As we begin the New Year, so, too, we look back upon that which has recently passed. We’re inclined, when we do this, to give a nod of recognition, and a plaque or trophy, perhaps, for meritorious achievements in a variety of public areas. Not to be outdone, I have created my own “Barbershop Notebooks Awards” for the black community. There is, of course, one twist: rather than focusing on the “good ones”, I have located people who have affected the black community in interesting, complex, and largely problematic ways in 2006. Furthermore, each award is, appropriately, named after the trailblazing person whose public actions and identity inspired it. Let the ceremony begin.
The Michael Jordan “Never Can Say Goodbye” Award
This award goes to the celebrity who refuses to end their fifteen minutes of fame gracefully, opting instead to fight for a few extra ticks of the clock.
Winner: Janet Jackson
Since the release of her Control album, Janet Jackson has been a staple of global pop culture. From her innovative dance moves to her pathbreaking music videos, Janet has always been able to set the pace for her musical peers and progeny. More recently, however, Janet’s work has been mediocre at best. While many people blame poor album production and lack of label support for her failings, both of which are accurate critiques, the most critical issue hurting Janet Jackson is her unwillingness to grow old gracefully. Instead of accepting middle age with dignity and style, Janet insists upon rehashing the same “I’ve finally discovered the joys of my own clitoris” routine that made her the sex symbol of the ‘90s. Although she’s far from old, Janet can no longer dominate the space occupied by Ciara, Beyonce, and other 20-somethings. Why can’t Janet move on? Blame it on inflated ego, the sexist demands of the music industry, Jackson family immaturity, or a combination of all three. Regardless, it’s time for Ms. Jackson to move on.
The Kobe Bryant “Homecoming” Award
This award goes to the black or brown person who desperately tries to transcend race within the eyes of mainstream American, only to be reminded that the realities of Blackness are inescapable.
Winner: Harold Ford, Jr.
In his effort to win a Senate seat in Tennessee, Congressman Harold Ford mounted a very thoughtful campaign designed to attract moderate Republicans and skeptical white Democrats. In order to achieve his goals, Ford focused on “race-neutral” issues like banning benefits for same-sex couples, supporting the war in Iraq, and challenging women’s right to choose. In order to appeal to the self-righteous moralism of the white Southern Right, Ford filmed television ads seated in a church pew. Despite his desperate attempts to appear ‘safe’, Ford’s race inevitably became a central issue in his campaign. A few weeks before the mid-term election, the Republican National Committee released an ad mentioning that Harold Ford had spent time at a Playboy party. The commercial concluded with a blonde-haired white woman saying, “Call me, Harold”. In addition to challenging Ford’s claims to moral authority, the commercial played on deeply rooted anxieties about black men and their proximity to white female bodies. Although there’s no guarantee that Ford would have won the election otherwise, his narrow margin of defeat (48-51 percent) suggests that the sleazy tactic known as the “Southern Strategy” may have been the difference maker. More importantly it served as a reminder that no matter how far away one travels, the realities of race will always follow closely behind.
The Don King “Teflon Don” Award
This award goes to the person who, despite considerable evidence against them, manages to avoid public, professional, or legal punishment for their misdeeds.
Winner: R. Kelly
Despite the considerable evidence stacked against him, Robert Sylvester Kelly continues to avoid criminal prosecution on charges of child pornography. Although his day in court is approaching soon—his much-anticipated October hearing was once again postponed—there’s a noticeable lack of public outcry for him to be brought to justice. Even worse, Kelly has received little professional punishment for his alleged acts. In addition to selling millions of albums, the industry’s top artists continue looking to “The Pied Piper” for songs, beats, and guest appearances. Tragically, this light sentence from the court of public opinion says less about the popularity of R. Kelly and more about the value of little black girls in America.
The Lil’ Cease “Stop Snitching” Award
This award goes to the person who sacrifices all social bonds and commitments in order to advance their own personal interests.
Winner: Karrinne “Superhead” Steffans
With the releaser of her memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen, the woman known as Superhead seemingly placed half of the rap industry on Front Street. More importantly, she birthed a cottage industry of tell-all tomes penned by hip-hop’s unseen hands. Following Steffans’ literary success, Carmen Bryant, Nas’ ex-girlfriend and “baby momma” released a best-selling book detailing her sexual trysts with Allen Iverson and Jay-Z. Recently, Caushun, the self-described “gay rapper”, announced that he would soon release his own book, also outing prominent members of the hip-hop community. While this new genre of “Hip Hop Literature” provides a necessary outlet for displaced female voices, it also raises critical questions about the ethics of telling other people’s business.
Stepin Fetchit “Coon” Award
This award goes to the man or woman whose exploits reinforce stereotypical depictions of African American people.
Winner: Flavor Flav
Over the past few years, Flavor Flav has transformed himself from over-the-hill hype man to celeb-reality television star. Following his popular performances on Surreal Life and Strange Love, both of which rested on the racist irony of Flav’s romantic connection to Bridgette Nielson, VH1 decided to give Flav his own reality show. Flavor of Love, a ghetto remix of The Bachelor, gave America unmediated access into Flav’s world of minstrels, misogyny, and malapropisms. In addition to helping to erase the powerful legacy of Public Enemy from the public memory, Flav’s antics reinscribed crippling representations of black men and women as unintelligent, immoral, and oversexed. Despite, or perhaps because of, the show’s ignorance, each season broke cable television viewing records. The show’s success has even led to a new spin-off show entitled The Flavorette which will allow New York, the show’s two-time loser, to mimic Flavor Flav’s patriarchal antics. Buoyed by his renewed cultural relevance, Flavor Flav has begun to promote his new solo rap album, Hollywood, by releasing the single “Unga Bunga Bunga”. Unga Bunga Bunga, indeed.
Michael Jackson “Not-So-Smooth Criminal” Award
This award goes to the public figure who commits a crime that it so stupid that it defies explanation.
Winners: Claude “Sticky Fingaz” Allen & William “Ice Cold” Jefferson
This year, two black politicians committed acts that were so absurdly stupid that they forced The Barbershop Notebooks Awards committee to offer its first tie.
Bush domestic policy advisor Claude “Sticky Fingaz"Allen, conservative golden boy and heir apparent to the Clarence / Condoleeza throne, was arrested this year and charged with multiple counts of theft. According to evidence, including surveillance tapes, Allen single-handedly bilked Maryland area department stores of nearly $5,000 by stealing merchandise and producing a receipt from legally purchased items to obtain a cash refund. In addition to being dishonest, Allen’s small time hustle ended up costing him a $161,000 a year job and a promising political career. At least shady white politicians risk their lives in order to steal millions. Perhaps this is what George W. Bush meant by “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.
This year’s other winner is Louisiana Congressman William “Ice Cold” Jefferson. As part of an investigation of bribery and wire fraud, FBI officials conducted a raid of Jefferson’s congressional offices. The raid was a follow-up to a series of recorded calls between the congressman and an informant in which they discussed a possible $100,000 payoff for Jefferson’s help in a Nigerian business venture (maybe he got one of those spam e-mails from a Nigerian exile!). Authorities claim that they have video footage of Jefferson in July 2005 accepting cash in a leather briefcase and putting it in his car. The next month they searched Jefferson’s home and found $90,000 in cash wrapped in aluminum foil inside the freezer! The $100 bills found in his freezer had the same serial numbers as the bills in the briefcase that he had previously accepted. By taking the phrase “cold hard cash” literally, Jefferson jeopardized the balance of power in Congress, as well as the lives of his family and constituents.