Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

'Read a Book, Dammit!'

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A controversial public service announcement, aired on cable network BET, is drawing harsh criticism for its use of profanity and sexually suggestive images to encourage reading among viewers. But, considering the underlying message, Michel Martin asks if the controversial delivery is really that bad.


Every now and again when I have something on my mind, I like to talk about it in a commentary. And today, I want to talk about that new public service announcement showing on BET and, of course, YouTube - "Read A Book."

(Soundbite of public service announcement, "Read a Book")

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) Read a book, read a book, read a (bleep) book. Read a book, read a book, read a (bleep) book. Not a sports page.

Unidentified Group: What?

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) Not a magazine, but a book (bleep), book (bleep).

MARTIN: You'll note the beeps. You, discerning listeners will have grasped that there are naughty words being said, words we don't say on the radio - this radio, anyway. The PSA is in a form of a cartoon, and the cartoon work is interesting, too. Some arresting images, shall we say - the kind that we have often seen on BET. Let's just say the derriere is a prominent feature.

Now, the guys talked about the ad on Barbershop last week, and I think they all made some good points. On the one hand, there was the lighten-up point of view, which is that the ad is funny. It has a good message and a slamming beat, and the critics need to get over themselves. On the other hand, there was the how-do-you-teach-right-by-doing-wrong point of view, such as how do you encourage kids to act more responsibly by acting irresponsibly — cussing and shaking your scantily-clad butt.

Now, this is an age-old argument. Teach the kids the classics, the tried-and-true - Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Walt Whitman - and they will learn to appreciate the best. That's the argument behind the emphasis on the classics in education. And then there's our friend relevance who comes to see us from time to time. Relevance is the argument behind letting kids read what they want. Stories like Jenny B. Jones, which are told in idiosyncratic kid vernacular, or teaching kids in Ebonics, or offering sexy courses like the exegesis of hip-hop or whatever.

Can I just tell you? In the words of Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?" Clearly, there is merit in both approaches. America is about nothing, if not innovation. If every new idea is to be slammed because it isn't an old one, where would we be? And if we throw out every classic and pretend that kids are only able to speak to each other in kidspeak, where would we be?

Like immigrant families separated by years - the elders unable to communicate with the young ones, and the young ones inevitably called upon to translate things they might not fully understand. We also forget that so much of what we deem classic now: jazz music, the blues, the writings of D.H. Lawrence or James Baldwin, were considered rude, even obscene, upon their first introduction to the public.

It strikes me that the trick is to know the difference between classic and contemporary. Part of the reason I find this ad hilarious is because I know when to use the F-word and when not to. Not that I would, of course, but if I did want to use it, I am not confused about whether this is appropriate language for a job interview - unless, of course, the job is an audition for the HBO series "The Wire."

The problem, of course, comes when you don't know the difference between when to use the F-word and when not to, because as we all know, people hold that lack of knowledge against you. It strikes me that the real problem here is that once successful people have absorbed the rules - in other words, values - the rules become transparent to us. And we are stingy about letting other people in on the rules, and the reasons for those rules.

So instead of looking down on people who don't share the rules, maybe we could all do a better job of saying why those rules matter, or saying, you know what, read a book, damn it.

(Soundbite of public service announcement, "Read a Book")

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) R-E-A-D-A-B-O-O-K. R-E-A-D-A-B-O-O-K. R-E-A-D-A-B-O-O-K.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues