Among the many emails and phone calls I've received about the Imus mess, the following note from my sister, Janice Miller, was definitely among the most provocative.
Years ago I attended a reception with a few other ladies from my church. The local band of middle-aged African American men were playing an old tune that I recall my parents used to listen to.
Although I didn't remember the words, I knew the melody, so I grabbed the hand of a friend who loves to dance as much as I do, and we cut a couple of steps. I noticed the lead vocalist watching us, probably because we were the only two people on the dance floor. As we connected eye to eye, it seemed like he was having fun singing to me:
She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
She likes the theater and never comes late
She never bothers with people she'd hate
... until he came to the refrain, That's why the lady is a tramp.
The singer and I shared an awkward moment. He dropped his eyes and I left the floor. We were having such lighthearted fun that the insult that repeated throughout this beloved classic as the hook unexpectedly stung us both.
Just like Imus' slur against the scholar-athletes of Rutgers University didn't make sense, this song doesn't make sense. In every stanza, Frankie seems to describe a decent woman. She doesn't gamble, she's punctual, she doesn't gossip, and despite the fact that she's broke, she's not a golddigger. Yet he still slaps us with that line, That's why the lady is a tramp.
When I first heard about Imus' slur against Rutgers' basketball team, I focused more on the word 'nappy' and was less than moved. Poor taste, yes. Ain't yo business 'bout our hair, yes. But ho?! YIKES!
With all due respect to people who sell their bodies for sex (prostitutes) and those who freely give away their bodies for sex (whores), women who behave in these ways have, throughout time, found themselves in extreme categories that carry plenty of negative connotations. These words should never be used casually, and never on women who haven't proclaimed themselves as such.
My heart felt it when Frank Sinatra and writers Rodgers and Hart forced the singer to call me a tramp. I still remember how degrading it felt, even though it was 10-15 years ago.
I value dignity highly, and name calling ruins that for everyone involved. Let's protect it in ourselves and each other.