`Black authenticity' dims the future of urban youths

March 25, 2004|By Clarence Page

NEW YORK - Black teen-age girls don't get much respect, not even from each other.

That's just one of the startling findings of a recent study on sex and gender attitudes of low-income black teen-agers. Among other revelations, it offers new evidence that the standards of "black authenticity" - promulgated in hip-hop culture - are not only too narrow but downright dangerous.

With funding from the Ford Foundation and the California Endowment, the marketing firm Motivational Educational Entertainment (MEE) Productions Inc. conducted a 10-city study of young people (16 to 20 years old).

The study found black urban youths from households earning below $25,000 a year to be remarkably untouched by positive messages about responsible sexual behavior from their parents, schools, the media and health care providers.

But the teens did display attitudes consistent with the macho pose of hip-hop rappers. Their mottoes: "Use or be used" and "Get it while you can."

And consistent with a culture that uses "bitches" and "hos" as labels for every woman but one's mama, the study reveals "black females are dissed by almost everyone," including other black females.

Compare, for example, the half-dozen slang nouns in the study's glossary that are used to describe males ("Dog," "homeboy," "playa," "lame," "sugar daddy," "payload") with some of the words used by both teen boys and girls to describe females ("skeezer," "'hood rat," "ho," "trick," "freak," "bitch," "gold digger," "hoochie mama").

"Old-school thinking about relationships doesn't fit black urban youths," reads one headline in the study.

The study of the hip-hop generation fails to pin down the big question: Do rap music and other traits of the hip-hop culture influence teens or merely mirror the culture that teens have created? The answer is probably both.

Today's teens have grown up awash in hip-hop, and so have their parents. The sad consequences have been a narrow and distorted view among many black youngsters, and others, of what it means to be black.

It was back in the 1960s, I painfully recall, that "authenticity" began to replace the more generalized "cool" as the standard for acceptable tastes and behavior among black youths. It was a period marked by big Afros, dashikis, bib overalls, combat boots and a propensity for greeting each other with defiantly raised fists. Ah, youth.

Such was the "authentic" look among black college students in the late '60s; I was one of them. The "authentic black" came to define a person who did not "sell out" to bourgeois middle-class standards, the same values that had enabled our families to prepare us for college in the first place.

Even if we aging black baby boomers no longer buy that narrow notion of blackness, a lot of our kids and grandkids do. In 1986, professors Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu shocked many with a landmark study of "oppositional cultural identity" in black teens who denigrate academic achievement by their peers as "acting white."

Still, there are signs of hope. Although some teen-agers expressed some pretty raunchy attitudes in the MEE study, some also praised certain hip-hop artists as more "positive" and called for more "message" in pop music.

And in another section headlined, "Wish I woulda waited: The secret allure of virgins," many sexually active youths said that sex wasn't all they had hoped for and that they wish they had waited until they were married or at least older.

And many of the young men, in a reflection of times past, still showed a significant respect for virginity in the study that they would not express outside the group. Girls who don't "give it up" are males' top choices for long-term partners.

What is to be done? Pardon my dangling prepositions, but like other generations, today's youths probably are just looking for someone to look up to and something to believe in.

We, their elders, need to provide it. We need to show them a broader vision of what black culture is all about. We also need to reach back to mentor our least-privileged youngsters. They're not going to learn life's valuable lessons from CDs alone.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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