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Rosa Parks inspired generations of artists, too

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To measure the impact of Rosa Parks, try this: See if you can find a segment of high art or popular culture in which she hasn't served as an inspiration.

Her landmark role in the civil rights movement has been interpreted by musicians, poets, authors, filmmakers and modern artists.

She wasn't always happy with the references made to her. The Outkast song, "Rosa Parks," prompted a lawsuit on her behalf, while jokes about her in the movie "Barbershop" spurred a testy debate.

But that's what happens when you're a pop-culture figure. People can't stop talking about you.

"As Americans, we all recognize the importance of what she's done," said Cecilia Donohue, chair of Madonna University's department of English and communication arts. "It's going to be remembered and interpreted by all sorts of people."

But Parks won't be referred to in the Cartoon Network's "The Boondocks," which will be part of the "Adult Swim" block.

In light of her passing, humorous references to Parks have been deleted from the TV version of the edgy comic strip, according to a Cartoon Network spokesperson.

Parks was played by Angela Bassett in a TV movie about her life, "The Rosa Parks Story" (2002). The icon and the actress both attended a special Detroit screening.

Countless documentaries, like the acclaimed PBS series "Eyes on the Prize" (1987), have included footage of Parks. She even appeared as herself on the CBS drama "Touched by an Angel" in an episode dealing with racism.

Detroit artist Tyree Guyton decorated a bus in her honor. Composers have written tributes, like Michael Daugherty's "Rosa Parks Boulevard" and Hannibal Lokumbe's "Dear Mrs. Parks," which had its world premiere with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in February.

The Neville Brothers also have a song, "Sister Rosa," on their 1989 album, "Yellow Moon."

Her presence looms large on the cultural landscape, which is fitting, say those who've studied her legacy.

"When people reach that level of impact, that's what happens," said Dr. Melba Joyce Boyd, a professor in Wayne State University's Department of Africana Studies. "It's because what she did got to the core of what was wrong with American society."

Like other icons, Parks' name was appropriated by artists and performers whether she liked it or not.

Earlier this year, a lengthy and complicated lawsuit was settled concerning the use of her name in an Outkast song, "Rosa Parks," from the hip-hop duo's 1998 album. Although the song isn't about Parks, the chorus includes the lines, " Hush that fuss, everybody move to the back of the bus."

As part of the suit's resolution, more tributes to Parks will be produced, including an educational TV special and a CD featuring songs by Outkast and other artists.

In 2003, Parks stayed away from the NAACP Image Awards because she was upset about comments made in "Barbershop," one of the nominated films.

In the comedy, a character played by Cedric the Entertainer complains about Parks becoming famous for doing nothing but sitting down.

Boyd said the scene was a reflection of the character's ignorance, not Parks' legacy.

"I think her historical presence transcended any foolishness," she said. "The response to him in `Barbershop' was the same it would be in any barbershop. You should just shut up, you don't know what you're talking about."

Some positive things came out of discussions generated by the "Barbershop" flap, according to Khary Kimani Turner, founder of Detroit's Black Bottom Collective band.

"I think the good thing was it opened up the door to a lot of discussion between the civil rights generation and the hip-hop generation," said Turner, who is in his 30s.

Turner also thinks the controversy was "indicative of what can happen when we allow ourselves to get too far removed from the legacy of a giant like Rosa Parks."


(c) 2005, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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