My 18-year-old niece, Carlie, tried to bond with me recently by showing me her new outfits for my approval. Everything was see-through, thigh-high or skin-tight. Not only was I shocked, I was frightened. It was all I could do not to spank her, the way you might swat a child caught playing with a loaded gun, because she seemed dangerously unconscious about the power of her magnificent breasts and legs. Instead, I subjected her to a lecture on date rape and street harassment that she sat through patiently. When I took all my nieces and nephews out for movies and pizza that evening, I actually made her change from her booty-cooler shorts to something with more coverage. Carlie's a sweet girl, so she didn't get mad at me. She thinks I'm funny. "I'll just wear them tomorrow," she said with sly good humor.
The thing is, Carlie is a good girl. She wants to be a math teacher. We know all her friends, she's responsible, she happily spends most of her time with family, and she's in no hurry to date much. When she does, she prefers her dates to hang at the house with her, watching videos and being abused by her horde of smart-mouthed aunts. But can she really dress "like that," immerse herself in hip-hop culture and still be a good girl, i.e. a girl who's not going to screw up her life? It's against this personal backdrop that I've watched the gathering storm over the status of hip-hop star Lauryn Hill in the black community.
Hill is young black womanhood writ large. She's only 23, but her sultry alto, enormous talent and furious drive have made her the female artist of her generation. Her debut solo album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," won every award you can think of -- ethnic, mainstream and international -- and went triple platinum. "Miseducation," which she single-handedly wrote and produced, is both a dead-on critique of negative behaviors in the black community and a love letter to it. An accomplished movie and TV actress, songwriter, producer and video director, Hill is firmly in control of her own career.
And there's more. On leave from Columbia University, she's also created the Refugee Project for inner-city kids in her spare time. She still lives with her revered parents in the New Jersey home she grew up in. A fervent Christian whose every utterance and song lyric proclaim her belief in God, she simultaneously exudes New Age grooviness ("Cause karma, karma, karma comes back to you hard" goes one line of "Miseducation") and old-time religion ("You can't hold God's people back that long" thunders the next).
But Hill, the rhapsodic Christian proselytizer, is not everybody's idea of a black female role model. For one thing, she often dresses hoochie-style. Worse, she has two out-of-wedlock children with her live-in boyfriend, Rohan Marley (one of Bob's many children). Hill may embody the best of young black womanhood to some people, but to others she's just a hypocrite, or worse, a danger to the community's endangered morals with her hip-hop halo.
The calls for her head crescendoed recently with the June 2 television broadcast of the Essence Awards. In a tearful acceptance speech, Hill said: "I want to let young people know that it is not a burden to love Him, and to represent Him, and to be who you are, as fly and as hot and as whatever, and to still love God and to serve Him. It's not a contradiction."
Radio call-in shows, letter-to-the-editor pages and, especially, online venues were deluged by the debate over Hill. Lee Bailey, founder and publisher of the Electronic Urban Report (EUR), said, "I was totally surprised by the outpouring. We received 300-400 e-mails before we stopped counting and it's still coming in." Indeed, the EUR ran a special section of the Hill e-mails. As one disgusted e-mailer wrote, "Lauryn's lifestyle doesn't match her sermons. If she's gonna shack up (and in her parents' home, no less) with her man and her two babies, that's her business, but Lauryn's crossing the line when she gets on every available TV screen talking about how 'holy' she is. God is not in that mess." Another e-mailer wrote, "If Lauryn Hill weren't famous, but instead worked the register at [McDonald's], black folks would be the first people saying what a poor role model she is and how she needs to get her life together." Still another fulminated: "If most of these people we 'hero worship' weren't celebrities, we'd probably be dogging them for some of their lifestyle choices. It makes it difficult to explain the difference to my son." Many e-mailers supported Hill, but it was the fulminators who grabbed the most attention.
Clearly, some of Hill's detractors are mere player-haters. "True," Bailey says, "but she really has touched a nerve. The undercurrent has been there for some time."
Of course, the black community is on a collision course with itself, judging from a recent Newsweek poll. The poll found that 55 percent of black Americans admire the young, gifted and black Hill. But asked what they consider a "big problem," 78 percent mentioned teenage girls having children, 63 percent talked about "people not following moral and religious values" and 51 percent said that "too many parents never [get] married."
The depth and breadth of the criticism of Hill made me take it seriously. Plus, I had to admit that I shared some of Hill's critics' reservations. The hardcore black Protestantism many of us were raised on, with its many prohibitions regarding dress, deportment and lifestyle, makes Hill hard to accept. Distant as I am from my own Southern Baptist holy-dance-in-the-aisle roots, I was shocked when I accompanied a white friend to his Baptist church and saw women in sleeveless dresses. Godless yuppie that I've become, I still thought: HARLOTS! Gospel music is my only remaining tie to the religion of my youth, yet I can only listen to it, because watching today's performances, with their choreography and hip-hoppiness, makes me afraid I'm going to have to duck lightning bolts. The junior choir I sang in at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in north St. Louis wouldn't allow us to even clap our hands or sway from side to side, because it was too much like dancing. Everything was simple then. Makeup? Whore. Pants? Lesbian. Unwed motherhood? Damned.
It was that very backwardness that helped drive me from my religion, of course. But I'm like the veteran doctors, lawyers and soldiers who won't let anything change because they want everyone else to have to suffer the way they did. Lauryn Hill's newfangled black spirituality is just too damned easy. At least I had the grace to lie, feel guilty and sneak around when I fornicated or dressed like a ho. Hill writes songs about it.
"People are uneasy, more confused these days," says Bailey. "Before, things were more black-and-white. Even if you didn't live up to them, you knew what the rules were. Now, kids look at Lauryn Hill and think, 'If it works for her, why won't it work for me?' And that's dangerous."
Indeed, the controversy over Hill is particularly charged, given that the black community has long struggled with irresponsible and ill-advised teenage pregnancy. Lately, there have been heartening declines in the black teen birth rate, and to me, anything that endangers that progress is dangerous.
But is what Hill represents really that simple? Would I really despair if Carlie had two "illegitimate" children, regardless of the circumstances? No, I wouldn't -- not if she first became a level-headed, take-charge success, living in quiet monogamy with a man who worships her and their children, as well as her parents. And some of the black religious community is starting to develop a more nuanced response to the issues of female sexuality and unwed motherhood as represented by Hill. The Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, says, "It's not just the babies. It's having children when you're not prepared. When you have no psychological or economic viability, no support systems, no interest from the father. Other than that, each person has to deal with their own conscience, their own morality."
Veazey (who is a senior citizen, by the way) and his controversial organization are spearheading the Black Church Initiative, which helps African-American clergy and laity address teenage pregnancy, sex education and reproductive health, subjects long taboo in the black church. Those taboos go a long way in explaining the devastation wrought on the black community by prostate cancer, AIDS, teen pregnancy, STDs and the like. The organization will hold its third Sexuality Summit in Washington next month.
Lee Eric Smith, author of "Is There Sex In Heaven?" and a freelance minister in the Christian New Thought movement, also thinks there's a change in black spirituality afoot, a needed one. "You learn the rules in church, then life happens," he says. "People look at Hill, she's prospering, she's doing so many things that are not of the church, but she's not eaten up with guilt, she's not shy about her choices and sincerity resonates from her. It's confusing. She's an unwed mother, she's not supposed to invoke God. She raps but she doesn't glamorize violence. She glamorizes God. People are beginning to realize that what they've been taught may not be what works."
Its not just New Agers who see, and embrace, this trend toward "have it your way" Christianity. Dr. Delores Williams is the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York and the author of the book "Sisters in the Wilderness." She believes that Hill is performing a healing ministry for young black women and pointing them to a deeper spirituality. "There's no 'yes/no' to Lauryn Hill's fitness as a role model," says Williams. "You have to look at her whole life, not just the babies, who, by the way, she is pointing to God and a moral, Christian life. She has support from a good man, a loving family, independent means. It's un-Christian, the attitude of judgment so many are taking."
It's dizzying, all these mutually exclusive reliances on Christian dogma. Who's right? Rev. Veazey chuckles. "For sure, the church is not the same one I grew up in," he says. "Most ministers now are young guys, seminary trained. They have broader views. The church is still the moral force in our community, but 'moral' has been modified. Black ministers have to understand that while they absolutely have to talk about abstinence, they also have to talk about responsible sexuality. Contraceptives, AIDS, pregnancy, abortion. Some will hear the abstinence talk, some won't, but we have to minister to the whole community, not just the ones who don't question. Going into the new millennium, 'Thou Shalt Not' just won't play."
But beyond the controversy among ministers, I wondered how Hill's life choices resound in the wider black community. I think we probably don't give young folk enough credit. "I'd rather try to write songs like her," one slouching teen at the mall told me. "I don't need no babies right now. Now if I had her money ..."
Joan Morgan, author of "When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist," recognizes that there's a double standard between the way the country views the McDonald's counter-girl's illegitimate babies and Hill's, but she doesn't think that's the point. "They're celebrities, not role models. There is a difference." Morgan argues that we have to stop looking to people in their 20s for guidance, that if we continue to interpret social phenomena through the prism of celebrity worship, we train the very people we're trying to protect to gauge their own behavior that way. "You can't put the weight of the black community on Lauryn. There was no Lauryn Hill when I was in high school, yet me and my two friends were the only ones who didn't get pregnant. Lauryn's a positive influence, if anything. Teenagers see her with her man by her side and solid ground under her feet. Why can't that be the influence she has?"
Judging by Carlie, it is. She praised "Miseducation" when I brought up Hill's name. "I like the way all her songs have a meaning," she says. "She doesn't come fake like those other rappers, she writes all her own stuff." But she scoffed at the notion of admiring her personally. "I don't even know her." Whom does she admire? A teacher she's been close to since elementary school (and who figures prominently in Carlie's casual conversation). She also admires her aunt. Me, a daily influence I never thought about. Carlie respects specifics about my life I would never have given her credit for noticing.
"People play on that [Hill's lifestyle], just so they can blame somebody for their own problems. Way before Lauryn Hill, girls were having babies and some of them will keep on having them, too. It ain't about Lauryn Hill," my wise hoochie-mama niece observes, between videos and pager beeps.
I might have known that, if I had read the last line of that Newsweek poll: Only 41 percent of blacks think the lack of "successful blacks as role models" is a big problem. They're much more concerned about crime, drugs and jobs to worry about the things that occupy the pundits.