Recently, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons published an open letter to CNN anchor Don Lemon accusing him of being a racial sellout for co-signing one of Bill O'Reilly's commentaries criticizing the behavior of low-income blacks.
Mr. Simmons, the co-founder of Def Jam, found himself celebrated for putting the "self-hating" Mr. Lemon in his place.
The cheers had barely subsided when Mr. Simmons found himself accused of something a lot worse than echoing conservative complaints about black males and their sagging trousers. This week, mounting criticism forced Mr. Simmons to remove a nasty video from YouTube that parodied Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman as the star of a 19th-century sex tape.
In the video, the woman known in the history books as "the American Moses" commits a sex act with a plantation master to secure safe passage for runaway slaves. One of the most iconic women in American history is stripped of her guile, her faith and her uncompromising dignity so that one of the richest men in hip-hop could get a cheap laugh.
Earlier this year, Lil Wayne recorded a verse on Atlanta-based rapper Future's "Karate Chop" demo that compared the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till to a woman's pulverized vagina. Once the Till family complained about the affront to Emmett's memory, Lil Wayne's corporate sponsors began dropping him faster than he could apologize.
Irreverence about civil rights history and its icons isn't confined to hip-hop. In the 2004 movie comedy "Barber Shop 2," Cedric the Entertainer's character Eddie denigrates another 1955 milestone and its heroine.
"Rosa Parks ain't do nothing but sat her black [butt] down," Eddie said of the moment that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white man as stipulated by Jim Crow.
In the first installment of "Barber Shop," Eddie accused Martin Luther King Jr. of being a "ho" and complained that people used his annual holiday for sexual liaisons rather than thoughtful reflection.
Cedric's character also mocked the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a racial ambulance chaser, which did not endear the film's black director or stars to the veteran civil rights leader or his colleague, the Rev. Al Sharpton. Both protest leaders called for a boycott of the film if the offensive references weren't removed. The jokes stayed. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton eventually moved on to weightier issues.
Representatives of Rosa Parks' estate also tried to get a reference to their client removed from the title of a song on Outkast's 1998 album "Aquemini," though it looked more like an attempted shakedown by greedy lawyers than a legitimate beef about her legacy.
Today, "Lee Daniels' 'The Butler'" hits big screens across America. It will probably provide the biggest crop of black Oscar contenders in years, beginning with stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. "The Butler" is far from a perfect film, but it is a necessary one given the amnesia that afflicts many of those born after the civil rights movement clocked its greatest achievements.
It is interesting that rapper David Banner, a pillar of modern hip-hop, has a small but pivotal role in "The Butler" as the father of Cecil Gaines, Mr. Whitaker's character. Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz trade some of their pop gravitas for small roles, too, giving the project the kind of street cred that completely eluded "The Help."
Still, it will be impossible for "The Butler" to totally escape facile comparisons to "The Help" given that both movies are about working-class blacks who are expected to be passive, subservient and loyal, even to the detriment of their families.
One could argue that the only way to get a movie about the black experience made in Hollywood is to make it about slavery ("Django Unchained," "12 Years a Slave," "Amistad," "Glory") or dignified service to annoying white people ("The Help, "The Butler," "Driving Miss Daisy").
Even Spike Lee, with his track record as a gritty auteur, has to go to the studios with cap in hand to make his films. One has to go outside of the Hollywood system to produce a brilliant film like "Fruitvale Station."
Still, "The Butler" approaches the civil rights era with much-needed dignity and thoughtfulness, which is missing from much of its portrayal in pop culture. Fifty years after the March on Washington, we still have a lot of ground to cover, but it isn't as bad as it used to be. Maybe we'll even have enough moral authority to stop the next cynic from making a video dissing Harriet Tubman.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.