015, two apologies appeared in the New York Times, which at first glance do not seem related, but in fact are.
The first was from the Times’ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, in response to criticism that the paper’s obituary of civil rights legend, Julian Bond, used the term “slave mistress” to describe his great grandmother. The second, perhaps more widely read apology was from 50-year-old Hip Hop mogul, Dr. Dre, who issued a statement via the Times indicating that he is sorry about the women he has hurt.
These things claim our attention this week because Julian Bond is being mourned after a lifelong career as an activist on behalf of justice and civil liberty. And also because theaters across the country are finding enormous success in Straight Outta Compton, a film depicting Dr. Dre’s early life as a member of N.W.A. The film has garnered praise from Oprah Winfrey and Selma Director, Ava Duvernay. You can’t turn on a TV or PC without something from either of these events bubbling to the surface and making its way onto whatever screen you happen to be looking at.
The two apologies are related because both concern affronts to African-American women.
They also point to differences within African-American life, which are as old as slavery itself—the seemingly endless dichotomy between those who worked in the house and those who worked in the fields This comes down to more than catch-phrases like “field nigger” or “house nigger.” It’s about differences in perception and attitude, opportunities for education and success, and whether your relationship with the mainstream power structure will become adversarial or not. Will you become Attorney General of the United States, or find yourself behind prison bars? If you are pulled over by the police for a minor traffic violation, will you be let off with a smile and a warning, as I was once when I worked as a TV news anchor in the country’s fifth-largest market, or will you wind up dead on the floor of a police van with your back broken or a gunshot to the head?
These things rumble in the background like a back beat in jazz. They never go away. But those two apologies in the Times ask us to look more closely at the ongoing degradation of African-American women.
During my first year as a radio talk-show host in Atlanta, Julian Bond was an on-air guest at the station. I’ve forgotten the specific topic of the day’s call-in conversation, but it had nothing to do with Julian personally until a white caller rang up with this question: “Mr. Bond, are you part white?”
“Well if I am,” Bond said, “It’s not because my great-grandmother raped the white slave-master who owned her.”
His answer shut the caller up and put an end to the matter. I could tell he had heard this question before. The Times apology for referring to Bond’s ancestor as a “slave mistress” makes the following point: You can’t be both. A mistress is one thing. A slave is another. If you are a slave, you cannot say no. You do not have the power to give consent to the liaison.
Here’s what Bond eventually said about this part of his ancestry in a 2013 article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
“My grandfather and his mother were property, like a horse or a chair. As a young girl she’d been given away as a wedding present to a new bride. And when that bride became pregnant, her husband — that’s my great grandmother’s owner and master — exercised his right to take his wife’s slave as his mistress. That union produced two children, one of them my grandfather.”
That grandfather had a son, Horace Mann Bond, who became the first African-American president of Lincoln University and eventually president of Atlanta University. The family has always prized education, and although H.M. Bond wanted Julian to follow in his footsteps, the son felt a compelling need to respond to the call of Civil Rights. He dropped out of Morehouse College for several years but eventually earned a degree in English and went on to teach at American University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere. In a way, he did follow in his father’s footsteps. The unchanging Y-chromosome has unshakable influence: the apple does not fall too far from the tree.
Enter Dr. Dre, whose life on this planet began in a very different way. He was born on February 18, 1965, the year Julian Bond ran for public office and won. That was the same year as the explosive Watts Race Riot, which lasted six days and led to 34 deaths. Last year, Dr. Dre sold his Beats music company to Apple for $3 billion. The movie about his early life raked in $56.1 million during its opening weekend. After a long silence on the recording scene, his first album in years hit No. 2 on the charts the first day of its release. What’s he got to apologize for?
When you see Straight Outta Compton, you realize what Dre and his homies were up against. You understand why Oprah and Ava have said see this movie. What is less obvious but refuses to go away is an attitude towards women some have characterized as misogynistic. That might have something to do with the bitches and ho’s referenced in N.W.A.’s music. It might also be related to alleged acts of violence against Dre’s former girlfriend, Michel’le, and journalist Dee Barnes. Dre pleaded No Contest to Barnes’ charges and eventually settled out of court in her civil suit against him. He has apologized in the Times and in Rolling Stone. Apple has issued a statement supporting his declaration that he is not the same person who did those things twenty-five years ago. Some critics are concerned, though, that because the incidents were not included or even referenced in the film, audiences may not get a true picture of the life and times of N.W.A.
Then there is the “Bye, Felicia” moment in the film, a joke that journalist Allison Davis did not find funny. If you haven’t seen the film, there are no spoilers here. But here’s a link to the NPR story on the subject.
Davis is concerned that the African-American woman in the “Bye, Felicia” moment is made to look bad and portrayed as the scapegoat in a dispute between two men. It’s a moment most people laugh at during the film. Does that laughter provide tacit support to a culture that degrades women in general and African-American women in particular?
The counter-criticism of this argument is that Dre and N.W.A. reflected the reality of the world they came from. They didn’t make the culture. Their work simply gave it a voice.
But we have these two apologies, you see, coming on the same date. August 21. Which makes it interesting to note that August 21 was the day in 1831 that Nat Turner led his ill-fated rebellion against slave holders in Southampton County, Virginia. He was rebelling against the very conditions that caused Julian Bond’s great-grandmother to be forced into the bed of a white Kentucky farmer while his white wife was with child. He was rebelling against what happens when your children are sold out from under you or you are farmed out to breed more slaves.
If you contemplate the lives of African-American women in the period that covers Turner’s rebellion, the rape of Julian Bond’s ancestor, and the alleged “culture of misogyny” reflected in Straight Outta Compton, you would be forced to conclude that black women have had an awful lot to bear. You might also conclude that under the circumstances, they have carried on the best they know how, some more successfully than others, in a world where merely to have survived is an achievement.
A lot has changed. Who could deny that? But in a way, the same things seem to happen again and again, generation after generation. The general degradation of black women has become a kind Groundhog Day. One wonders when that is going to change.
As I write this, it is now August 22. By the time this appears, the ashes of Julian Bond will have been spread across the Gulf of Mexico. He understood that the struggle he was involved in would take a very long time, and he settled in for the duration. He did what he could, and he probably does not care now about the apology from the New York Times.
So today, August 22, is a time for remembering Bond and what he stood for. It happens that this date too is historically significant. For it was on August 22, 1950, that the US Lawn Tennis Association accepted 23-year-old Althea Gibson into the annual championship games at Forest Hills, which is now known as the US Open. Gibson became the first African-American ever to play U.S. Championship Tennis. She won 11 Grand Slam Titles in France, the United States, and Wimbledon. She was a role model who paved the way for current African-American superstars like Venus and Serena Williams.
But despite the 65 years between Gibson’s debut and the Williams’ victories, African-American women remain in a battle for the long haul. If the songs of hip-hop do not denigrate them, if a film about Compton is not responsible for the culture that puts them down—then there must be something else, which includes but is not limited to the international image-building machine with its insistence that they become other than what they are.
The world seems to want something from black women, which they will never be able to give. They will never look like Maria Sharapova, who is thin, blonde and white. For that reason, despite 21 major tennis victories, Serena Williams has been criticized in the New York Times and on social media for her body image. One Twitter user infamously tweeted that she is “built like a man.” To which J.K. Rowling famously responded by tweeting a photo of Serena in a red dress and calling the tweeter an “idiot.”
I have not yet seen any apologies from the tweeter or others who criticized Serena’s body when they could not criticize her game. But wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where apologies were not necessary—and African-American women finally got the respect they deserve?