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

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, I've been thinking a lot recently about two brown men whose bad behavior has been much in the news: Chris Brown and Tiger Woods. Woods, of course, is the uber-famous and hyper-talented golfer whose business has lately been in the street. It's come to light that he's been spending quality time with a number of ladies other than the one to whom he is married. And this has happened in particularly embarrassing way for somebody who seemed to cherish his privacy: a car accident in the early morning hours outside his house which for some reason led to the unveiling of the identities of a number of women with whom he's been sexually involved.

Woods says he is now taking a break from golf to focus on his family, and as we would say, to get his head right. And some of his sponsors are taking a break from him. Although, it shouldn't put too big of a dent in his wallet, because he's believed to be the first athlete to hit the billion dollar mark in terms of earnings.

And if you just heard the previous segment, then you know that Chris Brown is a pop star who was in the news because he beat up his girlfriend, a fellow pop singer named Rihanna, the night before the Grammy Awards last February. He has more or less accepted responsibility by taking a guilty plea and has agreed to undergo counseling along with a series of ritual humiliations, like being interviewed ad nauseum. And now he has a new album out so he has a further need to seek redemption by trying to explain himself.

Can I just tell you? I think it should be said right up front that we know nothing about the real lives, especially the real interior lives of celebrities, notwithstanding the attempts of their spinmeisters and the celebrity entertainment media mob built up around them to portray them as either the squeaky clean family men or club-hopping Casanovas. We really have no idea. But having said that, I think we have a particular need to try to unpack the reality around these two men, precisely because they are young black men. And young black men have been the blank canvas on which we have always projected our anxieties about relationships, sex and race.

Ever since the explicitly racist film "Birth of a Nation," to black people's own cultural creations like Bigger Thomas and the music videos produced by and for young black men, young black men have been portrayed as oversexed, violent and lusting after that which they are not supposed to have: mainly white women and light-skinned women. So in addition to their celebrity, we have the added factor of the burden of history which, like it or not, they are fighting against. That's probably one reason Tiger has worked so hard to de-racialize himself, from his made-up racial group of one to his efforts to remove himself from any conversation about the burdens and discrimination faced by other outsiders, like the women in his sport.

A free society means you must also be free to love whom you will love, so I personally don't care who Tiger sleeps with, except to the degree that his behavior suggests a mania and a lack of intimacy that is depressing to contemplate. It suggests that he pursues women the way he plays golf, without regard to distraction, with the goal of sublimating feeling. He is the anti-stereotype in a way.

And Chris Brown, well, he makes me sad because once again, a young brown man, like too many young brown men, has become another statistic, a captive of the criminal justice system despite himself. I suspect that there is more to his story than he is letting on. People tend to do unto others what has been done to them. And I suspect that growing up in a household where there was abuse as he did, and as he has disclosed, has primed him in ways he doesn't even understand or cannot even talk about yet.

I guess this is a long way of saying I feel for both these men despite their bad behavior. It's not to excuse what either of them did, how they hurt people they supposedly loved. But it is to say that the feelings of young black men like them have rarely been our primary concern. That might be why they have learned to demonstrate so little feeling for others.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to 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