Reinventing Don Imus: Anatomy of an Excuse

by Michael E. Ross

1 Dec 2009


On 5 October, the radio shock jock and longtime cultural lightning rod Don Imus began simulcasting his nationally syndicated radio show “Imus in the Morning” on both the Fox Business Network and Citadel Media radio stations. Fox announced in September that it had signed a multi-year $3 million contract with Imus. It was a coup for Fox Business (then a moribund imitation of a business news channel) and for Imus, who would broaden his audience and renew his hold on the national conversation.

It was a conversation he left rather abruptly.

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Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a Scapegoat

By Michael Awkward

(University of Minnesota Press)

About 6:14AM East Coast time on the morning of 4 April 2007, Don Imus engaged in the following on-air conversation with sports reporter Sid Rosenberg and Imus producer Bernard McGuirk:

Imus: So, I watched the basketball game last night between—a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the women’s final.

Rosenberg: Yeah, Tennessee won last night—seventh championship for [Tennessee coach] Pat Summitt, I-Man. They beat Rutgers by 13 points.

Imus: That’s some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and—

McGuirk: Some hard-core hos.

Imus: That’s some nappy-headed hos there. I’m gonna tell you that now, man, that’s some—woo. And the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, you know, so, like—kinda like—I don’t know.

McGuirk: A Spike Lee thing.

Imus: Yeah.

McGuirk: The Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes—that movie that he had.

Imus, a man with a reputation for sometimes volcanic outrage on the air, was fired by both his employers (MSNBC and CBS Radio) within a week. Since then, Imus returned to radio on the ABC Radio Networks and to cable television on the low-power RFD television network, in December 2007.

Black Americans, and black women in particular, expressed deep personal pain after the Imus controversy in two ways. First there was the immediate, visceral reaction to Imus’ comments themselves; for many black women, processing the impact of the statements was challenging enough. But black people were also wounded by American society’s attempt to deny that was they felt was real—a part of this nation’s long attempts to conceal or deny the panorama of racial injustices black Americans are heir to.

Burying Don Imus, a new exploration of the Imus controversy and its aftermath, attempts to put that controversy in a more analytical, less reflexive light. Michael Awkward, the author of four books on race, gender, and African American culture, is focused on examining the response to the Imus controversy among black Americans, and how Imus’ comments revealed anxieties within black people, and especially black women, that have their origins in the horrors of the Jim Crow era and the earlier agonies of the antebellum South.

Awkward ably historicizes the anxieties of black Americans that the Imus controversy reawakened. But a basic inaccuracy about Imus’ rejoinder, and an almost clinical assessment of its social impact, undermine much of his thesis. By attempting to minimize the controversy’s force in national race relations by effectively telling blacks “it’s in your head”, Awkward clouds the issue of social responsibility that Imus and other public figures inherit, right along with their fabulous contracts.

Plumbing the black American psyche, the author speculates meaningfully on why black literary fiction dwells on the past: not because of a lack of passion for the future, but because of a past that’s in many ways still unresolved.

What makes the past linger for blacks, what forces its attendant pains to remain unresolved, is its “erasure” or suppression, is, in other words, the fact that slavery or Jim Crow are not incorporated in any discernible manner into the stories that the powerful whites who determined the meanings of our national past have chosen to communicate about it.

Ironically, that’s why the Imus controversy looms so large in the contemporary black social memory: its utter lack of context. Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” remark might have had some limited social utility if he’d said it while revealing a broader knowledge and tolerance of the black experience he’s lampooned and maligned for years. As it is, Imus traffics in the tropes of hip-hop and black culture in general on an occasional, selective basis—a cafeteria approach to cultural exploration as obvious as it is insincere.

In April 2007, Imus the Predator made the Rutgers women’s basketball team another easy target of opportunity. There was no background for the comment beyond the immediate, no purpose beyond achieving the cheap and sudden shock. The legendarily incisive interviewer said something he couldn’t back up with knowledge, or even facts. Don Imus let his mouth write a check his ass couldn’t cash.

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