Thursday, April 28, 2005

Beauty and the Bling

I was at a medical meeting last month staying at a hotel when I indulged in one of my favorite guilty pleasures that I often enjoy while traveling…cable television. I’m not talking about CNN either. I always have this desire to watch BET. Even though I know I’m going to be disappointed, I just feel the need to tune in as if this time I’m going to have my mind broadened to some important aspect of black American culture or history that I was previously unaware of. (I know this sound illogical to anyone who has regular access to BET, but there is something about not having cable that makes me think I’m missing something).

As luck would have it, I caught an episode of Rap City, which was one of my favorite programs when I was in college. Well you can guess what came next: my mind was “broadened” to see that hip-hop had achieved new highs in commercialism, violence glorification, intoxication promotion, and sexual exploitation. The motif of the evening that was most striking was the constant references to diamonds. I’ll admit that in 1998, when Jermaine Dupri first said, “I don’t like it if it don’t gleem gleem”, I acknowledge that this was a clever way to pay homage to the beauty of fine jewelry, but I thought nothing more of it. Then over the next several years, the popularity of “bling” grew substantially in the hip-hop community, but I assumed this trend would be a short-lived fad. Wrong! As I watched Rap City in my hotel room, I could not believe how much the infatuation with diamonds had continued to grow. It was the one constant in all the videos, and a couple of the songs were exclusively about diamonds. These guys were PROUD of their jewelry, and they had a 100 new ways to express their love for bling. Brothers were describing how “icey” and “frosted” they were, or how their “wrists stay froze”. They were talking about their “grills shining like the sun”. There seemed to be endless creativity inspired by the 2 carat muse.

As I sat and watched this display, I could not help but be puzzled by how this trend had continued to grow in a culture that is largely African-American. When I think of diamonds, I think of the mineral wealth of Africa and her exploitation. I think of how the diamond and precious metal trade subsidizes terrorist armies of central and Western Africa. I think of all the little boys made to fight before they are teenagers, and the young girls who are made to serve those armies as sexual play things, and how these atrocities are largely supported by the gem and precious metal trade. It’s tragic that the corruption that is rampant throughout many African countries has prevented Africa’s mineral wealth from enriching and empowering her people. Unfortunately, the “blessing” of these diamonds has been a curse to many Africans, because greed has continued to support corrupt industry, instead of promoting the development of economic empowering industry like agriculture, manufacturing, and infrastructure development. What is unconscionable is how black people in America can be so blind as not to see that their voracious appetite for diamonds helps to sustain the oppression of their brethren across the ocean.

Okay, maybe you don’t agree that the purchasing of a diamond is hurting Africa, and that the corruption and problems of Africa go much beyond the diamond trade. My analysis of the situation in Africa is too unsophisticated you say…Only 3-4% of diamonds sold in America and Western Europe are so-called “conflict diamonds” or “blood diamonds”. I’ll grant you that may be true, but what the hell is the fascination with diamonds in the first place! They are pure status symbols. Diamond is a unique substance. It’s an incredibly hard material, an amazing heat conductor, electrical insulator, and it’s transparent to most wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. However, I don’t think people who wear diamond jewelry are thinking of the functional/industrial uses of the diamonds that they have purchased. Most of the function when used to adorn their bodies is to confer status to the individual who wears it. I know that there are those who would argue that these precious stones have some inherent beauty, but I don’t buy that. If the point was to wear beautiful jewelry, we could wear all kinds of less rare stones and beautiful metals like hematite that are inexpensive. I’m not fooled. The “beauty of a diamond” is mostly derived from how rare they are. Diamonds have “beauty”, because the one who wears the diamond is communicating to those who see it, that they possess wealth and power, and that means “beauty”.

Having wealth and power can be a good thing. One can afford to donate to charity, start businesses, hire the under-employed, support the arts, endow scholarships…the list goes on. But even if I’m self absorbed and stingy, I can still use my wealth to acquire things or do things that make me “happy”. Wealthy people can afford luxurious homes, cars, yachts, and jets. They can see the world and purchase their own secluded island in the South Pacific. If they are rich enough, they can even pay for a trip to outer space. Although not very noble, these uses of wealth at least make sense to me. But the person who purchases expensive jewelry is not only self-absorbed, but they are likely insecure. They need to have other people recognize immediately that they have wealth, so they wear the symbol of their wealth around their neck.

This seems to be what is taking place in urban culture across our nation. People want to feel special and validated, so they buy jewelry that is suppose to earn them the esteem of others. In my many weekend nights in the emergency department, I often take care of trauma patients who have been out on the town, and get assaulted, stabbed, or shot. You should see some of the jewelry these gentleman are wearing when they arrive into my trauma bay. I can assure you, most of it is anything but “beautiful”. The rings and medallions are the best… Many of these guys are working class-blue collar individuals who have clearly spent a large portion of their income on this jewelry, likely at the expense of some other important investments they could be making. As the Dr. Rev. Ray Hammond says, they are “breaking their backs to keep up their fronts”. This is indeed a sad state of affairs to be so enslaved by their desire to feel important, that they purchase things they can’t afford and don’t need to make them feel special.

But the working class are not the only ones who make a fool of themselves for status. The wealthy rappers and athletes who really help to perpetuate the popularity of expensive jewelry as a status symbol are also wearing their insecurity and ignorance around their necks. Now when I was a kid and Run DMC and Eric B. and Rakim used to wear those thick gold chain ropes, I used to be pretty impressed. I bet those “dookie” ropes cost more than $5000 a piece. But that is nothing compared to what today’s iced out rap star feels the need to purchase. One rapper actually bragged about paying a “quarter mil” for his latest acquisition in one of his songs. This is crazy, but perhaps crazier is this story from a few summers ago…Maybe you remember it:
Nets guard Stephon Marbury was robbed early yesterday when two men reached into his car at a red light and grabbed a diamond necklace he said was worth $150,000. Police said the men approached Marbury's Bentley in the Chelsea section of Manhattan at about 3:45 a.m. Marbury, who had just left a Manhattan club, was not hurt. The two suspects fled ...
Now what makes Marbury so comical is this: He plays basketball in the NBA. Everywhere he goes, people recognize him, and know he is a successful athlete and relatively wealthy man, but he feels the need to sport a $150,000 necklace on top of that to make sure every one in that Manhattan club recognized his wealth (Not to mention he was pushing a Bentley). As I said, he was wearing his insecurity and ignorance around his neck.

I feel the need to relent and not judge these guys so harshly. The working class guys, the hip-hop artists, and the athletes need my understanding more than my ridicule (incidentally, Stephon Marbury is from humble beginnings, growing up in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York). When you don’t have much in life, and have many external sources telling you that you have no value as a person, it is understandable that you seek to acquire some symbol of status when given the opportunity to help you overcome those feelings of inadequacy. I feel bad for these guys, because not only has life treated them badly, but now that life has given them a little reprieve and given them some modest or substantial income, they spend it on something of little inherent value to mask the residual insecurity that can not be shaken from their days of less means.

Well, before I get off my diamond soap box, let me just explore one last stronghold of American culture. (If you are not a mechanic, rapper, or professional athlete and I have not alienated you yet, hold on…). It seems odd to me that in the year 2005, many (not all) women still expect to receive diamond rings from men when marriage is proposed. The middle class rule of thumb is that a man is supposed to spend 2 months of his salary on a ring for his bride to be. I have made it clear that I think De Beers oppresses third world countries (indirectly, of course) and that these jewels are mere status symbols with little actual functional value (you can’t drive your diamond ring to work), so it should not come as a surprise that I don't understand this practice of giving diamonds as signs of engagement. Let me qualify this by saying, I think wearing a symbol of engagement is a wonderful idea if someone chooses to do so, but it does not have to come at the expense of other important investments a couple should be making. I know some might argue that the diamond is a symbol of a man’s pledge to this woman, but if I want to do something symbolic to honor my fiancée, why not do something that serves some function. I could take that $5000 and donate it in her name to some worthy cause, or I could just give the money to her and say: “go crazy, baby”. I’m not against men (or women) for that matter expressing their undying love with substantial displays of financial sacrifice or giving, I just don’t understand why that expression is universally a functionless symbol of status instead of a more functional investment. (Aside: For anyone saying “that’s why he’s still single”, maybe you are right. But I’d rather be a principled idealist than a compromised romantic any day.)

Well I guess at this point, it is clear how I feel about diamonds, but if my efforts to persuade you that they are valueless status symbols that oppress little African boys and girls has not convinced you, let me leave you with this little assignment. Do a google search on “making diamonds”. (This is an interesting site) For those of you who forgot from your days in science class, diamond is not an element like gold or silver, it’s merely carbon that has experience extremely high temperature and pressure under the earth’s surface. How long do you think it will be before the scientists of the world perfect a process for making inexpensive diamonds? I’m anxious for that day. I can’t wait to see how much “beauty” is ascribed to a diamond when kids are playing with them like marbles.

Maybe I will persuade no one that these little gems are bad news. It seems impossible to stop the ubiquitous media influence to be a good consumer, but maybe a few words on a random blog can inspire someone to take a minute to think about what is truly valuable, what is truly worthwhile, and what its truly beautiful. I leave you with this quote:
Whatever is in any way beautiful hath its source of beauty in itself, and is complete in itself; praise forms no part of it. So it is none the worse nor better for being praised.
-Marcus Aurelius Antonius-

Your brother in the search for true beauty,

Anyone who wants to read more about the effects that the diamond trade has had in Africa might want to check out the book: Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World's Most Precious Stones by Greg Campbell (I only read a few pages myself, but I did not need much convincing…)


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