Nov. 4, 2005 — -- She's written a book called "How to Rent a Negro" and created a satirical Web site, www.rent-a-negro.com. But damali ayo insists she is not a racist and is not making fun of white people.
"I've had people who've accused me of being a racist, and it's just not true," said the Portland, Ore.-based African-American conceptual artist (who believes her name looks best in lowercase letters). "People have accused me of making fun of white people. What I'm really trying to do is create real dialogue, start conversation between people who have read the book or are just curious."
Ayo recently finished a nationwide tour supporting "How to Rent a Negro," which was released this past July. The book -- a satirical guide for both non-African-Americans (renters) and African-Americans (rentals) -- is based on the mock service Web site ayo set up in 2003, mostly as a response to a lifetime of experiences, mostly at social functions, where she believed she was treated like an object or an educational tool, without her permission.
The site attracted attention then because some viewers did not initially realize it was a satirical service. Ayo did not tell online viewers outright about the satirical nature of the site, which was complete with various sales pitches, a tongue-in-cheek autobiography, mock customer comments, rental rates, and ordering and payment information. The site also offered to take all major credit cards. Some people sent e-mails to the site offering their services.
Ayo has recalled curious strangers coming up to her, running fingers through her braided locks, and saying things like, "You must not have to brush your hair in the morning," or "How do you get your hair like that?" or "How do you wash your hair?" Or ayo recalls, she would often be the only person of color or one of a few African-Americans at a party and strangers would make a point of asking her about her opinion about O.J. Simpson or news stories with racial overtones, like the Hurricane Katrina fiasco.
"People ask me about things like that all the time," ayo said. "Or whenever a famous black person is involved in a crime, people trick to pick my brain."
Or sometimes friends would use ayo as a rental service to prove they are not prejudiced, saying, "See, I'm not prejudiced. I have black friends. Look at damali."
Most African-Americans, ayo says, can relate to her experiences and the Web site and guide gives "renters" tips on how to get the maximum service out of "renting a negro" and "rentals" tips on how to provide their services. But seriously, ayo says she intends to press people's buttons, bring attention to racial insensitivity and provoke conversations on topics that would otherwise be ignored or bypassed out of fear. She also wants to spark conversation between people who would otherwise not talk at all -- or wouldn't talk about race.
So far, ayo says, based on the response she received on her tour, she is pleased with the results of "How to Rent a Negro."
"People have been really into it," said ayo. "Many black people have come up to me and said it really sums up a lot of their experiences. I just hope it makes people take another look at the way they approach people."
Rent-a-negro.com was reminiscent of another satire site that emerged in 2002, www.blackpeopleloveus.com. It featured pictures of a white couple, "Sally and Johnny," laughing and joking around with African-Americans and celebrating their "understanding" of black culture.
Some critics have accused ayo of making light of a racial insensitivity and capitalizing on the problem to promote her career as an artist. Some have said the book and site come to close to making a parody of the tragic legacy of slavery -- still a fresh wound for many African-Americans.
But sometimes satire and humor may be the best -- or only -- way to set the stage for conversation, especially with potentially explosive topics.
"With questions about the use of humor in race, you always have to take in consideration the context in which it's used," said Mark Naison, a professor of African-American studies at Fordham University in Bronx, N.Y. "I use humor in my multiracial class to help create a community level where people feel comfortable talking with one another about race. But I made sure to ask my class permission to use humor. I never use humor without permission."
Naison, who wrote "White Boy: A Memoir," a book about his odyssey from growing up Jewish in Brooklyn to his longtime teaching post at the African-American studies department at Fordham University, has also dabbled in satirical Web sites. He had his own site called www.brooklynwhiteboy.com, which was intended to answer those who wondered about his qualifications to teach black studies.
"'White boy' was meant to be an in-your-face to those who told me that I was crazy to be teaching an African-American studies course or feared that I would get hurt doing it," Naison said. "I'm from the community and I live in the community. Race can make people do ridiculous things and sometimes black people can be just as ridiculous about race as white people."
Some critics have argued that ayo is overreacting to some of her experiences. The only way some people can learn about the black experience, some maintain, is by asking questions about opinions on topics like Katrina, Simpson or about hair care.
"To that, I would ask people have they tried to develop a relationship with the person of color before trying to use them as an informational source?" ayo said. "If we ask people we don't know to provide a service, we customarily pay them."
Still, ayo says the response to "How to Rent a Negro" makes her hopeful about new dialogue about race in our country. She is considering writing a follow-up that will focus on the conversations she has had while touring and promoting the book.
Maybe "How to Rent a Negro" will leave many customers satisfied.
"A Day in the Life of ..." is a monthly column that profiles unsung heroes, interesting personalities, the not-so-famous and the sometimes infamous. If there is someone you believe should be profiled in "A Day in the Life of ...", e-mail Bryan Robinson at Bryan.Robinson@abc.com.