10 October 2008

Defaming Diahann Carroll

Diahann Carroll1

Warning! This post contains coarse and offensive language.

Is it ever acceptable for a White-dominated media outlet to racially disparage an elderly African-American woman? That's the question readers of the online Gay newsmagazine New York Blade were challenged to ask themselves last week. As they linked to an article about a new celebrity autobiography, their eyes fixed on a startling title: The Black B*tch is Back!

Who is this “Black b*tch”? Diahann Carroll is one of the African-American community's most revered icons. She can boast of a 50-year career as a successful actress, model and singer. She's appeared in such critically acclaimed motion pictures as Carmen Jones, Porgy And Bess, Hurry Sundown and Claudine. She was the first Black woman to star as a romantic lead opposite a White co-star on Broadway. Her TV credits go back to 1960 and include notable series like “Perry Mason”, “A Different World”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Naked City” and “Roots”.

She became a feminist symbol, as well as a role model to single mothers and registered nurses, on her groundbreaking 1968 TV series "Julia". She’s the recipient of a Golden Globe, and has been nominated for numerous Emmy, Tony and Image Awards. She’s a celebrity breast cancer survivor and treatment advocate. She was, and still is, one of our most beautiful stars, not to mention an enduring Black female sex symbol.

So why would the New York Blade think it was OK, not only to slap the B-word on a woman of this stature, but also insult her racial identity? Maybe it has to do with a popular primetime soap opera that she co-starred in two decades ago: Before "Dynasty" hit the airwaves in 1981, it was rare to hear the word "b*tch" used on network TV. That changed when the writing staff of Aaron Spelling's sprawling saga of the filthy rich decided to push the language envelope. The B-word was liberally applied to Joan Collins' scheming character, Alexis Colby, and it was sure to be heard during catfight scenes regularly staged between Collins, Linda Evans and other female co-stars. To be sure, the sexist insult had always been part of America’s slang lexicon, but once "Dynasty" topped the Nielsen ratings list, it came into popular use like never before.

By the time the TV series notched its third season, criticism was mounting about a dearth of minority characters. Aaron Spelling put out the call for a Black actress; he wanted to cast a new nemesis for Alexis Colby. Reportedly, Joan Collins was instrumental in getting her old friend Diahann Carroll hired. Prior to her debut on the show, Ms. Carroll gave numerous interviews about her forthcoming role. Playfully, she told the press how much she looked forward to playing "the first Black b*tch" on television. Often, she would whisper the nasty words with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. I remember those interviews, and I also remember being taken aback by her questionable usage.

However, anyone who remembers her scenes on "Dynasty" knows that her character, Dominique Devereaux, was nothing like Alexis Colby. She was a strong and tenacious woman, determined to claim her birthright as a member of the wealthy Carrington clan, but she never had evil motives. The "Black b*tch" label was nothing but ill-conceived hype. The media never forgot it, though, and evidently, that's why the author and/or editor of Ms. Carroll's latest interview felt justified in applying the slur to her all these years later. But is that really the reason they did it? And is it really justified?

The answer to the first question is "no". The New York Blade isn't merely using Diahann Carroll's words against her. It's following a growing trend in Gay media to feature slurs prominently in their copy! Scan the covers of recent editions of The Advocate, Out Magazine, The Liberty Press and other national and regional Gay publications, and you'll find crass captions like "God Loves F*gs", "Blood, Sweat and Queers", "Yeah, I'm A F*g" and "Derby D*kes". Even trashy supermarket weeklies like The Examiner and The National Enquirer don't lead with language this crude! Gay media is quickly becoming known as the place where you can indulge in Don Imus-style potty mouth and get away with it!

(What kind of readers are editors going after when they approve these lurid covers? Radical LGBT sex and gender activists? Straight bigots? Tabloid addicts? Just plain ignorant folk? Before you pick up these rags, ask yourself if you're really part of the target readership. If you're really not, then your two dollars and/or your leisure time would probably be better spent elsewhere!)

The answer to the second question is also "no"! The term "Black b*tch" can be traced directly back to the days of slavery. White overseers were known to hurl it at Black female captives. Documentation of its use appears in slave narratives, where we learn that it was often followed by beatings or worse forms of "discipline".

Diahann Carroll was wrong to fling the term around so casually, even if she meant no harm by it. That insult carries far too much blood-stained baggage! It bears pointing out, though, that when she used it, she was always referring to her "Dynasty" character, never to herself! And what if the lady had been referring to herself? Does that give White people, or people of any ethnic background, the right to appropriate the same language when talking about her? Two wrongs don’t make a right, and in this case, the second wrong is worse than the first!

What do you bet that Ms. Carroll never gave The New York Blade permission to call her a "Black b*tch" in print? That decision was undoubtedly made after the interview, without her approval. It stuns me to think that any journalistic body could be so brazen, so disgraceful, and so mean! This woman is 73 years old! She's got grandchildren (discussed in the article) who no doubt access the Internet regularly, and who might search for articles about their famous grandmother . . . if not now, then certainly as they grow older!

How would Blade staffers feel if they saw their grandparents called "White b*tches" or "Honky bastards" in the title of a Web article? How would they like seeing Nana and Gramps introduced to millions of strangers that way?

If they'd put the title in quotes, it still wouldn't have been appropriate, but at least they’d have shown the woman a modicum of respect. No respect is shown whatsoever! Readers are unambiguously invited to read an interview with a Black b*tch named Diahann Carroll! Fifty years of proud accomplishments, and it all comes down to this?

I was just infuriated when I saw this headline. I already knew that Blade editors were in love with the word “queer”, but here they hit a new low of insensitivity! This was beyond insensitivity. This was beyond stupidity! I can only conclude that it reflects latent racist impulses on their part, the same impulses that prompt White Gay audiences to guffaw at "Shirley Q. Liquor" comedy routines.

"Shirley Q. Liquor" is a cruel and degrading caricature of poor Black women, performed by a White drag artist in Blackface makeup. Jasmyne Cannick was one of the first Black bloggers to raise a sustained alarm about this vicious portrayal, and believe it or not, some White LGBT folk have attacked her for doing so. A handful have even called her (you guessed it!) a “Black b*tch”! These ugly racial attitudes within Gay ranks must be rooted out before they grow serious enough to become another stumbling block to liberation (see my six-part series of the same title under the Politics label)!

With His Fifth Commandment, God instructed the ancient Israelites to respect their elders. Centuries later, Jesus Christ affirmed that Commandment for Christian converts. While I don’t expect the staffers of The New York Blade to be Christians, I do expect them to know what respect is!

What should happen to journalists who are nasty enough to racially disparage an elderly woman? Maybe they should learn firsthand how it feels to be the subject of sexual and racial slurs at an advanced age! Maybe when they reach their declining years and find themselves residing in a rest home, they should be cared for by ignorant, racist (or homophobic) doctors, nurses and orderlies! It would serve them right, and you know, it might happen just that way! My Grandmother Jacobs always told me: "Child, what you do to other people will always come back to you." New York Blade staffers, you've got it coming! Don't say you weren't warned.


Voice your displeasure to editor Rebecca Armendariz at:
RArmendariz@washblade.com

Read Diahann Carroll’s brand new autobiography
The Legs Are The Last To Go,
published by Amistad Books (2008).

2 comments:

  1. Hey Don--sorry about not getting by here sooner... been busier than I don't know what.

    I'm with you all the way on this--not just the Diahann Carroll stuff, but the increasing confusion in our community about what's hip and sassy and what's tasteless and demeaning. Most assuredly Ms. Carroll did not deserve such blatant disrespect. I've met her and she is the epitome of grace and kindness. Did the editors stop to realize that their juvenile attempt at sensationalism was nothing less than a backhanded slap at a living legend who, after all, sat for the interview in good faith to show her respect for the gay community? I mean, come on, surely the Gay Blade staff isn't so delusional to think she spoke to them hoping their little rag would drive book sales.

    You're spot-on in using Gay Blade's mean mishandling of the Carroll piece to point out how coarse and impolitic gay media on the whole has got. Like any minority, our culture runs rampant with inside references and lingo--not all of it offensive, either. Yet deploying this terminology demands wit and discretion, both of which are sorely lacking in many of our publications right now. This new breed has confused shock for provocation, insults for camp. Friends of Dorothy? Forget about it. These people are nobody's friends.

    And here's the worst of it. Once they put it out there and then once we grow to accept it, it's no time at all before these poisonous phrases seep into the mainstream--ushered along by similarly witless editors and shock jocks on the straight side. We've seen this movie before, most recently with hip-hop's laissez-faire attitude about its language and politics. If we don't get a grip on how we talk amongst ourselves, the day soon will come when the rest of the world will pick up our dialect and it will be "hip" and perfectly acceptable to speak hate.

    Apologies are in order--not only to Ms. Carroll but to every gay person who walks the planet.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't know why I didn't reply to your comment posting in 2008, Tim . . . I must've been very busy. But I daresay you could've written this blog post your damn self, and you'd have done it better than me!

    ReplyDelete