Ghettonation: Dispatches from America's Culture War

Ghettonation: Dispatches from America's Culture War

by Cora Daniels


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From the Introduction:

n. (Merriam-Webster dictionary) Italian, from Venetian dialect ghèto island where Jews were forced to live; literally, foundry (located on the island), from ghetàr, to cast; from Latin jactare to throw
1: a quarter of a city in which Jews were formerly required to live
a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live, especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure
an isolated group ghetto b: a situation that resembles a ghetto especially in conferring inferior status or limiting opportunity stuck in daytime TV’s ghetto

ghet-to adj. (twenty-first-century everyday parlance)
1a: behavior that makes you want to say “Huh?” b: actions that seem to go against basic home training and common sense
2: used to describe something with inferior status or limited opportunity. Usually used with “so.” That’s so ghetto> ; He’s so ghetto>
3: a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live, especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure.
4: common misusage: authentic, Black, keepin’ it real

As current and all-consuming as “ghetto” is in these days of gold teeth, weaves (blond and red), Pepsi-filled baby bottles, and babymamas, ghetto has a long history. The original ghetto was in the Jewish quarter of Venice, a Catholic city. Before it became the Jewish quarter, this area contained an iron foundry or ghèto, hence the name. These days, ghetto no longer refers to where you live, but to how you live. It is a mindset, and not limited to a class or a race. Some things are worth repeating: ghetto is not limited to a class or a race. Ghetto is found in the heart of the nation’s inner cities as well as the heart of the nation’s most cherished suburbs; among those too young to understand (we hope) and those old enough to know better; in little white houses, and all the way to the White House; in corporate corridors, Ivy League havens, and, of course, Hollywood. More devastating, ghetto is also packaged in the form of music, TV, books, and movies, and then sold around the world. Bottom line: ghetto is contagious, and no one is immune, no matter how much we like to suck our teeth and shake our heads at what we think is only happening someplace else…

From an award-winning journalist and cultural commentator comes a provocative examination of the impact of “ghetto” mores, attitudes, and lifestyles on urban communities and American culture in general.

Cora Daniels takes on one of the most explosive issues in our country today in this thoughtful critique of America’s embrace of a ghetto persona that demeans women, devalues education, celebrates the worst African American stereotypes, and contributes to the destruction of civil peace. Her investigation exposes the central role of corporate America in exploiting the idea of ghetto-ness as a hip cultural idiom, despite its disturbing ramifications, as a means of making money. She showcases Black rappers raised in privileged families who have taken on the ghetto persona and sold millions of albums, and non-Black celebrities, such as Paris Hilton, who have adopted ghetto attitudes and styles in pursuit of attention and notoriety. She explores, as well, her own relationship to the ghetto and the ways in which she is both part of and outside the Ghettonation.

Infused with humor and entertaining asides—including lists of events and people that the author nominates for the Ghetto Hall of Fame, and a short section written entirely in ghetto slang—Ghettonation is a timely and engrossing report on a controversial social phenomenon. Like Bill Cosby’s infamous, much-discussed comments about the problems within the Black community today, it is sure to trigger widespread interest and heated debate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767922401
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 09/09/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Cora Daniels is an award-winning journalist. Her work has been published in Fortune, the New York Times, Essence, O: The Oprah Magazine, USA Today, Heart & Soul, FSB: Fortune Small Business, and Savoy. She has also been a staff writer at Fortune and an editor at Working Mother, and she is currently a contributing writer for Essence. Daniels has served as a commentator on CNN, CNBC, BET, NPR, ABC News, and Charlie Rose. As an author Daniels has been called “dynamic,” “perceptive,” and “a powerful voice from the younger generation.” Her first book, Black Power Inc., was dubbed “thought provoking” by the Washington Post and “a must read” by Black Issues Book Review. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and daughter.

Read an Excerpt

Dispatches from America's Culture War

By Cora Daniels
Harlem Moon
Copyright © 2008 Cora Daniels
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780767922401


The thought police were at it again.

Around my way the thought police is the block party. Not the organized neighborhood celebration that makes appearances in Hollywood films attempting to depict an idealized New York. But par–tay over here, par–tay over there. The kind of unruliness that comes from alcohol and a boomin’ system that can make any block a party.

A par–tay is never that hard to find because every ghetto vehicle has a system. If only one thing works in the ride it will be the radio, souped up and customized so that it no longer resembles a car radio but should be in a club, and thus has to appropriately be called “a system.” I was tailgating a Mr. Softee truck one Friday night to remind my thirtysomething bones what it was like to go out again and shower myself in the music from its system. Welcome to my ghetto.

As the ice cream truck snaked its way through Brooklyn, Lil’ Jon’s trademark “Okaaaaaay” screamed from its speakers. You could almost see the entire block bounce. If that wasn’t enough to put the sighting in the ghetto hall of fame, the truck had been turned into a booty billboard onwheels. Literally. Instead of pictures of Good Humor choices, the enterprising driver had sold his truck sides and turned the vehicle into one of those mobile advertisements. This Mr. Softee was a moving billboard for Apple Bottoms—Nelly’s clothing line to celebrate the, uh, curves of a woman’s body.

Nelly held a Miss Apple Bottoms contest on VH1 when he launched the clothing line a few years ago. The show attracted young women from across the country eager to appear on TV butt–first so that Nelly and his entourage could rate their booties. Most of the women didn’t even get their faces on TV as the camera stayed at hip level. It gets worse. Here’s how VH1 actually described the show in its official press release:

Multiplatinum artist Nelly is not alone in his love of a woman’s curves. But few urban entrepreneurs have taken their affections to the next level quite the way St. Louis representer Cornell Haynes has. Following tightly on the heels of the runaway success of his men’s line, Vokal, Nelly wanted to capitalize on the momentum and still kick it up another notch yet with his women’s line, Applebottoms. So the idea of a Vegas blowout launch after a six–city tour culling six finalists with serious junk in their respective trunks from across the land of Oh Bootyful, for Spacious Thighs was born.

(Inside)Out: Nelly: The Search for Miss Applebottoms follows the minds and bulging eyes behind the coast–to–coast scouring for a regular girl with an irregular waist–to–ass ratio. Thousands of women came out to show him what they was working with but only one would win. VH1 followed Nelly and his Team Lunatics cohorts as they scoped every jiggle, bounce and strut that swings their way to find the new “booty” behind their new clothing line. From the Big Apple to the City of Angels and everywhere in between, from the show to the after–party to the hotel lobby, from bushels of apples to applesauce, it’s all there. VH1 gives you an all–access pass for ass. Enjoy.

Enough said.

Except if that is how they are addressing journalists, can you imagine the level of pathology and disrespect that is slung when the network interacts with the young knuckleheads they are actually trying to get to watch these shows? Nothing exists in a vacuum, either. VH1 is owned by Viacom, one of the largest media companies in the nation. The corporate giant is large enough to own MTV, BET (they made Bob Johnson a billionaire), Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and Paramount Pictures. When you digest all that they are working with, then there really cannot ever be enough said about that all–access pass for ass, can there?

So the Mr. Softee, with the system, was covered in larger–than–life pictures of arched backs and booty as it greeted kids lined up for their soft serve. (It was still an ice cream truck after all.) Par–tay.

The system is so important because music is the most effective weapon of the thought police. There is a point at which if you play music loud enough, you will not be able to do anything—including thinking—but bop your head along. The guys with the system know that threshold instinctually. It is as if allowing the block to get stirred up by its own thoughts is a danger that can’t be allowed.

One of the methods of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad got little attention amid the revelations of the pyramids of naked prisoners, hooded detainees, simulated sex acts, and The Leash; it was “exposure to loud music.” Really. Comb through military reports and you’ll find that it wasn’t the first time this tactic had been used. Loud music was also a favorite form of torture used at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. At Abu Ghraib, Iraqi prisoner Khraisan al–Abally testified that while he was bound and blindfolded, he was also kicked, forced to stare at a strobe light, and blasted with “very loud rubbish music.” “I thought I was going to lose my mind,” said al–Abally, a burly thirty–nine–year–old man whose wrists were still scarred from plastic cuffs more than a month after his release. (1)

So I was at home trying not to lose my mind when the par–tay outside began. Even my bones were vibrating to Fat Joe’s “Lean Back” (the album version with every explicit lyric intact, of course). My husband bobbed past me on his way to the kitchen. Our minds tried to resist even as our heads still bounced, in unison. As I struggled to write, to read the paper, to make my “to–do lists” even, I started thinking about the meaning of ghetto.

The easiest thing to believe is that ghetto is a class. That makes it easy for us to distance ourselves, talk about those people and them. Because no matter how low on the economic totem pole we actually are, ghetto is those folks underneath us.

But ghetto is not a class but a mind–set. And that is the problem. Not every have–not is ghetto and not all the haves are ghetto–free. Ghetto is a mind–set that we all have to fight to get out of.

Because ghetto is a state of mind, it is hard to define but easy to recognize. A good friend of mine is in a mixed marriage. Their differences have nothing to do with her southern African American roots and his Caribbean ancestry. Nor do they stem from the fact that he was raised in Europe and she in the States. Instead she complains to me all the time that she is in a mixed marriage because in her mind her husband is ghetto and she’s, well, not. Without explanation I just accept that she is probably right.

At its heart, though, ghetto is thinking shortterm instead of longterm. Today is the most important because tomorrow doesn’t matter.

During my travels I didn’t want to discover that this was true. I failed. “Sometime it feels like I got to get mine right now or it ain’t gonna be get,” said Eric, (*) sitting on the stoop outside his Brooklyn home a few blocks from mine. It is the middle of the day and the sixteen–year–old should be in school. His face looks tired and much older than it is. I broke eye contact to try to hide my surprise when he told me his age. He is constantly rhyming under his breath, grooving to a beat that only he hears. There is no telling how long Eric will continue to sit on his stoop: I suspect it ain’t gonna be get, then.

Not everyone I talked to on the corners expressed such hopelessness. But enough did. The shrinks and self–esteem repairmen will tell you that sometimes if you hear something enough it doesn’t really matter anymore if it isn’t true. It becomes truth. And Madison Avenue has certainly put its cash behind the tomorrow–doesn’t–matter message.

In 2005 Reebok came up with a flashy ad campaign dubbed “I am what I am.” With apparently no memory of Popeye, the hard–to–miss billboards instead displayed stunning portraits of celebrities and athletes spouting irreverent one–line comments that tried to express more who these people are than what they are selling. My favorite of the series showcased Mark Zupan, a tattooed quadriplegic athlete who was the center of the documentary Murderball about the rough sport of wheelchair rugby. Zupan is shown in a custom–made wheelchair that looked dark and dangerous and bad–ass, his billboard quote reading: “I play wheelchair rugby. What’s the worst that can happen—I break my neck? Again?” Sure, the I–can–do–anything spirit was uplifting. But I liked the dark humor. I saw the billboard only once—when I went to the Reebok Web site. The “I am what I am” billboard that I saw most often around my way featured 50 Cent with his stale, trying to be badass frown. His quote, displayed against a police fingerprint sheet, read: “Where I’m from there is no Plan B. So take advantage of today because tomorrow is not promised.” Of course, how could we forget?

The truth about thinking short–term is that it has consequences. The first time I met Sanjay, a teenager from Bed–Stuy, I thought his name was Mohamed. That is what the high school sophomore, whose parents had emigrated from India, is called around my ghetto. Immediately, Sanjay didn’t seem to fit in, and it wasn’t that he was a minority in a predominantly Black neighborhood. At first I thought that maybe he was just the class nerd—bearing demarcations that my grown–up eyes couldn’t see anymore. True, Sanjay is completely out–of–date from head to toe in his choice of clothes. His no–name jeans cling too tight on his skinny frame, the polar opposite of the baggy denim we are used to seeing hanging off teenage butts. In fact, his jeans reminded me of the dark straight–cut boys Lee’s that my mom used to get from the discount store and hem up herself for me to wear when the rest of the girls in my class were sporting formfitting designer duds like Jordache and Sassoon. Tucked into Sanjay’s jeans is usually a short–sleeve plaid shirt with a collar—something I somehow don’t think Jay–Z had in mind when he called for button–ups. His sneakers also stood out not so much because they were name–brand rip–offs but because the white leather was worn and dingy as if he had plucked the shoes from the lamppost graveyard.

Back in the day in neighborhoods like mine, sneakers, worn to their last thread, weren’t retired to the trash. Instead we tied the shoelaces together and flung the sneakers up to the sky to catch on the lamppost on the corners, or even better the telephone wires that hung over the street. I’m not really sure if we were marking our territory or trying to give our sneakers respect with such a showy burial or both. Officially my parents wouldn’t allow us to participate in the ghetto ritual, but that didn’t stop my brother and me from wasting one afternoon desperately trying to throw our matching Nike rip–offs high enough to reach the post. It is harder than it looks and not much fun.

Seeing Sanjay’s worn soles, my memory hit rewind and it all came flooding back. Donna Summer even started spinning in my head. (Didn’t you know? Sound tracks to memories are always old–school.) During my ghetto journeys I discovered that the tradition has been updated. I was walking in Lower Manhattan exploring the streets in the heart of NYU territory. There, amid the elegant town houses bordering Washington Square Park, I spotted two cans of Red Bull—tied together and hanging from a lamppost. (Ghetto.) It was a classic case of the remake being worse than the original.

Despite his tight jeans, plaid shirts, and aging footwear, Sanjay’s language and swagger is 100 percent hip–hop. Out of sight—heard talking on the phone, for instance—he fits in completely with his peers and surroundings. Still, something just didn’t feel right. Then he stumbled into my kitchen one day while I was watching TV. His eyes got as big as the satellite dish on the roof of my house. I was watching Law & Order on whatever cable station it happened to be on at the moment. After the signature L&O “ba–dump” he asked meekly: “Is this cable?” It was as if he had just sighted a UFO. And it clicked. I knew why Sanjay stood out so much in the neighborhood. He, and his family, were actually living within their means. So his was a life without cable, no new sneakers, no cell phone, no bling bling, no sound system even. In Ghettonation, living within your means just isn’t done. There is no need to when you think tomorrow doesn’t matter. Not living within your means has become such a blatant problem that even hip–hop has noticed. Missy rhymes in her aptly titled track “Wake Up”: “I got the Martin Luther King fever / Ima feed yah what yah teacher need to preach yah / It’s time to get serious.” “Wake Up” goes on to be the equivalent of a lyrical slap upside the head with its chorus: “If you don’t gotta gun (it’s alright) / If yah makin’ legal money, (it’s alright …) …" Too bad “Wake Up” was never released as a single, because folks surely need the slap. (It’s not alright.)

Make no mistake, this issue is not just an urban phenomenon. (Thinking that such behavior exists only in neighborhoods like my Bed–Stuy is, well, ghetto.) My first journalism gig was at a newspaper on the Jersey Shore. The Shore has had its ups and downs. So when I arrived there were definitely some seedy areas to its boardwalk landscape—but nothing that couldn’t be made to shine again with a little gentrified TLC. Deal, New Jersey, was one of these little Shore towns wedged between some of the aging neglect that had already been brought back to shining. Every block was filled with huge mint–condition homes with immaculate front lawns. When I would go to take the police blotter for Deal, the cops were almost embarrassed that they wore uniforms when all they could hand over was at most a stolen bicycle incident. At Deal, in contrast to some of its more poverty–stricken neighbors back then, like the cities of Asbury Park and Long Branch, weeks would go by during which there was nothing at all for the police blotter to report. It was the most uneventful 1.2 square miles I had ever experienced. As a proud city girl, honestly I was a little freaked out by its peacefulness. It seemed unnatural to see nothing out of place …ever. There was never a toy left on a lawn or even a garbage can untidy. Nothing ever seemed to be off, not even something little. (In the official 2000 Census count 1,070 people lived in Deal—535 men, and 535 women. Really!) Instead it was just huge home, next to huge home, next to huge home.

Then I heard the rumors. The cops actually told me them first. Surrounding towns were eager to spread the gossip, too. The deal with Deal was that those big houses were supposedly empty inside. The rumor was that people would spend so much of their savings buying their big houses that they couldn’t afford to fill them with furniture. Deal had a reputation for being all for show. (Ghetto.) Of course, without going into every house there was no way to separate fact from fiction. But the median price of a home in Deal was a little over $1 million while the median household income was only about $58,000. Do the math. It is a good indication that some folks were eating on the floor. (2) The rumor alone, though, was enough to make the point that ghetto had no boundaries. And the city girl in me was eager to believe the rumor since it was the only thing that seemed to make sense of the Stepford–perfect picture.

What makes the ghetto mentality of living for today so disturbing is not just that tomorrow doesn’t matter, but that maybe tomorrow could be worse.

From the Hardcover edition.


Excerpted from Ghettonation by Cora Daniels Copyright © 2008 by Cora Daniels. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

The issues of Ghettonation are ripe for spirited discussion. These questions are meant to inspire critical thinking about the self-destructive mind-set that is crippling American society. If your book club would like to speak to the author, either online or by phone, when it meets to discuss Ghettonation, send an email to with “book club” in the subject line.

1. What does ghetto mean to you?

2. Did your definition change after reading the book? Do you agree with the author’s assessment that ghetto is a mind-set? What do you think of her argument that this mind-set crosses race, class, and generational lines?

3. The author included many scenes from her own life as one of the “characters.” Although her intention was not to create a memoir, at times the book is very personal. Did you like how she mixed journalism with memoir? Did it add to her argument that we are all in this struggle together?

4. Who or what would you add to the running “That’s So Ghetto” lists that the author includes in the book? Are there examples that the author included that you disagree with?

5. The author’s writing style is very conversational and some have enjoyed the humor. But the book is filled with a lot of research, including hundreds of interviews conducted over several years. What anecdote, statistic, or revelation in the book were you most surprised by?

6. Have you ever had a ghetto moment? What is the danger of being numb to ghetto or not seeing ghetto in all its forms?

7. The author’s goal was to expose what she feels is a self-destructive mind-set. She calls it “ghetto” because as a journalist that is the word that she found is most commonly used. But given the history of the word ghetto, what is the fallout of using the word to describe such a negative mind-set? Does the race of the person using the word make a difference?

8. How is the author’s argument different from Bill Cosby’s infamous speech at the NAACP dinner?

9. At the end of the book the author concludes that it is time for the ghetto mind-set to “die.” Do you agree?

10. The author suggests the first step to wiping out unacceptable behavior that has become acceptable is for each of us to raise our expectations–of ourselves and of others. She has said that is how you gradually raise the bar. Do you think that will help? What is the next step? What can you do in your own community?

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