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The hottest rumor making the rounds is that entertainment and fashion impresario Russell Simmons wants to be the new president of the NAACP. As the story goes, Simmons is under consideration because he will know how to engage young people in political activity. If there is any credence to the rumor, his wealth is surely part of the consideration as well.

We are told that any effort to appeal to young black people today isnít possible without a reference to hip hop. Hip hop fashion and hip hop politics are already part of the pop culture lingo. Thanks to Simmons we now have the Hip Hop Reader program.

Americans of all ages and races are far less literate than they ought to be. Any initiative that encourages them to pick up a book should be encouraged. There is nothing wrong with reaching the youth where they live, but it is up to adults to tell them how to behave, what is appropriate and to value things they may not like or activities they may not want to take part in.

That ethos was accepted for generations. Now we are told that hip hop is the only way to talk to teens and that no effort should be made to broaden their outlook. Hip Hop Reader is the latest example of that misguided belief system.

Hip Hop Readers are encouraged to read in order to get stuff, stuff like Fubu clothes, Xbox video game systems, and Phat Farm clothes. Apparently the point of reading is to get more clothes and games. Hip Hop Reader makes no attempt to give young people a reason to read other than getting more stuff, something that teens need no encouragement to do.

The books on the Hip Hop Readers list are assessed a certain number of points. The more points earned through reading, the more stuff earned. The recommended authors list is quite diverse, including Angela Davis, Chinua Achebe, Malcolm X, William Shakespeare, DMX, Tupac Shakur and Maya Angelou.

Out of sixty-five recommended books on the web site, only eleven are written by women. It isnít good for girls or boys to think that women are less important or less intelligent than men. If Hip Hop Readers creates misogynistic boys or self hating girls it isnít doing anyone any good.

Simmons has won supporters who ought to know better than to ally themselves with an educational program that barely pretends to educate anyone. The Hip Hop Reader Leadership Council includes Dr. Howard Dodson, executive director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the world renowned research library. If Dr. Dodson wants to be part of this project he should point out that women write as many books as men do.

But Simmonsí money talks, and the result is that organizations like the Schomburg Center and the National Urban League, who ought to say no thanks, have happily hopped on the bandwagon of middle brow taste and capitulation to what children think they need.

If Hip Hop reader Simmons heads the NAACP we have nothing good to look forward to. We will have hip hop political summits, only men will have anything to say, and everyone will get a brand new Xbox. It is difficult to be a naysayer concerning a project with seemingly worthy goals. So instead of complaining about giving kids more opportunities to watch Grand Theft Auto, a few suggestions may be in order.

Simmons is a very wealthy man and there are a slew of corporate sponsors for Hip Hop Readers. They might consider anteing up for something more useful than Fubu. Perhaps the Hip Hop Readers can become Hip Hop theater goers, or maybe Hip Hop public speakers. Hip hop writing comes to mind. Maybe hip hoppers can learn foreign languages.

The participating high schools in the Hip Hop Readers program are all in New York City. Why not expose students to the many cultural opportunities unique to New York City life. They might learn to read music. On the other hand, that could be the death of hip hop. Never mind.

The education of young black people canít be left to music entrepreneurs. The black community has always had educators. They must speak up about Hip Hop Reader and any other well meaning but misguided efforts made on behalf of the youth. Someone has to point out adults must lead children, which among other things should mean that video game equipment canít be a prize for reading books. Responsible adults shouldnít run for cover because people and organizations who ought to know better have succumbed to the urge to rub shoulders with or perhaps profit from a connection with Simmons.

It is true that money rules, but we donít have to believe it is the be all and end all of how we live our lives or educate our children. The value of the Hip Hop Readers program should not be assumed because a rich man is its founder, nor should the post of NAACP president be given to him without question.

Philanthropy has its place, and if Mr. Simmons wants to play that role he must take a back seat to those with the expertise necessary to develop an educational program. If he isnít willing to do that, he should return to what he does best and leave education to educators.

Margaret Kimberleyís Freedom Rider column appears weekly in   Ms. Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City.  She can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected]. You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at


February 17 2005
Issue 126

is published every Thursday.

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