3:32 pm Feb. 29, 20128
Chitterlings are pig intestines, prepared as a meal. They have been a delicacy all over the world, the precise preparation varying according to culture. But in America they are almost exclusively known as an African-American dish—chitlins, in the vernacular.
My mother used to boil chitlins on special occasions. My father would bring home a large plastic bucket of what looked like crime-scene evidence, which my mom would spend a full day cleaning and boiling (to get at those stubborn last bits of feces and bacteria). During the boiling, the house smelled like a morgue. But I was always told the result is delicious, especially with a dash of hot sauce.
Chitlins are a remnant of slavery, when efficient slaveholders sought to maximize profits by feeding their human chattel scraps left over after the choice cuts of meat had been set aside for the master and his family. Chitlins, along with pig's feet, neck bones and fatback, are slave delicacies I grew up with in the 1980s, unaware of their extensive history beyond Fred Sanford's dramatic cravings on “Sanford and Son.”
I hadn't thought much about chitlins all these years, until Whitney Houston died. I'm not sure whether chitlins were served at any dinners associated with her memorial services, but novelist Omar Tyree's public posthumous apology to Houston reminded me that cultural chitlins are still on the menu.
In apologizing for once judging her a sellout to mainstream white America, Tyree describes a lingering small-mindedness in the black zeitgeist: "The truth is, many African-Americans, whether we want to admit it or not, still have a hard time relating to the dream world where everything goes as planned. We relate more to the sadistic turbulence of life, or what we call 'real,' which are all of the things that hurt us or embarrass us, or threaten us..."
He says this tendency "to like our roads rough and rocky" subverts our chances at success and happiness. It made "us" hate Whitney's shiny happy music. And then, almost in passing, he gets down to the chitlins: "Like Whitney, we need to learn how to scream, 'Hell to the naw!' and turn the reality TV's off for a minute, an hour, a couple of days or a week, even!"
How about forever, Mr. Tyree?
Really, what does a people that has compiled for itself most dire statistics in incarceration, unemployment, diabetes, heart disease, cancer rates, obesity, unemployment, poverty, and death need with television? The Internet, to the extent that it remains free and content-rich, provides for all the infotainment needs TV once monopolized, except through a less passive interface.
Sure, there's DVR's and On Demand channels and the fact that TV and the Internet are still melding into a new hybrid beast. But in the meantime, there's still the mouse and the little x in the upper corner of the browser window.
It's the reality shows to which Tyree refers that reinforce the worst in African-American popular culture, and I'm not talking about his simple positive/negative, success/failure, storms/rainbows dialectic. As is the case with his filmmaking counterpart, Tyler Perry, Tyree's idea that “we” can be happy if only we allow ourselves to be is just as oppressive as the notion that black authenticity can only be measured in ghetto street cred.
This choice that's presented to black mass-media consumers between unobtrusive uprightness and mindless, showboating thuggery is the reason I cut my cable cord years ago: It's up to you, member of the black underclass, whether you choose the Sunday suit or the jail jumpsuit.
In this shabby cultural context, Whitney's eventual acceptance by the urban chitlin eaters who initially thought her too white, and subsequent ridicule by the same gossips when she went too black (i.e. smoked crack cocaine), is a simple matter of fashion.
As Tyree writes, her apparent whiteness during her '80s crossover phase was just an illusion: "Yo, Whitney grew up in the 'hood in New Jersey herself. She's not some darling little angel like the media make her out to be."
Her '90s collaborations with blacker musicians and filmmakers brought her back in favor with the Keep It Real contingent. Her surprising marriage to undeniably black Bobby Brown made it plain: The Bodyguard was just a movie.
What's tough to sell to the chitlin mentality is a musical act whose work ranges as far outside the angel/devil, profit/loss cage. Iconoclasts and outliers in any culture must work within their own niche-market ghetto. But African-American culture in particular makes it nearly impossible for all but the most indomitable visionaries to get their weirdness onto the main stage. Even eccentric, introspective rappers like Kanye West, Drake, Kid Kudi and B.o.B are sneaker and designer-watch salesmen as much as they are street poets.
To paraphrase Jay-Z, is this what we want?
Tyree says that we’re obsessed with the "sadistic turbulence" of constant strife and setbacks, like Mary J. Blige's weakness for Mr. Wrong. I'm more interested in how this courtship with pathology came about. Who was the matchmaker?
The answer might be found in the corporate towers that welcome salesman-rappers, on television (if you hit MUTE and study the flow of images), in Whitney's last hotel room, and in a rope of chitlins stretching back through time—a chronicle of efficiency, profit and terrible loss.