Rosa Parks vs. OutKast reflects generational disconnect

December 14, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - It's not that the legal issues aren't compelling. Indeed, for us journalist types, there are few things sexier than a First Amendment lawsuit.

But where the case of Rosa Parks vs. OutKast is concerned, what scrapes at your heart is something beyond the law. For all that the lawsuit may say about freedom of speech, it says more about the disconnect between African-American generations, the wrenching sense that an inheritance of pride and purpose was somehow never passed down.

For those who missed it: The Supreme Court decided this week to allow Ms. Parks to go forward with a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages from OutKast, a rap duo that named a song after her.

Said song is not about Ms. Parks. Nor is it about the Montgomery bus boycott, which she famously triggered by refusing to give up her bus seat in 1955. The closest the song comes to referencing that history is the chorus: "Ah ha, hush that fuss/Everybody move to the back of the bus."

Still, Ms. Parks' lawyers say she feels exploited. They also claim the song sowed confusion in the marketplace, cutting into sales for A Tribute to Rosa Parks, a gospel album released in 1995.

Both arguments are weak.

It stretches credibility to suggest even the most naive consumer could mistakenly buy an OutKast CD while looking for gospel.

And as for exploitation: The Neville Brothers used Ms. Parks' name in a song ("Sister Rosa") some 14 years ago, and she didn't call her lawyers then. It's surely not coincidental that the Nevilles are middle-aged and conventional and that their song was a tribute to Ms. Parks.

OutKast, on the other hand, is Andre 3000 (Andre Benjamin) and Big Boi (Antwan Patton), two young men from Atlanta who, though capable of literate social commentary, are not above musical thuggery and the kind of potty-mouthed declamations so popular in hip-hop. This includes, but is not limited to, the deadly N-word.

Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Patton have said, with touching clue- lessness, that naming the song after Ms. Parks was their way of honoring her.

Problem is, and I don't mean to be harsh, they wouldn't know how to honor Rosa Parks if you wrote out instructions. The rappers and the 90-year-old icon are as unalike as citizens of different planets. Which is, for all practical purposes, what they are.

The difference is not just generational, not just about the gap between swing and rap. Rather, it's about a fundamental disparity in perception.

Rosa Parks is from a time when the average black man or woman felt duty-bound to live a life that reflected well on black people as a whole. If there is a single word for what African-Americans of that era prized, projected and sometimes died to defend, that word is dignity.

Understand that, and you understand why Ms. Parks is mortified to find her name on an OutKast CD.

Still, it's sad to see her going to court to get it removed. Seems just more proof of the discontinuity of African-American generations.

It sometimes feels as if each new crop of black Americans is, in some sense, starting all over again, going out with no tether to the sacrifices that made their lives possible, no recognition of their debt to past and future, no inclination to draw on an inheritance of purpose and of pride.

Which is why many of their elders are vexed by them, turn away from them, give up on reaching them. But just whose failure does that represent?

OutKast is the product of an uncensored age, an age when people cross the line so routinely it has all but been erased. We could argue about what that means, but that's beside the point.

Ms. Parks became an icon because, faced with a moral challenge, she made a decision. I wish she had found a way, some method beyond the courts, of helping these young men to understand what that means. Understand that the process never ends.

And that they have decisions to make, too.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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