Thursday, February 26, 2004

Money Green Only

Meanwhile in today's Sun-Times Mary Mitchell's turned her "somebody-done-some-black-woman-wrong" song toward the upscale State Street boutique G'bani. The store, owned by African American couple B.J. G'bani and Trevian Kutti, put together a unique merchandising campaign this month: "Whites Only" and "Colored Only" window displays.

Ms. Mitchell wrote, "... (S)tanding on the sidewalk, peeping at the shoes, I knew the truth. The offensive window display was being used to sell shoes."

Wow! I knew that and I'm not even a journalist!

More from Ms. Mitchell: "G'bani's marketing strategy is edgy and slick, but it is also irreverent and disrespectful to the people who died so a different generation of black people could sell toe teasers on the Gold Coast."

That's the conundrum with merchandising and advertising. There is an artistic merit to all advertising and merchandising that gets lost in translation when it is infused with commerce. This is particularly offensive to some when advertising incorporates imagery or visuals that have a shocking emotional value, like G'Bani's take on Jim Crow signage.

I seem to remember Accenture using sound bites from Dr. Martin Luther King in Super Bowl ads a few years back. Those bites are not public domain- the King family oversees tight control over Dr. King's image and writings. I'm sure they were handsomely compensated for the use of the footage that ran in the ad. Is the allowing of Dr. King's words to market an accounting firm any worse than taking hurtful imagery and selling shoes like G'bani?

Ms. Mitchell's column is much a much-needed voice for the African American community in this city. Over the past eight years she has written her column Ms. Mitchell has brought to light countless examples of the continued prejudice against African Americans. However she doesn't do it enough. Far too often her columns take on the embittered voice of a woman who hasn't forgotten or forgiven that her man ran out on her, which clouds her judgment sometimes and frustrates her readers with cries that she's a "one-issue" woman airing her own dirty laundry out in public.

I think Ms. Mitchell's barking up the wrong tree here. For all her righteous indignation about G'bani's window displays and her accurate assessment that racism is still alive and well in America, G'bani could be held up as an example of what Dr. King fought for. It's clientele is diverse- if well-heeled (pun intended)- and it's minority ownership in a traditionally white populated neighborhood is testament that we don't live in times of legalized segregation anymore. The images that disturbed Ms. Mitchell and many of her readers are over forty years old now. Their hurt should diminish and heal with time, if we allow it.

I remember that the Chicago Public Schools didn't implement desegregated busing until 1977. I know because I was one of the first schoolkids on the CTA buses heading to the North Side for a better chance at a quality education. But I've also learned not to emotionally fly off the handle when I'm brought face-to-face with imagery I don't agree with, like the G'bani window displays. Maybe Mary Mitchell could afford to be a bit pragmatic.

Then again, maybe Ms. Mitchell's angry because she can't afford the shoes G'bani sells on a Sun-Times columnist salary.

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