Pa Ingalls Was Not The First Rapper

I was one of the first generations to grow up with rap music. When I was a child (in the good old days of Reaganomics) rap fell into two categories: message rap (Public Enemy) and party rap (Run D.M.C.). Message rap discussed politics and institutional racism and other important things. (Sometimes, but not always, Flavor Flav was allowed to ride-along.) Party rap was about boasting, being made to dance by the masterful DJ, and whether or not one’s parents understand. (At least, this is how I remember it in my old age.)

“Gangsta rap” came along when I was a young teen. Everything changed! There were cusses everywhere, especially this word “ho” that I repeated blithely until it occurred to me that it had nothing to do with Santa’s merriment. At first, I mocked the people who criticized this new, very popular, very open misogyny. Sometime around college, however, I realized that I was both enchanted by the music and deeply troubled by a lot of its content.

At that point, I realized rap music at large wasn’t talking to me: I was not the target audience. The self-aggrandizing lyrics, swagger and casual violence towards women were meant to invite the (male) listener to join a fellowship of powerful, desirable male peers — and to exclude me.

So why was I still listening? Why do I still listen to rap music, even now? Well, I’m not unaccustomed to being “othered” by the media I love.

Even the earliest books I read contained hints that I was not their target audience. Several Oz books contain references to Hottentots (renamed “Tottenhots” because that is clever), complete with unflattering illustrations:

Tottenhot! Get it?

Tottenhot! Get it?

In case we were confused about Baum’s feelings concerning the “Tottenhot,” this particular image illustrates a storyline in which Glinda the Witch has to put an animal through a succession of transformations, each time bringing him closer to humanity. “Tottenhot” is two transformations removed from a human being.

I definitely remember having seen these images, decades later; they have since been expurgated from more recent editions, causing something of a controversy in the “Oz community.” (You can see the other scanned pages at the link.)

Meanwhile, the author who continued the Oz series after Baum’s death, Ruth Plumly Thompson, added a popular character, Jinnicky, the Red Jinn, to the stories. Jinnicky  is served by a cast of chubby black slaves. At one point, a rebellion among the Red Jinn’s slaves is actually suppressed by Princess Ozma.

And then there was the first time of many I read through Little Town on the Prairie and fetched up against the charcoal drawing of Pa Ingalls and three friends in blackface (Wilder refers to them as “darkies”). Again, I remember this cognitive dissonance. I didn’t ask an adult what was going on; I didn’t even know what blackface was. I only knew that there was something creepy about Pa dusting his face with soot and speaking in a fake black vernacular.
Once I moved on to my ten-year Sherlock Holmes obsession, I learned pretty quickly to avoid the latter-day mystery  “The Three Gables”:

The door had flown open and a huge negro had burst into the room. He would have been a comic figure if he had not been terrific, for he was dressed in a very loud gray check suit with a flowing salmon-coloured tie. His broad face and flattened nose were thrust forward, as his sullen dark eyes, with a smouldering gleam of malice in them, turned from one of us to the other.

“Which of you gen’l’men is Masser Holmes?” he asked.

Holmes raised his pipe with a languid smile.

“Oh! it’s you, is it?” said our visitor, coming with an unpleasant, stealthy step round the angle of the table. “See here, Masser Holmes, you keep your hands out of other folks’ business. Leave folks to manage their own affairs. Got that, Masser Holmes?”

“Keep on talking,” said Holmes. “It’s fine.”

“Oh! it’s fine, is it?” growled the savage. “It won’t be so damn fine if I have to trim you up a bit. I’ve handled your kind before now, and they didn’t look fine when I was through with them. Look at that, Masser Holmes!”

He swung a huge knotted lump of a fist under my friend’s nose. Holmes examined it closely with an air of great interest.

“Were you born so?” he asked. “Or did it come by degrees?”

It’s actually really hard for me to read this quote, given how many of my junior high school daydreams took part in the Victorian London Holmes inhabited. Now, let’s be honest: that world was not racially inclusive. There are plenty of other racist assumptions in the Holmes canon — the Welsh are dark and emotional, the Southern Europeans border on hysteria both comic and murderous, Indians are invariably shady and the poor are either noble or felonious.

I suppose it’s that the black buffoon Doyle serves up is alarmingly similar to the sort of Stepin Fetchery that’s still on offer today — and still just as offensive. I knew, by the age of eleven or twelve, that I was supposed to be offended by that. Instead, I remember feeling ashamed. I wonder if the shame stemmed from this proof I was unworthy of participating in my Victorian fantasy?

I can’t answer that honestly from an adult perspective. All I know is that, despite knowing most Holmes stories practically by heart, I could not tell you what happens in The Three Gables if you put a gun to my head; one of my favorite Holmes stories was “The Yellow Face,” in which the truth about an interracial marriage comes out, without negative consequences; and that for some reason I have spent the last thirteen months building a Victorian alternate universe in which people of all hues mix pretty freely. Hmm!

The point of all these sad little vignettes, I suppose, is to prove that I’m well accustomed to the point at which an author waves me aside, saying, in effect, “I’m not talking to you.” I rail against it, but I can’t say it never happens, even today. However, I can’t just stop reading books, or only reading the books that make me feel great about myself. Some of the best and most important books were and are written by people with really backwards notions of race and gender. That doesn’t discount the fact that these books are good or important.

In the same vein, when rap is good, it’s very good. For every time Kanye West rails against gold-digging baby mamas

18 years, 18 years/ and on the 18th birthday he found out it wasn’t his

he also produces something like the last verse of “Gone,” perhaps my favorite set of Kanye rhymes —

What the summer of the Chi got to offer a 18-year-old/sell drugs or get a job, you gotta play your role/my dog worked at Taco Bell, hooked us up plural/fired a week later, the manager countin’ churros/sometimes I can’t believe it when I look up in the mirro’/how we out in Europe, spendin’ Euros

Kanye rapping ridiculous pop culture things (churros) with real-world things (Euros) never fails to make me smile.

Of course I’m against misogyny in music, of course I constantly question the relationship between the misogyny of rap music and the culture of violent sexism among young people. (I also am against the use of the word “Hottentot” outside a critical discussion of the media’s obsession with Black women’s bodies!) But I’m not going to stop listening to all rap music, any more than I’m going to torch my Oz books.

I avoid music that is actively vile, just as I avoid books that are consciously attempting to be racist. I try to find mainstream rappers who are doing something a little different from the norm, whether musically or lyrically. (Yes, Mos Def, I know, thanks. :) I get excited when a new female MC appears, then get disappointed when, almost inevitably, everyone loses interest in the “novelty.”

I wince, when an otherwise fantastic rapper describes his coterie of willing groupies in the same verse in which he enumerates his other possessions, because I know he’s talking over my head to the men in the room. But I keep listening.