Sharpton Walks with the High and Mighty…Yet Retains the Common Touch
Keeping it Real!
Last Saturday morning, I attended the regular weekly meeting of the National Action Network, an organization headed by the dynamic Reverend Al Sharpton. Headquarted in the heart of Harlem, its meeting hall is just up the block from where my son Samori learned to play the game of baseball in the Harlem Little League on Saturday mornings. The distinguished Harlem writer, editor, and teacher Herb Boyd was one the his earliest coaches that taught him to play the game – now Samori is writing an important book about the disappearance of African American athletes in Major League baseball. The National Action Movement’s headquarters is also just a hop skip and jump from the world renowned Dance Theater of Harlem, The Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture, and the Harlem School of the Arts.
This is an area of New York City where important things are happening; where seeds are being planted that will grow into strong fruitful trees and beautiful flowers. With the proper motivation and cultivation they regularly sprout up from the grass roots. And it is here, deep in the grass roots, that Rev. Al has cast his anchor. NAN’s headquarters is unpretentious, a store front with a nice size auditorium that can hold a few hundred people. There is a loudspeaker out front so that people waiting to catch the cross town bus, or getting off at that stop, cannot help but hear the speeches inside.
I wasn’t quite sure where the building was because the last time I had been to a NAN meeting they were still over on 5th Avenue. But it was no matter; from the moment I stepped off the bus at Lennox Avenue I could hear the sound of Rev. Al’s voice, marked by soaring triumphal rhetoric and sermonic cadences. I had tried to be there at 9 o-clock when the meeting started, but it appeared that the forces of nature had intervened to prevent it.
By the time I eased into the auditorium Rev was fired up and going into his out chorus. As I sat and listened I was immediately struck by how much the meeting had the ambiance of a church service, a Pentecostal Holiness church. It reminded me of my Grandfather’s church when I was a boy in Florida, except back then people wore their “Sunday go to meeting” clothes. Given the fact that most places in town were off limits to us due to the system of racial segregation, they didn’t have a lot of occasions to get dressed up.
This crowd was casually dressed for the most part. But as in my grandfather’s church it was alright to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. The NAN even had a small band. And our group rendition of “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by the band at the end of the meeting, was so moving you could feel the spirits of the people being uplifted and fortified. This is what’s missing from the program of the intellectual left.
Interestingly enough, Cornell West pointed this out when he wrote that the white left lacked “dynamic orality.” Here we had an embarrassment of riches. When the Reverend Al Sharpton takes to the podium, holding forth in an oratorical tradition that is the most dynamic in the world, he cajoles, charms, instructs, and finally commands the audience. By now, after a career as a public orator that started when he was the “Wonder Boy Preacher” – footage of which was shown on the recent CBS 60 Minute Feature – Sharpton is a seasoned pro at the art of oratory, and a master of the Afro-American sermonic tradition.
The great Poet, lawyer, cultural critic, and freedom fighter James Weldon Johnson said black American preachers have “all the devices of eloquence at their command.” This is good description of Rev. Sharpton on the podium. Like a great singer, he can carry the audience wherever he wants to take them. Where he took them on this occasion was to higher ground; a belief that there is a better future on the horizon if we continue to struggle.
Rev Al In Full Effect!
His oratory has the power to inspire, uplift and move people to action
Many in attendance were people who needed to hear this message because they live in the hood and are witnessing the devastation caused by the Great Recession brought on by eight years of Republican mismanagement of the economy. For them this trial is not a theoretical abstraction, induced by reading statistics, but a living reality and daily tribulation. Rev. Al is right there to hear their fears, hopes and dreams, and he gets an earful. The poor and powerless know who to call if they are victimized by the powerful, especially the police power of the state. Hence when he is confronted by armchair revolutionaries spouting abstractions; talking crazy, like there’s some alternative to reelecting Barack Obama and the Democrats, Rev has little patience with their sanctimonious drivel.
Sharpton, like everybody I know who is actually on the front lines of the struggle witnessing the increasingly Darwinian struggle for bread among the working class, and battling the attempts by Republican officials to destroy the labor unions that give them power and dignity in the work place, has little patience with the public temper tantrums and philosophical Jeremiads of megalomaniacal professors, militant poseurs who dwell in the posh precincts of far away Whitelandia. That’s why he and Cornel West nearly came to blows on the Recent “Black Agenda Special.” Cornel West takes the position that nobody in the Black community wants to criticize President Obama; so he figures its left to him to set things right.
Well, the fact that Cornel thinks that is an indication of just how far out of touch he is with what goes on in the hood. But what worries Rev. Sharpton – and this writer too – is the subjective, picayune and often silly nature of his comments. I’m sure Rev. Sharpton would have little objection to anyone criticizing the President if it’s justified. And if Cornell and the Ivy League Gang would just preface their criticism with a simple declaration: “There is no acceptable alternative to voting for President Obama and returning the Congress to the Democrats, because a Republican victory would be an unmitigated disaster!” Then the criticism could take on a constructive character; right now alas, it is irresponsible and dangerously destructive. On that point me and the Reverend see eye to eye.
This was not always so. My first Pulitzer Prize nomination was for a 8,000 word cover story in the Village Voice that was highly critical of Rev. Sharpton’s actions around the Tawana Brawley affair. At that time I thought him an unrepentant charlatan and said so in no uncertain terms. However as I watched him grow over the years my opinion of the Reverend changed. The turning point for me came when Al was stabbed by a white racist while leading a peaceful March in Brooklyn. Outraged Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers were ready to burn this city down; one inflammatory word from Rev. Al and the city would have been thrown into chaos. But as he lay wounded in his hospital bed he called for calm and reconciliation, preventing riots from breaking out. There would be many other good works and struggles on the part of the Reverend that won my support, but that’s when I began to view him differently.
What I came to see was that when the least among us needed a place to turn in order to get justice from the high and mighty, it was always Rev. Al who came to the rescue. They feel that they have a friend and ally in him, somebody who will argue their cause in the court of public opinion and help them find legal Counsel to argue their case in court. He refused to be intimidated by charges of “race hustler” by racists who wanted to violate the rights of black people through violence and discrimination with impunity – people eho wanted to shut him up because their dirty deeds could not stand the light of day.
Often times it was only the intervention of Rev. Al that brought the injustice to light. Hence by any calculation the good that Rev. has done far outweighs the “Evil” that reporter Wayne Barrett continued to carp about in the recent CBS 60 Minute feature story on Sharpton. I have decided to flip the script of Marc Anthony’s speech in Julius Caesar, and let the good live on while the evil be buried in the dustbin of history. After all, there are people who are guilty of crimes like squandering the nation’s blood and treasure committing mass murder – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, Codolezza Rice, et al and from the look of things just now it appears that I am not alone in reaching this decision. Reverend Sharpton has become a major player in national politics, with enough clout to summon the President to speak at his rally.
Although he is a welcome, even courted, figure among the high and mighty, completely at home in the corridors of power, he yet retains the common touch. This was all too obvious last Saturday, as the folks from the hood went up and shook his hand after the meeting, just before he went off to meet with a group of teenagers. To him he was their friend, Reverend Al, a friend in good times and bad. The reason that President Obama listens to Al Sharpton rather than Cornell West when he wants to know what working and unemployed people are thinking is simple. His choice was influenced by his stint as an urban community organizer in Chicago; he knows the insights one gains into those with little wealth or power- and are therefore voiceless in the corridors of power – when you are down in the trenches struggling with them to solve serious problems. On the one hand he will be getting the pompous speculations of a bourgeois academic with no credentials as a policy wonk, and on the other he is getting a message from the grass roots!
A Genuine Man Of the People
Bustin a move with the God Father Of Soul!
** Playthell Benjamin
Harlem New York
June 13, 2011