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Burying Don Imus

Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a Scapegoat

Michael Awkward
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Burying Don Imus
    Book Description:

    In Burying Don Imus, Michael Awkward provides the first balanced, critical analysis of Imus’s comments on the Rutgers women’s basketball team and the public outrage they provoked. Written from the singular perspective of a black intellectual with both a long-standing commitment to feminism and a deep familiarity with—and appreciation of—Imus in the Morning, this book contends that the reaction to the insult ignored the nature of Imus’s contributions to popular culture and political debate while eliding the real and complicated issues within contemporary racial politics.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7035-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface: A Symbolic Burial
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Part I. Scapegoating Imus

    • 1 “What Evil Look Like”
      (pp. 3-20)

      For at least two weeks during April 2007, national attention was focused squarely on the question of what constituted appropriate punishment for John Donald Imus, who had used what was widely considered unforgivably racist and sexist language on his nationally syndicated radio program that was simulcast on MSNBC. The wizened, perpetually impatient, and generally well-informed Imus has long been renowned for his cynicism, ribald wit, and the frequently crude, offensive, and self-absorbed jabs that he aimed at all sorts of figures who came within his sights, including his employers and employees, his wife, and his guests, who were, in the...

    • 2 Humor as Hate Speech
      (pp. 21-30)

      In OnHumour,Simon Critchley suggests that a joke operates in ways similar to a societal rite, which he defines as

      a symbolic act that derives its meaning from a cluster of socially legitimated symbols, such as a funeral. But insofar as [they] . . . play . . . with the symbolic forms of society—the bishop gets stuck in a lift, I spread margarine on the communion wafer—jokes . . . mock,parody or deride the ritual practices of a given society.¹

      Because it both acknowledges and seeks to unsettle established norms, humor can serve as a weapon...

    • 3 The Tight-Lipped Refusal to Laugh
      (pp. 31-36)

      I want to dwell, for a moment, on what I see as the primary motivation for the insistence by many black Americans that jokes told by whites about them constitute hate speech. While a few black commentators acknowledged that the Imus skit was, at the very least, an attempt at humor, the great majority appeared to view it, or, more precisely, the excerpt they’d read in a newspaper or heard in television news reports, the only part they believed mattered—“nappy-headed hos”—strictly as a malicious racial epithet. And even when they recognized its comic intentions, they nonetheless rejected the...

    • 4 Racial Violence and Collective Trauma
      (pp. 37-46)

      According to the literary theorist Cathy Caruth, an influential commentator of the phenomenon,

      the termtraumais understood as a wound inflicted not upon the body but upon the mind. . . . the wound of the mind—the breach in the mind’s experience of time, self, and the world—is not, like the wound of the body, a simple and healable event, but rather an event that . . . is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions...

    • 5 In Al Sharpton’s Crosshairs
      (pp. 47-52)

      The cover story for the April 23, 2007, issue ofNewsweekon the circumstances surrounding Don Imus’s firing features a telling, even chilling, photograph of the broadcasting icon leaving Al Sharpton’s studio. This photograph captures some of the most significant aspects of this conflict: race, media, gender and hair politics, and the struggle of racially identified men over social, political, and cultural turf that included women. The virtual absence of women, not only in this event but in much of the hysteria and media punditry that accompanied it, was especially telling. Despite its origins in a comedic skit in which...

    • 6 The Appeal of Imus in the Morning
      (pp. 53-62)

      For much of my life, I have been baffled by the fascination others have displayed with listening to people talk on the radio. For me, radio talk works only as a necessary—though, admittedly, occasionally instructive and amusing—prelude to the cueing up of music, preferably R & B and soul. In a pinch, I’ll even listen to the 1960s and 1970s pop that my daughters chide me for calling “Caucasian music” as a satirical response to the racial qualities that have always been attached to our music, including race, jungle, Negro, black, and (since loose-limbed motion and negative emotion...

  5. Part II. “Nappy-Headed Hos” in Context

    • 7 The Rough Girls of Rutgers
      (pp. 65-80)

      What was immediately striking about the skit’s beginning was both Bernie McGuirk’s and Don Imus’s adoption of vocal timbres not their own. While always tinged with a folksy resonance, Imus’s voice during his interviews with Republican and Democratic politicians such as John Kerry, John McCain, J. D. Hayworth, Joe Lieberman, Orrin Hatch, Pete Domenici, and Chris Dodd, as well as his amusing, hectoring, and informative conversations with members of the media elite, including Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, Evan Thomas,Howard Fineman, and Jon Meachem and the New York Times’s columnists Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, largely employed the rules and conventional sounds...

    • 8 Hard-Core Misogyny, the Hip-Hop Lexicon
      (pp. 81-104)

      This phrase, uttered by Bernie McGuirk, further demonstrates the intent of the skit’s primary participants to ape contemporary black vernacular speech. (McGuirk proved so successful that he fooled at least one listener, a self-described member of the hip-hop generation, whose posting on aVibemagazine blog insists that, during this exchange, Imus had been speaking with a black man.)¹ In that regard, the skit reflects a longstanding desire on the part of whites to demonstrate their popular culture bona fides by aping black trends in speech, clothing,music, and attitudes. Recent manifestations of this tendency include a much-parodied James Lipton, host...

    • 9 Role Play, Nigger Jokes, and the Politics of Hair
      (pp. 105-136)

      This sentence, which was uttered by Imus, and ultimately led to his firing and to the termination ofImus in the Morning,concerns both unruly, unmanageable hair and women characterized by their sexual pliability, at least for a monetary or emotional price. The proof that Imus was not particularly concerned with the sexual connotations of the termhois the fact that these women were being rejected, even if, in the predominantly male spaces that the show represented (in that sense, it was like the firehouse in the F/X seriesRescue Meand the Bada Bing in HBO’sSopranos), every...

    • 10 Instant Experts and False Accusers: The Duke Lacrosse Team Controversy
      (pp. 137-168)

      For the regularImus in the Morningradio listener or early morning MSNBC viewer, the transcript of this section of the skit demonstrates that the host is attempting to participate in a discussion about whose subject matter he is grossly ill-informed. The skit begins, as did many of the show’s more inspired moments, with Imus mentioning what he had seen on television the night before. In this case, he tells his crewmembers that he had “watched the basketball game last night between—a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the women’s final.” Still, this prompting sentence contains equivocations (“I watched ....

  6. Conclusion: Imus in the Morning Redux
    (pp. 169-174)

    On December 3, 2007, less than eight months after Don Imus’s firing following the furor caused by his nappy-headed hos comment,Imus in the Morningreturned to the airwaves. The show’s return, syndicated by WABC and simulcast on RFD-TV, a country cable television station available in nearly 30 million homes, received a level of media attention befitting a controversy-swathed event hosted by a personality whomTimenamed one of the twenty-five most influential people in America just a decade earlier. While Imus made a point of assuring his loyal audience that neither he nor his show would be significantly different...

  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 175-176)
  8. Notes
    (pp. 177-186)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 187-198)
  10. Index
    (pp. 199-207)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 208-208)