Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional! – book reviews

I’m warning you, once you open this compact collection of six
razor-sharp essays, you’re going to have to stand back! Black, White,
Yellow, Brown, Red, male, female, straight, gay, college-educated,
streetwise, conservative, liberal, whatever – it doesn’t matter. From
the initial essay detailing Robin D. G. Kelley’s take on how
traditional social scientists construct the ghetto, “Looking for the
‘Real’ Nigga,” to the final take, “Looking B[l]ackward: 2097-1997,”
readers of Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional! are literally compelled by the
strength of Kelley’s arguments to identify and/or re-think their
positions in the contemporary “culture wars” fray.

Readers must realize one thing from the outset, however: The taunt
in the title is not an indictment. It is a retort. The “Yo’ mama”
castigated on the cover is not your mama, but the mama of those who
perpetrate and perpetuate racial stigma, inequality, and bias. This
book attacks – or rather, corrects – the mother(s) of all racism,
sexism, economic exploitation, homophobia, and discrimination. And it
does so with power, passion, and penetrating analysis.

Of course, Kelley’s purpose is not to blast anybody’s mama in
particular. His title is not a slam or a cute cut to the dozens when
more substantial words fail. It is a re-orienting expression, and the
book provides an alternative reading of the “official story” on African
American culture and history.

Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional! presents a tight, terse skeletalizing of
most, if not all, of the misrepresentations that warp Western society’s
perceptions of non-White, non-male, non-heterosexual images. And boy,
does Kelley pick the bones clean.

A gifted young historian and commanding critic of contemporary Black
culture, Kelley skillfully details the ways that people of color, other
minority groups, and women historically have been placed on the margins
of America’s health, wealth, and power structures. He also deconstructs
the creative and unprecedented ways these groups have reacted to
marginalized status and stigma.

His second essay, “Looking to Get Paid,” focuses on the significant
and under-examined aspects of Black youth culture. In it, Kelley posits
that Black youth, particularly young Black men, have struggled “for
survival and pleasure inside capitalism” despite “representations of
race that generate terror” in the hearts and minds of most Americans.
He points out, however, that modern Black youth have even put these
negative social constructions of themselves to work – hip-hop and their
disproportionate participation in sports being prime examples.

Still, he claims, Black youth remain victims of a terrible
contradiction that commodities and posits their images and bodies
alternatively as menaces to society or near-deities on the basketball
court, gridiron, or in the boxing ring. It is a contradiction, he
concludes, that compels White America to want to either jail them all
or kiss the feet on which they put their $200 Nikes.

Kelley’s book shows that he not only has skills, but that he has
guts, credentials, and nerve. It explodes the tactics used to
marginalize America’s minorities – from the general to the specific,
and throughout the history of this country. And it adeptly connects the
political and social thrusts that have blocked minority progress,
linking them all the way from those that reversed Reconstruction to
those that are presently destroying affirmative action and beyond.

Along the way, his discourse covers and includes a wide range of
topics: redlining and discriminatory zoning ordinances, environmental
racism, Black feminism, break dancing, sentencing disparities, the
escalating prison construction movement, Black self-agency, campus
labor disputes – a veritable gamut of cultural battlefields. He also
names names, calling out blatant enemies and closet critics, and
unmasking false friends as neoconservative cross-talkers.

Lastly, his epilogue casts a satirical, critical eye on the forces
that threaten to start an internecine culture war within the midst of
those who make it their business to study and clarify African American
history and culture.

Kelley also mixes the strictly scholarly with the intensely
personal. In the process, he displays a refreshing style that is as
much trained erudition as tongue-in-cheek, fist-in-the-air bravado. The
compelling mixture of scholarship and activism zooms light-years past
anything the radical thinkers of the sixties could have offered. And
that’s because, as Kelley acknowledges in his forward- and
backward-looking essays, he and other affirmative action babies have
benefited from both realms of activity.

Indeed, Kelley’s intellect and acumen have made him a
much-sought-after figure in academic circles. He has taught at Emory
University and the University of Michigan, has a full professorship at
New York University (the youngest ever), and is currently a visiting
professor at Stanford – all this before turning thirty-five.

3. He is also the author of two other books – one a groundbreaking
study of Black southern workers’ involvement in the Communist Party,
and the other focusing on culture, politics, and the Black working
class. His articles appear frequently in scholarly and popular
magazines, and he has co-authored a series for young people on African
American history since the seventies.

But what makes him most outstanding among the “young turks” in his
field is his ability to synthesize the unsyncopated, to grasp full hold
of those slippery and often under-scrutinized aspects of African
American culture and make them gel in the minds of diverse readers.
While he cites a depth of resources to substantiate his social critique
and analyses, his perceptions are solidly constructed and based on
critical, reflective thinking. The result: a scholarship that is
impressive and impressively lurid, personally political and politically
personal.

So if you’re not shouting, “Yo’ mama’s disfunktional! Yo’ mama’s
disfunktional! Yo’ mama’s disfunktional!” with vigor and intensity by
the time you get to the “props, respect, and love” acknowledgements at
the end of this book, then you probably don’t have a right-on bone in
your left-wing body! But that’s cool, too, because there are plenty of
critical insights in these pages to go around.

D. Kamili Anderson is the associate editor of the Journal of Negro
Education, a co-editor of the Encyclopedia of African-American
Education, and a former staff writer for Black Issues in Higher
Education.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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