Review: Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional! : Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America

24 03 2011

I’ve included a review I did of this book a few years back (for a class) since I mention it in one of my responses.

Book Review:  Robin D. G. Kelley’s Yo Mama’s Disfunktional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America

Robin D. G. Kelley’s Yo Mama’s Disfunktional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America offers a black feminist critique of the policies, theories, and practices that have resulted in the conditions of urban America at present.  Using a feminist approach with a Marxist slant, Kelley introduces his argument by calling attention to doctrines like the Moynihan Report. The social and political practices informed by these ways of perceiving culture in America are, at best, problematic or negligent; at worst, they result in a number of the persistent misconceptions that center on the country’s urban population.  Ten years since the publication of the first edition of the book, Kelley addresses the continued relevance of his arguments, originally posed in the nineties.  Though there are a few places where Kelley’s references to statistics are unclear, the book provides thought-provoking reading for any one seeking connections between the nation’s cultural myths, political climate, and governmental influence. Kelley critiques how social theorists and policymakers like Moynihan have concocted a sort of “Yo Mama” joke on the urban population.  Kelley posits that classifying as pathological the condition of urban African Americans is tantamount to an attack on urban mothers.

Kelly’s opening chapter addresses the impact of the boom in social sciences which spawned the field of ethnography.  That “science” of ethnography, in turn has provided society with most of the prevailing stereotypes about black America.  In efforts to authenticate and define the black experience, Kelley demonstrates that many of these “scientists” used little more than hasty generalizations to come to some very widespread conclusions about urban Americans.  He also points out that many urban Americans represent groups other than African American; none of these experiences can be accurately essentialized into singular representations of a cultural existence.  Kelley cautions against the social sciences’ blanket diagnosis (single mothers in broken situations) for problems facing the urban community and also points out those scientists’ failure to accurately depict the multi-faceted representations of the lives of inner-city African Americans.  After addressing what’s been said about the mothers, he then moves on to the youth.

In his second chapter “Looking to Get Paid”, Kelley’s focus extends to younger generations who are challenged to compete in a broken economic system.  Adopting incarceration over recreation, public funding policies left youth seeking out their own entrepreneurial footholds, one which would also either keep those youth either in or out of trouble.  Kelley’s discussion of profitable recreation is realistic, but seems to hold a more grim view than may be necessary, particular in light of his discussion of gender and recreation, as it were.  While Kelley acknowledge male-dominance in the options of sports, Hip Hop arts (included rapping, breakdancing, graffiti art), and gangs, he has little imagination in regards to what female-associated forms of play would prompt financial endeavors.  Beyond double-dutch, which is often competitive but in no way financially lucrative, sex seems to be the only other occupation he observes as offering young females an opportunity to work and enjoy the work.  Actually, in light of his identification of play as highly gender-specialized, the beauty industry would seem to me to be an excellent offering of such profitable play.  Part of what Kelley points out will help youth to more effectively transition into work is the reassignment and redistribution of public space.  Instead of punitive means of directing recreation, Kelley suggests pointing youth towards the development of their talents and skills.

After addressing these generations—mothers and fathers, sons and daughters—Kelley’s second half of the book looks at the development of the ideas that have shaped and inform many of the struggles of urban Americans.  In the third chapter, he critiques the self-help mentality of the Washingtonian moral uplift programs that absolve the political system of responsibility to minority citizens. A primary fault of this type of thinking, says Kelley, is that it fails to apply the same scrutiny to financial help offered to wealthy citizens and corporations, an argument of subsidies versus welfare.  Furthermore, as a result of African Americans (and other minorities) hindered ability to accumulate wealth (in terms of home ownership and the resultant collateral) due to discriminatory housing practices that persisted into the late 1990s, Kelley argues that assistance should be comparably available to all who need it to gain financial footing.  Reaching further back than this idea of moral uplift, the fourth chapter addresses neo-Enlightenment liberals’ attacks on identity politics (politics related to struggles of class, gender, sex, race, and so on) as weakening to universal views of the Marxist class struggle.  Theorists attacking identity politics fail to understand that class is largely determined by identifying characteristics and cannot, therefore, be overlooked, an idea which leads to the summation of his argument:  we must all work together to eliminate all types of oppression, both through work within the community, through labor unions, through higher education, though unified fronts of work and community, and through the elimination of environmental justice.

At the epilogue, Kelley makes a departure from the theoretical to the fictional.  Now, instead of looking back, he is looking forward, into October 2097.  Inspired by Edward Bellamy’s “utopian socialist novel” Looking Backward, “Looking B(l)ackward” takes the reader into the possible future, when urban Americans have been modified so that they may deal with “the rest of society” without experiencing some sort of severe meltdown brought on by the over stimulation of too much intellectual activity.  Though Kelley’s sense of hilarity keeps the audience from missing his sense of satire, the implications of the epilogue clearly demonstrate the magnitude of culture that would be lost if only the essentializing and misrepresenting images were permitted access to the discussion.

Kelley’s representation of culture moves readers away from trying to identify one prevailing sense of what it means to be American in an urban setting.  It is an inclusive perspective that challenges limited notions of both identity and class.  It encourages an understanding of both fact and fiction about urban America from multilateral perspectives.  As well, Kelley demonstrates that the issues faced by these underrepresented classes illuminate threats to the American society at large. He repeats several times the slogan of the Black Women’s United Front:  “ABOLITION OF EVERY POSSIBILITY OF OPPRESSION & EXPLOITATION” (102).  The slogan becomes a refrain for the kind of work that must be done to overcome the position in which the present culture wars place those living in urban America.

Yo Mama’s Disfunktional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. Robin D. G. Kelley. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008. 226 pages. $18.00




One response

30 03 2011

Thanks for posting this! I want to read this book because I have been thinking about the “Washingtonian moral uplift programs” and their relationship to the deployment and denial of certain literacies in my 19th century normal school research. Absolving the political system of responsibility for a system that is discriminatory and duplicitous about that discrimination at the same time seems to begin at this point and, at first glance, seems to use literacy and the withholding of literacy as a means of controlling access to the political system. Clearly this could refer to the fake literacy tests after the turn of the century, but it also is part of the debate over the nature of schooling for African Americans in the U. S., a debate that started even before the famous Washington-Du Bois debate. I have been bumping up against how literacy was provided in the normal schools, and how the goal was for those trained teachers to act as literacy providers in the “literacy crisis” of the last decades of the century. But—and this will probably be important once I get it figured out—the provision of literacy, which I will define as the ability to use and produce oral and written artifacts in a cultural context—is crucial in some situations and useless in others. (The Literacy Myth again!”) The factors that determine who gets to be literate, who gets to use that literacy, and who is actually victimized by that literacy is part of a complex system. Some of my normal school students, both black and white, use the literate practices around the school setting to get work, pay, and in some cases, a better life. For some, the price of that better life is an alienation from an identity that is represented to them as inferior. And some use the literacy as “discourse transgressors,” a phrase suggested to me by Dr. Serviss, to have limited agency and even to push back against the discourse with literate practices.
I’m working on it, anyway, and this sounds like a good book to read to pull me out of the nineteenth century, as is the material we discuss in class. We need to have that coffee I owe you and talk when there is time. Or sooner.
Thanks again for sharing this.

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