Congressman Rangel Hanging Out at the Charlie Parker Festival
But is it a good thing For the Democrats …Or Harlem?
Charlie Rangel was grinning like a Cheshire cat as the election returns rolled in and revealed that he had won 51% of the vote in a five way race for the Democratic nomination to become a candidate for the Congressional seat that he has held for the last forty years. His closest rival, Adam Clayton Powell IV, garnered a mere 23% of the vote, the rest was distributed among the lesser lights in the race. While beat reporters covering New York politics are scratching their heads seeking an explanation of this spectacular victory by the beleaguered twenty term Congressman, longtime Harlemites, such as this writer, were not in the least surprised.
Some of the Downtown reporters seemed genuinely befuddled, as they reiterated the various charges leveled against Congressman Rangel by the Congressional Ethics Committee the morning after, and wondered out loud how the people of Harlem could vote for such a man. But Charlie Rangel has been model public servant to his community, as much as it is possible to be in a predatory capitalist society where elections are polluted by dirty money, thus people who live in this predominately black and Hispanic village in upper Manhattan see the matter differently.
First of all, we are acutely aware of the fact that the constitutionally mandated presumption of innocence is often tossed out the window when a black man is accused of a crime. And we are also aware that there are Republican Racist and garden variety reactionaries who are out to target any progressive legislator…and especially so if they happen to be black.
Beyond that, the torrent of racist invective and fact free propaganda designed to stoke the paranoia of white Americans about what this black President with the Arab name is really up to, has begun to agitate our paranoia and with far more justification! Many folk uptown are skeptical of the motives and veracity of those leveling the charges against Mr. Rangel; certain that those who are howling the loudest are guilty of far greater sins.
Then there are many people uptown in black and tan Manhattan who feel that Charlie Rangel represents the best that Harlem culture and community has produced. His life’s story is a representative anecdote of the American Dream, a true rags to richest story with all the color and drama of romance novel. He was raised by a struggling working class single mother in Harlem. He once told me how he was a gang leader in Harlem as a teenager. He served in the Korean War and saw combat in one of the bloodiest encounters of the war. Was honorably discharged with battle decorations, and attended college on the G.I. Bill. He became a lawyer and won the seat of the legendary Congressman Adam Clayton, who had been a power in the Congress until he became embroiled in a scandal and ended up wounded, just like Rangel today.
One might well ask,” how did Mr. Rangel acquire such elegant manners and eloquent speech,” and where did get that fine sense of style that has made him the best dressed man in the House Of Representatives. I think it all comes from having grown up in Harlem when he did. I have talked to many people who came to Harlem when Rangel was coming of age, and they all tell me that they didn’t show their faces on Seventh Avenue unless they were dressed to kill.
Charlie Rangel worked as the night clerk in the Teresa Hotel on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street. The fact that downtown hotels refused to accommodate black people, whatever their stature, meant that all the beautiful, affluent, famous, black people from all over the world resided there. Located just around the corner from the legendary Apollo theater, many world famous performing artists made the Teresa their home during their stint.
Thus we know that during the years he was forming his identity as a young man Charlie had a bird’s eye view of the nightly doings of some of the most elegant, stylish and sophisticated people in the world. These were black people who had succeeded in a wide variety of fields even with all of the racial barriers erected against them. There can be but little doubt that Rangel found his role models in this fascinating cultural milieu, and the elegance of his style and manner, complimented by the surpassing eloquence of his speech, evokes that halcyon era in Harlem. Hence many Harlemites support him because he is a sterling example of the best and brightest products of Harlem culture and community.
Star Time In Harlem
Congressman Rangel Signing Autographs
Congressman Rangel and Theater Producer Woody King
Watching him at the recent Charlie Parker Festival in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, he seemed part old school hipster, benevolent potentate, and part wise elder. But he is, in fact, a very skilled player in the field of politics. And it is all too obvious that he still loves being the Congressman from Harlem, as his face lights up with an incandescent smile each time he is approached by an admiring constituent. The fact that it is a well practiced smile which the Congressman can call up at will makes it no less effective; although I suspect someone with more modest gifts in the thespian’s art would not fare so well.
In any case the way people cued up to shake hands with the Congressman, or pose for pictures, testified to the reverence with which he is held by many in Harlem. And most strongly believe that he is another great black man the whites wish to destroy. Hence, to them, he is the victim of a plot by right-wing racists.
While virtually all Harlemites hold these general attitudes and suspicions, those of us who pay close attention to the machinations of politics understand that as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Charlie was President Obama’s plumber, assigned to plug the loop holes that provide billions in tax relief to the wealthiest American families and giant multi-national corporations. This tax policy, initiated under George W. Bush, has ravished the US treasury, destabilized the home owning middle class, and further impoverished the working class.
Changing this tax code to a more equitable one that benefits the average American is heresy to the filthy rich free market crowd, so they targeted Rangel and hopes to use his improprieties to discredit the Democratic controlled Congress and arrest the progress of the President’s agenda for the nation. That’s why the Republicans will be quite happy to have Mr. Rangel returning to Washington for a public trial in the House.
They could not have wished for a more desirable villain to divert the public’s attention from the whackos Republicans are running for Congress. A radical liberal black Democrat from Harlem, who does not obey the tax laws he writes, yet votes for every tax and spend bill that comes on the house floor, is the lunatic right’s notion of a wet dream. And they will spend millions of dirty corporate dollars to make the most of it!
In view of this reality it might have been best if Charlie had retired from the House; he is, after all, eighty years old! He has a long and honorable record of service, and I am tempted to conclude that he would have enhanced that honor had he retired and spared his party the ordeal of having to choose between the burdens of defending him, or the embarrassment of having to abandon him. As the cheers go up outside my window celebrating our venerable Congressman’s victory…I find myself wondering if it is a pyrrhic victory alas. Perhaps we have cut off our noses to spite our face, won the battle but will loose the war….and our dreams may yet go up in flames.
Text and pictures by: Playthell Benjamin
Harlem, New York
September 15, 2010