Opinion » Viewpoint

Art or Agitation? Fathers, Sons, and Politics

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As The Commercial Appeal noted this week, in an article by its investigative reporter Marc Perrusquia and in an editorial, Republican county assessor candidate Keith Alexander was on record as making undeniably racist statements as a radio talk-show host and on other occasions.

Samples from the radio show (entitled "The Political Cesspool"): 

"Martin Luther King was really a bad man. ... [The communists] had to give him plenty of money to keep him on task [or] he would have just gone on doing what so many black ministers do, which is to, you know, preying on his congregation — and chasing after the women in his congregation, too."

And there was a claim that King et al. were backed by "certain enablers from a certain religious persuasion" intent upon "destroying Western civilization and white heritage" — reference to an attitude frequently voiced by known anti-Semites.)

Not much ambivalence there. The CA's editorial called for Alexander to be repudiated by representatives of the Republican Party, and the GOP's three candidates for county mayor in this week's primary dutifully — and appropriately — responded with just that when asked by the Flyer.

Once the issue was raised, a member of a rival political party called the Flyer, demanding in effect that the other assessor candidate on the Republican ballot, Robert "Chip" Trouhy, be exposed and denounced as well. His offense? Well, it's not his, exactly; his son, a student at the University of Memphis, had allegedly started a "race war" by conspicuously using the n-word at a public event while performing a song.

Here's where things get sticky — and, on investigation, complicated. First of all, was there a bona fide "race war"? Not really, though there were some very serious demonstrations by black students and others — and remonstrations from the university administraton, after the offender, performing in a Panhellenic karaoke event, included the word in his rendition of a hip-hop song by Jay-Z and Kanye West.

The song — and it has to be spelled out here to make the point — is entitled "Niggas in Paris," and it's been a big hit for the two famed rappers, both African-American artists.

Among numerous admiring reviewers, Rolling Stone was enthusiastic about the monster hit, calling it "the platinum rappers' brass-balled toast to over-the-top opulence," and quoting Jay-Z as having been inspired to write the song by the indisputably white-themed Broadway musical Annie. As the rapper/composer explained: "Annie's story was mine, and mine was hers, and the song was the place where our experiences weren't contradictions, just different dimensions of the same reality."

So what do we have here? A "racial slur," as some have called it, or an artwork, a proud cultural manifesto by two accomplished black artists? The real question here, of course — and the offense — is whether a young white man should have chosen to perform the song. The father quotes his son as having meant to substitute the term "Sig Ep" (for his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon) and as having tearfully expressed contrition for his verbal mistake. Maybe. Probably you had to be there. Almost by definition, there are going to be different interpretations of both the words and the manner and agency of their expression. 

And this necessary irresolution in lieu of a mandated official opinion is, of course, why the founding fathers chose to append the First Amendment to the Constitution and why that guarantee of free expression is still venerated by bona fide patriots today.

And one more thing: Just as it is generally frowned upon to visit the sins of the father upon the son, perhaps that axiom works in reverse, as well. So, are we going to call this candidate out, and lump him in with the exposed Alexander because of his son's actions, as our interloper so devoutly wished? 

I don't think so. For the reasons suggested here, and a variety of others, it's our right not to, and his right to disagree with us. As he will.

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.

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