Cultural Translation: The first time I heard this term, it was being used by a political science professor to describe the late Isaac Hayes. At the opening ceremony for Kwanzaa 2006, the artist formerly known as Black Moses was standing alongside the former Superintendent of Memphis City Schools (Memphis, TN), Carolyn Johnson as official ceremonial royalty. I recall jotting the term down because it conveyed definitively the work of artists in general.
Music, art, and literature reflects the tonality of society and determines cultural messages during a specific time period. For instance, within American society, there is a pride taken by many in being such a powerful authority in the world and much of that attitude is prevalent in cultural messaging. But how this message is interpreted becomes critical in how the country is perceived by the rest of the world (this is essentially cultural translation). In some cases, this pride could be read as arrogance or perhaps condescension; therein lies the responsibility of ensuring that cultural messages are received appropriately out of respect for history and the peoples of the world.
To that end, Black people in America must also be leery about troubling, or denigrating aspects of our culture being situated as proper reference points for validating ‘how we are’. Much of Black art and culture has been sacrificed to the god of capitalism, leaving it nullified in splendor and void, in many cases, of any intellectual beauty. Richness embodies our experience in this world, not just in this nation. Vital events, people, and cultural property such as books, music, plays, paintings, etc have faded away into obscurity because there is not much of a mainstream movement afoot to initially introduce and later preserve them as definitive cultural identifiers.
Ok, let me just take off the scholar’s robe, get barefoot and see if I can break this thang down. Seriously, y’all, people like Lil’ Wayne, Soldja Boy, Wacka Flacka, Nicki Minaj, Tyler Perry, and shows like Basketball Wives, Flavor of Love, and the Real Housewives of Atlanta have been included officially in the repertoire of Black cultural production. You see, the thing about Pop culture is that it remains popular, even after the trend has faded. For instance, the reason why we know about the Beatles and Elvis, whether we are fans or not, is because during their peak, they were (and still are) Pop Culture royalty. Pop culture, during any given decade/century, is the source that historians use to document the spirit of the times. Hmmm…..does the presence of the aforementioned people accurately indicate the spirit of the times for Black folks?
Given the course of how things have been going thus far, we are not in complete control in the telling of our story — so unless a major overhaul happens during this time, who we are and how we were will continue to be told from the perspective of other people (read: White people) besides us. Do you see how easily the film adaptation of The Help eased into the mainstream? Meanwhile, on our end, we have a grown man that has built a multi-million dollar media empire by largely dressing up as an elderly Black woman with a penchant for cussing, fighting, and misquoting Scripture. If that’s not bad enough, Basketball Wives & the Real Housewives of Atlanta makes Sapphire from Amos N Andy and Hattie McDaniel from Gone With the Wind look like goddesses in comparison.
In my opinion, there seems to be too much ‘shoulder shrugging’ (nonchalance and apathy) when it comes to things like this. Because of their myopia, some of us are convinced that we don’t even need to worry about our past nor our image and how it affects our present. But, on the contrary, we are suffering tremendously now because of the lies and half-truths that have shaped the collective perception of us — in our own eyes as well as among other groups. Many of us have embarked upon this tedious journey of trying to uncover and dispel as much historical inaccuracy as we can, but it will be all for nothing if this onslaught of one-dimensional depictions persist.
Before someone reading this dismiss me as some elitist or a hater, let me state clearly that I’m am always looking for a balance; a well-rounded approach to making sure the whole of the Black Experience is properly represented. I don’t have any problem with Tyler Perry and the other folks, but I’m just worried that much of this stuff is going to make its way into the annals of history as legitimate cultural markers for Black people. See, within our communities, there’s a broad range of cultural productions just awaiting their time in the shine. It’s a good thing that many of the artists who are taking it upon themselves to produce and share the work, rather than waiting on some Hollywood goon to ‘green light’ it. That might be our only saving grace. But still, it is very possible that one day, somebody is gonna read about Madea in a history book — are y’all okay with that?