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Respecting Black Women

C. Vivian Stringer, the head coach of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, urged the audience at a symposium on respecting Black women to remain vigilant and to broaden the conversation from the Don Imus incident to all of the ways in which Black women are degraded and disrespected on a daily basis.

Her comments were directed to a group of journalists, clergy, activists and educators who converged on the historic Schomburg Center for Research in Culture in Harlem Tuesday evening to participate in a lively symposium titled, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T When Did We Lose It? How Do We Get It Back?”

The symposium, sponsored by five Black women’s organizations including The Links, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, was created in the wake of the controversial remarks made earlier this year by former radio personality Imus. Imus referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as a bunch of “nappy-headed hos,” and has since been fired from his nationally syndicated radio talk show. But his racist and sexist comments sparked a national debate on free speech and the use of demeaning language.

Rap lyrics, which largely became the focal point of the post-Imus discussion, were the target of the two-hour symposium moderated by Harriette Cole, creative editor for Ebony magazine. Stringer and other panelists said the focus now needs to be turned inward to examine the ways that Blacks demean each other.

“We have a responsibility to inspire our young people,” said Stringer, who has coached the Rutgers team since 1995 and is writing an autobiography. “It’s easy to blame others for what we have done.”

The Imus controversy has sparked dozens of town hall meetings and conversations across the country with the goal of tackling a complicated problem: how to curtail misogynist language without imposing censorship. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey devoted two shows to the issue last month, and many have discovered that finding a balance is not always easy.

Vanessa Bush, the executive editor of Essence magazine, said the magazine has a long record of condemning rap artists who engage in misogyny, but some have criticized the magazine for inviting some of those same artists to perform at its annual music festival.

“I don’t believe in creating censorship,” said Bush. “This could be an opportunity for a teaching moment. We have to give artists the opportunity to evolve and grow.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who led the effort to get Imus fired, has established a Decency Initiative through his civil rights group, the National Action Network. The group aims to urge consumers not to purchase records that “offend us or dehumanize us based on race, gender or any other category.”

Tamika Mallory, who is spearheading Sharpton’s initiative, said boycotting all hip-hop music is not a viable alternative either. 

“It’s about closing the gap,” said Mallory, a 27-year-old hip-hop fan. “It’s about helping hip-hop to grow. Killing hip-hop is not the answer.”

–Jamal Watson


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