Uber-shock jock Don Imus got in trouble this week in the U.S. for repugnant comments about “nappy-headed hos” during a college basketball final. Ritual humiliation, breast-beating, and televised apology followed: “I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person but I said a bad thing.” It might be better, Don, if someone said that about you instead of saying it yourself.

I mean it about ritual. There’s an eternal, recurrent quality to this type of uproar over black-white relations in the U.S. It must be the most irresoluble social conflict in history, given the resources available to defuse it and the time there’s been to do so.

From an African-American standpoint, no matter what progress they make — TV anchors, secretaries of state, national icons — it’s always there, as though the era of slavery was never quite surpassed. Here were Don Imus and his boorish retainers asserting their continuing mastery, especially sexual, over the former slave class.

It helped me understand something I find puzzling: why black performers often sing their nation’s anthems so stirringly: Marvin Gaye’s Star-Spangled Banner at an NBA all-star game. Ray Charles’s America the Beautiful. It’s because for them the national promise is still achingly unfulfilled, they yearn to believe it remains possible.

Marvin Gaye sang to only a drum, laidback and inside himself, as if “O say can you see” was a real question: Can you see it yet? Tell me if you can, but also ironic, knowing it can’t be seen and those with clenched jaws and hands over hearts who act as if it’s visible — I can see you pretending! He was ironic and wistful, deceived but hopeful.

Or Ray Charles, starting with the third verse: “O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife/ Who more than self their country loved” rather than the ahistorical, nature-based, “O beautiful for spacious skies/ For amber waves of grain.”

Their versions aren’t far from Martin Luther King standing before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, saying he had a dream, rather than a firm reality. The looming presence of Lincoln over his shoulder during that speech was essential; it was the unfulfilled promise in massive stone.

I happened to be in Washington, D.C., last weekend, Easter, for the cherry blossoms (mostly under a light dusting of snow, which was poignant, in a Marvin Gaye-Ray Charles kind of way). My cousin, architect Shari Orenstein, says the first time she visited there she felt she was in Disney World and I think she’s exactly right. America was Disneyland long before Disney, who got the idea of overblown, simplified images from the country itself. It surely seemed necessary to somehow mould a unified nation out of many colonies and groups, with little in common, who needed some common basis to support expansion across a continent and beyond.

So you mythicize your omniscient founding fathers and your unique mission to spread freedom, which are embodied in the Washington, Lincoln etc. monuments and everything else in D.C.

Walt Disney just took the cue and mythified the rest of America, like the small-town main street of Disney World in Orlando. (I was once on a Disney cruise and it was a relief to see that even Disney couldn’t Disneyfy the Atlantic Ocean.) Cartoons were the perfect medium for him: simple, emotive, easily understood. Disney was inevitable in America, a land of monumental images in which it falls to some, like its former slaves, to point out the icons are still mainly cartoons.

Don Imus is a bit mythic too. He looks less human than hewn, which happens when you gain fame and success in a society so bloated with wealth and self-absorbed. It’s almost impossible to retain any normalcy or humility; you’ve become monumental yourself when you make it there and can’t avoid saying things that imply you’re godlike. Your apologies ring hollow, like Zeus saying “sorry” from Olympus.

It’s hard enough for people who get famous in Canada to anchor themselves in reality. As usual, the satirical website, The Onion, probably put it best with one of its unmythic ordinary American Voices: “Cut Imus some slack. The man is under immense pressure to be an asshole every single morning.”


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.