Rosa and Yogi
It’s tough being famous, I guess, and tougher still when your name becomes short-hand for an event, an idea, an activity or an image. Dean Martin? Crooning swinger. John Wayne? Frontier hero. Alexander Graham Bell? The telephone. Davy Crocket? The Alamo. Monica Lewinsky? Never mind.
Rosa Parks? Civil Rights courage, and the escape from "the back of the bus." That "back of the bus" connection was mined by a hip-hop group that decided to call one of its songs "Rosa Parks," even though the song was not about civil rights, but rather about…well, the things most hip-hop songs seem to be about. A group of Rosa Parks’ relatives were mightily incensed on her behalf (in her mid-nineties, Rosa is blissfully beyond getting incensed these days) and have been pursuing a law suit against the band claiming that Ms. Parks’ reputation has been damaged by its connection to a foul-mouthed rap rant. They have variously asked for millions and even billions to make the hurt go away. This situation has turned into a multiple layer controversy, with some members of the family declaring that it is the lawsuit, not the rap song, that exploits Rosa Parks, while others argue that Rosa valued her dignity and reputation greatly, and would support the lawsuit if she were able.
We can leave the greedy Parks clan to work things out among themselves, as the courts eventually come to their senses and send the lawsuit to where all bad lawsuits go. When one’s name becomes a symbol, it belongs to everyone and anyone, to use or misuse as they choose. Images and endorsements are in a separate category: you can’t open a Rosa Park Bus Line or use her picture to sell water fountains without her permission. But "Rosa Parks" the name and the symbol have entered our culture, and thus has become part of how we communicate ideas. There is nothing wrong with using the name in that way.
It can certainly be hard for families and the individual, if he or she is living and aware, to see such a symbol be used by perceived adversaries, or for a purpose that the famous individual would never approve. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Caroline Kennedy actually tried to get President Bush to stop invoking the name of her father, who as a former President and current American icon can be invoked by conservatives and liberals alike without any permission from Hyannisport. We feel Caroline’s pain, but no wrong was done to her or her father. The great and famous belong to all of us, and while we have an obligation to treat them with respect, we do not have an obligation to make their relatives happy.
The hip-hop group, an African-American group called OutKast, has claimed that it used Parks’ name as a tribute, to remind their listeners of her legacy. Mmmm..okay, if they say so. Whether they are being truthful or not, the fact is that the song’s title is far, far more likely to provoke a curious listener to find out what Rosa Parks did to make her famous than it is to link her name in perpetuity to hip-hop values. The song simply helps keep Rosa Parks famous, and maintains her status as a cultural symbol. In the long run, the memory of Rosa Parks will be served, not damaged.
Which brings us to Yogi Berra, who is suing TBS because of a promotion for its cooled-down re-runs of HBO’s "Sex in the City." A tongue-in-cheek multiple choice quiz about the meaning of the gag word "yogasm" (correct answer: "C. What Samantha has with a guy from yoga class.") included as option B, "Sex with Yogi Berra." Yogi says he is humiliated and embarrassed, and wants 10 million dollars.
This is the same Yogi Berra (funny-looking 1950s Hall of Fame catcher and baseball manager) who has nurtured a reputation for quotes that would embarrass Homer Simpson ("Nobody goes there any more; it’s too crowded.") and who was immortalized in 60s cartoons as "Yogi Bear." Yogi Berra, in his late seventies and no babe magnet in his prime, is about as likely a candidate to have his reputation morphed into that of a sex machine by a cable commercial as the Reverend Wildmon. All the ad did is use Yogi’s name (frankly, the fact that he has a funny name has probably been the biggest reason his fame has outlasted other baseball stars from the same era) and help keep him famous in the process.
Yogi should recall that he used to have a sense of humor ("The future ain’t what it used to be"; "Never answer an anonymous letter!") and send TBS a heartfelt thank-you.