Whose black culture should be portrayed?

Najee Ali leaves no doubt about his feelings for "Street Sweeper," a new book aimed at young black men.

Standing outside the offices of his small newspaper, he spews words such as "pornographic" and "vulgar," then reads a passage:

"Spinning, Jerome shot the guard right between the eyes. As the councilman struggled to crawl away, Jerome emptied his clip just to be sure."

To this, Mr. Ali, a Muslim minister, adds his verdict: "There is no point except to make money off young blacks and to glorify violence."

Across town, publisher Mark Gerald is dismayed: "We are aiming to enrich, enlighten, and entertain an audience which without us, has gone hungry for two decades - primarily young black men."

Between these opposites lies a debate that is splitting America's black community. The issue: How to portray the black experience - both to the African-American community and to the larger, multiracial American culture?

To some, literature, music, and film in the model of "Street Sweeper" is harmful, disseminating only the the worst of black culture. To others, though, it's indicative of a worthwhile effort to portray life as it actually is for some people, and not temper it to make it more palatable.

"New battle lines are being drawn right now," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of "The Assassination of the Black Male Image." "We are no longer just talking about images type-casted from movie studios and record companies owned by whites; we are also talking about the lyrics and images created for movies, MTV, videos, rap, and books by other blacks themselves."

Other examples abound:

* Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" - which hit theaters last week - is a cinematic diatribe against blacks and whites who have "sold out" to white culture by trivializing depictions of blacks. In widely published interviews and within the film itself, director Lee takes on top black entertainers such as Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy for perpetuating black stereotypes or "whitening" blacks for wider cultural acceptance.

* Earlier this month in Philadelphia, members of the Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolence protested against Allen Iverson's coming rap album "Non-fiction" outside two Philadelphia radio stations. Critics have called the songs on the basketball star's still-unreleased album antigay, antiwomen, and pro-violence. Mr. Iverson has since met with the group and has agreed to tone down his lyrics.

* The animated series "The PJs," produced by Eddie Murphy, has been derided for its images of blacks as whores, shiftless do-nothings, and crack heads. A write-in campaign to the Fox network asked for a toning down of language and the inclusion of more positive images of blacks. Fox has since dropped the show, which will now air on The WB.

* Variety Magazine reported Columbia Pictures may distribute an 80-minute film based on the online, comic-strip character, Lil' Pimp - a freckle-faced white boy who learns how to pimp from two black sidekicks.

"There is absolutely a divide in the black community right now over the sheer amount of these stereotyped images of blacks as lowlifes, pimps, whores, and no-goods," says Julie Stokes, a professor of psychology and Afro-ethnic studies at California State University in Fullerton.

Here in Los Angeles, activist Ali and several black ministers are speaking out against "Street Sweeper," which is co-published by black actor Wesley Snipes and will be released primarily in record stores - where the customers are generally younger. The activists are urging boycotts in several states and lobbying state governors to bar the books' distribution in prisons.

Role models?

"Black communities across America are bombarded from every angle with a model of black life that is full of violence, drugs, and mayhem," says the Rev. Cecil Murray, senior pastor of First A.M.E. church in Los Angeles. "It's time for blacks to become more savvy about how destructive these models are, and how to quit contributing to the problem."

Beginning next month, Mr. Murray and other local pastors will be conducting seminars and workshops in local churches to help parents and educators raise consciousness over the issue.

While Ali and others describe the debate as a divide between those in religious and education fields versus those in creative and entertainment fields, some leading black scholars resist that characterization.

"In other communities, especially the white community, diversity of opinion is seen as a healthy and necessary reality," says Maulana Karenga, creator of the holiday, Kwanzaa. "I see diversity of opinion on issues such as these critical to creating a context in which the community is introduced to various sides and can make a more informed decision."

Yet there is a great concern among the creative community over any effort to draw a connection between books and violent behavior. Indeed, the issue is a particularly sensitive one now after the Federal Trade Commission recently released a report indicting Hollywood for marketing violent material to youths.

"It's awfully naive to assume cause and effect relationship between books and movies on one hand and violence on the other," says Robert Toledo, a professor of writing at New School University in New York.

"If you look back at the kind of books that killers cite as promoting them, they tend to be things like 'Catcher in the Rye,' and the Beatles' 'White Album,' " he says. "Do you want to ban the Beatles' 'White Album'?"

Good rep, bad rap

Mr. Toledo and others have defended the new novel - the first in a series of six - because of the literary reputation of co-publisher Mr. Gerald. He formerly worked to revive the genre of African-American suspense novels.

"From the start, Mark [Gerald] has been very interested in getting young people to read," says Toledo. "There is a strong literacy element to these books. They are not gritty realism but are smart, stylish, and carefully edited."

The publisher, Syndicate Media Group, even passed the idea of "Street Sweeper" by a local pastor and received his blessing. The pastor endorsed the motive of "reaching out to youth where they are" and getting a young generation to read, says vice president Mykel Mitchell.

In the end, though, the real question might not be about whether the books actually promote violence, but rather whether the books simply send a destructive message.

"It's not necessarily just a matter of whether media violence begets real violence," says Mark Whitlock, director of L.A. Renaissance, a program to help poor African-Americans. "It's a matter of being inundated with negativity to the point that a young black person feels that is all life holds."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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