From Celebrity to Celebratory
Ghetto Celebrity: Searching for My Father in Me
By Donnell Alexander
288 pages; $22.95
The Best of Emerge Magazine
Edited by George E. Curry
665 pages; $19.95
Book review by Darryl Wellington
Darryl Wellington, a journalist and poet, has written for the Washington Postís Book World and The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. His e-mail address is DarrylWellington464@hotmail.com.
The worst of Donnell Alexander's "Ghetto Celebrity" comes, unfortunately, right at the beginning. Alexander's obnoxious introduction to this memoir of his writing career, which spanned culture, rap and sports, may have some readers dismissing the book as hopelessly sophomoric. It's total "I'm a ghetto player with incredible sexual prowess, therefore dig me" pandering--easy, sexist and embarrassing. The book opens with a four-page "Invisible Man"-influenced lament that "ghetto" culture and denizens aren't taken seriously by the majority. If Alexander reconsidered his over-the-top, supermacho introduction more carefully, he might realize it's part of the problem.
If you don't give up on the book then and there, "Ghetto Celebrity" becomes an intermittently enjoyable read--by an author with a smart style and interesting, if self-indulgent, observations. It's the 37-year-old Alexander's prematurely written autobiography, beginning with his childhood in Ohio and detailing his on-again, off-again relationship with his deadbeat dad. Alexander attends Fresno State University in California and writes for the student paper. His ability to add a soulful "ghetto" flavor to mundane, wanna-be-hip publications leads to a career in the California alternative press, then as a hip-hop journalist, and finally as a sportswriter for ESPN The Magazine. Along the way, Alexander draws a parallel between his father's career as a literal pimp and his own as a hustler of words. The like-father-like-son analogy veers in and out of focus; by the end of the book, it by and large has been dropped.
An aura of juvenility haunts the whole of "Ghetto Celebrity." The author is too much the braggart, and too defensive regarding his ghetto identity. "Don't ever fuckin' tell me I ain't ghetto," he writes. The book is finally too much like a "Beverly Hills Cop" movie, with Eddie Murphy playing the streetwise chameleon who one ups the goofy white establishment. It doesn't help that the ghetto identity Alexander glorifies is often a borderline stereotype and every time he receives oral sex from a white woman the prose breaks into paeans of ecstasy.
There is a deeper story of self-identity to be told here, but it isn't. The failure to satisfactorily develop the father-son analogy seems related to Alexander's own skimpy self-analysis. He's too busy having a good time. On the other hand, Alexander has a real gift for quick-witted writing, loaded with stinging phrases. He's an authentic, rap-influenced stylist. "Homeboy's pupils were so dilated that passing birds considered making nests in his eye sockets," he writes, describing drug addiction in an early college piece. In fact, for all its braggadocio, "Ghetto Celebrity" doesn't reflect that Alexander is an exceptional magazine writer. His pieces for The Source and Might magazine remain highlights in the short history of hip-hop journalism.
But a part of the problem is that "Ghetto Celebrity" reads like an extended sequence of magazine sidebars. It's written in short, flashy paragraphs. Continuity is given short shrift, and excessive cleverness begins to pall. What works in one context doesn't necessarily carry to another. His magazine journalism was pithy, aggressive and provoking, but the book doesn't go the distance.
Emerge magazine lasted from October 1989 to June 2000. During its lifespan, Emerge distinguished itself as the premier African American newsmagazine and garnered more than 40 national journalism awards. It's sad to compare Emerge with today's newsstand magazines directed at a black readership. The old staples, Ebony, Essence and Jet, are middle-class dinosaurs. The newer magazines glutting the market are usually youth-oriented and more interested in the music industry, Hollywood and fashion trends than news. Now Emerge's former editor in chief, George E. Curry, has collected the best pieces from the remarkable magazine's history.
"The Best of Emerge" is a huge compilation, but it holds one's interest from cover to cover. Reading through the whole is like journeying down memory lane, a time capsule of major news that affected black Americans throughout the '90s. Most important, Emerge focused on substance, not sensationalism.
In Lori S. Robinson's July/August 1995 story for the magazine, "Environmental Racism--Fighting Dirty," she wrote, "Blacks are exposed to dangerous chemicals in the workplace at two to three times the rate of Whites. And the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Washington reports that 49 percent of Black children in urban areas suffer lead poisoning--from paint, incinerators or lead smelters--compared to 16 percent of White children."
Robinson's story is a model of the Emerge style. On one level, it's a human-interest story, featuring characters and specific tales of life in environmentally hazardous areas. The piece also gives black Americans the big picture. The racial angle, the focus of the story, isn't egregiously sensationalized, but at the same time it isn't soft-pedaled.
Two quibbles: Emerge was known for its flashy covers. It would have been nice if a selection had been reproduced full size and in full color. Secondly, the book isn't arranged chronologically and lacks an index. This makes it inconvenient for readers hoping to research specific areas of interest.
In his introduction, Curry writes, "the senior management team of Emerge is making final arrangements to make sure that Emerge re-emerges, probably before the year is out." Thank God. Emerge was responsible journalism for all of us, all races, creeds and colors, in the suburbs, in the country, in the cities and in the ghettos too.