Monday, May 20, 2013

How young black men audiences shape creative, critical discourses

Morehouse graduates listening to Obama speech

The recent graduation speeches by Michelle Obama at Bowie State and Barack Obama at Morehouse were reminders about how black men as intended audiences can shape broad conversations about "the" black community. There has been considerable conversation about the merits and limits of President Obama's speech at Morehouse. For now, I'm interested in how the presence of black men audiences can shape how and what speakers choose as their focus.

At Morehouse, an all-black male school, the topic of  black men was sure to come up, and even though Bowie State has black men and women students, there were times that it was clear that Ms. Obama had young black men in mind when she spoke. She noted at one point that today some young black people are not as serious about their educations as  their predecessors from 50 years ago.

"Today, instead of walking miles every day to school," she said, "they're sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they're fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper." The references to "baller" and "rapper" of course takes direct aim at young black men who are said to think of those careers far too often.

President Obama mentioned black men directly frequently throughout his speech and regularly focused on "responsibility," the need to be good fathers and avoid "excuses." I understand why some commentators were irritated and disappointed  by Obama's specific comments; at the same time, I've come to view that kind of talk at black men as a kind of form or mode. Large numbers of people can't help but slip into it when and if they are talking to young black men.

This isn't just a story of woe. Sometimes, the notion of a black male audience inspires other processes and outcomes. An important, I'd even say, a foundational element of rap music rests on the practice of black men lyricists speaking to other black men. Despite the fact that white people from the suburbs have been key consumers of hip hop, rappers still regularly compose lyrics as if they are talking to fellow black men. That's why we hear so much about cars, women, "my niggas," and father-figures (or their absence) in the music.

Major shoe companies and other corporations spend considerable energy and resources in order to win sponsorship deals with star and future star athletes. Over a decade ago, Adidas and Nike had a fierce competition for the right to design shoes for a fresh out of high school ball player name LeBron James. Record companies compete in similar fashion to sign prominent black male rap artists.

I imagine that a wide range of distinct kinds of audiences inspire speakers in particular ways. One of my research projects, however, inclines me to give attention to how the presence of black men audiences might shape creative and critical production.

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