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Conversate Is Not a Word: Getting Away from Ghetto

Jam Donaldson

(Lawrence Hill; US: Feb 2010)

The brains behind hotghettomess.com joins the I-know-what's-wrong-with-black-people punditry

Sooo…the website HotGhettoMess.com, which was all the rage back in 2007, was actually meant to be a hot ghetto wake-up call. We were actually supposed to look at all the images of black folks behaving two or three shades beyond merely tacky, with their oversized grills and undersized clothes, and feel ashamed and embarrassed. We were supposed to take a vow right then and there to clean up our acts, lest we end up on that dubious Ghetto-Gone-Wild roll call. That would explain why, when the barely-watched and short-lived spinoff TV show had to be re-titled, it became We Got to Do Better.


Honestly, we had no idea. We all thought it was just another place to find goofy pictures to email our friends.


That piece of background is the major takeaway from Conversate Is Not a Word, the uninspiring attempt by HGM proprietor Jam Donaldson to cement a place in the I-know-what’s-wrong-with-black-people universe. That’s a crowded place, populated by everyone from Bill Cosby to columnists and bloggers, stand-up comics, and hair salons across the ‘hood. Donaldson has the righteous indignation thing down pat, but doesn’t do nearly enough to establish hers as a singular voice offering anything close to unique insights.


All the standard-issue laments are here: black folk don’t seem to demand excellence of themselves any more; black folk don’t take care of their surroundings; black folk blame others for their bad lot in life; black folk don’t do an effective job of parenting; and so on and so forth. You can argue the points ‘till the cows come home; indeed at some point today a black talk show somewhere on the radio dial will do exactly that, and that’s the biggest problem with this book. 


Most of what Donaldson offers as wisdom has been said by dozens of others, especially in the last few years since Cosby became America’s Favorite Black Scold. What might be useful at this point is a suggestion or two on how to achieve the book’s subtitle, “Getting away from Ghetto”. Alas, as is often the case in the telling-others-to-clean-up-their-act business, Donaldson’s list of things to decry is much long than her list of ways to address them.


At least she attempts to set herself apart from the pack with a gimmick. She imagines two characters having exchanges on the subject of each chapter in the book: Jam the Negro, who deflects blame for whatever it is Donaldson’s railing about at the moment; and Jam the American, who might grant a minor point but implores Jam the Negro to get real and take responsibility for her own outcomes. The exchanges are never even: Jam the American always has the last word, and it’s always a takedown of whatever Jam the Negro has to say. After a few rounds, the conceit becomes as predictable as characters in a sitcom.


That’s especially disappointing, because Donaldson doesn’t start off that way. She freely acknowledges her own evolution of thought on the state of the race, and draws from her own life experiences in setting up the book’s premise. That’s where she briefly touches on the Hot Ghetto Mess adventure, and where her desire to see black people reach higher and, well, do better, is expressed most genuinely, with a minimum of finger wagging. More of that might have been more instructive than her mini-missives on The State of the Race, not to mention a more interesting read. However, by the book’s midway point, Jam the Finger Wagger has a full head of steam, and the introspective tone all but disappears from the remaining pages.


If anything, Donaldson seems to be intent on carving her niche as a woman in the mostly male pantheon of black pundits and “experts”. The field could use some gender diversity, but it also could use some idea diversity, too, and in that respect Donaldson has a ways to go. Conversate, good intentions aside, doesn’t add up to much more than a lukewarm rundown of day-old ghetto mess.

Rating:

Mark Reynolds has written extensively about African-American culture and celebrity since the late '80s. He began his print journalism career with the weekly Cleveland Edition, and was a longtime contributor to its successor, Cleveland Free Times. He has also written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and various publications in Cleveland and Philadelphia. His national credits include reviews and features for the college-distributed entertainment magazine Hear/Say, and reporting on the travel industry for the trade magazine Black Meetings & Tourism. His media criticism was honored in 2004 by the Society of Professional Journalists, Ohio chapter.


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