Imus, Revisited

Our Negro Leaguer weighs in again on the radio jock's fall from grace.

Don Imus

Hey Joe: I just read your response to the question about Don Imus. In response, I wanted to ask you, respectfully and hopefully as a means of initiating a real dialogue on this issue, if you ever listened to his program? Honestly, did you?

I was a fan of Don Imus for decades. Through his program I was introduced to the music of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, who Imus plugged and had on his show, exposing them to millions and dramatically increasing their album sales. I heard the magnificent preaching of the late Bishop G. E. Patterson: Imus used excerpts of his sermons as "bumper music," and they were so good I found his services on cable and listened to more. The bishop and Imus became friends, and when he died the bishop's widow was on Imus' program and spoke at length about his ministry and career. I always looked forward to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when Imus would insist on playing the entire "I Have a Dream" speech, not just a sentence or two like the other networks or shows. He devoted that day and most of the week to meaningful discussions of race in our society. I learned about the leader of a new generation of African-American politicians, including Harold Ford Jr., who was on Imus' show more times than I can count, and who he promoted extensively during his Senate campaign over Ford's white Republican opponent.

I am a 54-year-old white goober, living in Oklahoma. I got more exposure to decency in race relations from Imus than anyone I've ever seen or heard. That's the sad irony of his comment, and the tragedy of his firing. African Americans who never listened to Imus have no idea what kind of friend they've lost, all due to a thoughtless use of words, magnified and repeated until enough damage was done. Imus' words racist? The last time I heard, "nappy-headed" was on a Stevie Wonder album. Imus was known to repeatedly refer to his wife as "the green ho," and Saturday Night Live uses "ho" to refer to Britney Spears — does she deserve that appellation? The comment was thoughtless, and he should have apologized, which he did. But because of the over-reaction — and what I see as selective enforcement of censorship after the fact — we've lost a thoughtful voice in the morning who taught me a great deal.

I hope you will read this in the spirit in which it is intended. I have come to cringe at the way the word "racist" is used as a bludgeon to assault people who voice opinions or advance opposing ideas. Sadly, it is causing society to avoid discussing any of these topics altogether. Thanks for abiding my rant.
Gary Giessmann, Oklahoma

After reading your e-mail, if ever I needed a friend, I wished it would be you. Other than Bishop G.E. Patterson and Harold Ford Jr., I was well aware of the Blind Boys, Dr. King and Stevie Wonder. Like The Blind Boys of Mississippi, my mother and father — before migrating to Illinois — were from Mississippi. Coincidentally, Emmett Till — before he was killed in Mississippi — hailed from the state of Illinois.

Now, I wouldn't doubt that you've heard the phrase "nappy-headed" in one of Stevie Wonder's songs. It's as common as apple pie within the black community. But originally, it was a derogatory title that affected blacks so badly that they became ashamed of their hair. Black males began conking their hair with a solution consisting of sweet potatoes and lye to make it straight like whites' hair. Nat "King" Cole, among other black males, kept his hair intact with this remedy.

If I read you right, you say that Imus repeatedly called his wife "the green ho." If so, I can understand him better. It would seem using the term became a habit with him, and he became calloused to saying it. Unfortunately, he called the Rutgers' lady basketball team "nappy-headed hos," which got him in trouble. In reference to Saturday Night Live and Britney Spears, referring to any lady as a "ho" is disrespectful, but such is the luxury granted the old boys' network via the U.S. Constitution.

Stevie Wonder has a history of standing up for black equality. Him singing "Happy Birthday" to Dr. King was phenomenal. I'd certainly like to know what was Bishop Patterson's take on the issue — hopefully it was different from most black preachers who are called "black leaders." Stevie Wonder and the Blind Boys are more sensitive to what's going — both spiritually and socially — than the "black leaders" are. They have more imagination and creativity.

The best teacher in the world about racism is history, and the Constitution contains it all. Harold Ford Jr. feels the same way you do about Don Imus. Had he been successful in his senatorial run, he would have had to place his hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution. Your e-mail has proven to me that Imus has a good heart. There is still a possibility that he could become famous in a positive way.

Prince Joe Henry, one of professional baseball's original "clowns," was an all-star infielder for Negro League baseball teams in Memphis, Indianapolis and Detroit throughout the 1950s. But up until the late 1940s, Prince Joe didn't know anything about the Negro Leagues. His knowledge of organized baseball was limited to the Cardinals and Browns games he attended during his preteen years at Sportsman's Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white.

Perhaps Henry's most vivid memory of those games: Upon entry, white ushers would politely escort the boys to a small section of the left-field stands reserved for "Colored." After climbing past several tiers of bleachers, they'd arrive at their stop, rows and rows behind their white counterparts.

Even at a young age, the boys were conscious of the double standard -- and determined to vent their disdain. The opportunity would arise with the urge to urinate. Rather than head for the latrine, the boys would edge their way to the front of the section and let fly. As the liquid foamed its way down the concrete steps toward the white kids, Henry and his pal would ease back and relax, politely rooting for the visiting team to beat the hell out of the Browns or the Cards.

After all, Henry and Crittendon hailed from Brooklyn, Illinois, a small, predominantly black township just east of the Mississippi River. So hospitable were the residents of Brooklyn that they were known to take in a rank stranger, treat him to breakfast, lunch, supper and a night out on the town -- and afterward, if he messed up, treat him to a good ass-whippin'.

Direct questions on any and all topics to [email protected]. If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

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