It’s often said that Americans have a gift for reinventing themselves, for writing second acts in their lives, and these days Exhibit A seems to be Al Sharpton.
Or, better yet, the reboot – Al Sharpton 2.0.
What are we to make of The Rev? Not long ago – at least, for those of us with memories – Sharpton was 300 pounds, with a pompadour copied from James Brown. Today, he’s svelte and statesman-gray and clad in custom-tailored suits. He was once so reviled as a race polarizer that when he ran for president in 2004, a black Democratic activist called him “the skunk in the room nobody in the party wants to talk about.” Today, he’s a White House insider, President Obama’s go-to liaison with the black community.
He gained early fame (and infamy) by assailing whites – most notoriously, by championing a black teenager’s phony claim of having been raped by a gang of white men; a few years later, by railing against “diamond merchants” (code for “Jews”) – yet there he was this week, in Ferguson, at the funeral for Michael Brown, declaring in his eulogy that blacks as well as whites are to blame for the injustices in our society.
Yes, he denounced police violence; yes, he lamented “that we have money to give military equipment to police forces, but we don’t have…money for public education.” But he also told his predominantly black listeners:
We’ve got to be straight up in our community, too. We have to be outraged at a 9-year-old girl killed in Chicago. We have got to be outraged by our disrespect for each other, our disregard for each other, our killing and shooting and running around gun-toting each other, so that (police feel) justified in trying to come at us because some of us act like the definition of blackness is how low you can go.
Blackness has never been about being a gangster or a thug. Blackness was, no matter how low we was pushed down, we rose up anyhow. We never surrendered. We never gave up. And now we get to the 21st century, we get to where we’ve got some positions of power – and you decide it ain’t black no more to be successful. Now you want to be “n—-r” and call your woman a “ho.” You’ve lost where you’re coming from…We’ve got to clean up our community so we can clean up the United States of America.
Al Sharpton talking like Bill Cosby. Who woulda thunk it?
I’ve long been wary of Reverend Al, dating back to the Tawana Brawley case in ’87. The teen said she’d been raped and smeared with feces by a pack of white guys. Sharpton believed her story despite a dearth of evidence, and he even alleged that a local prosecutor, Steven Pagones, was one of the attackers. A grand jury later concluded that the whole episode was a hoax – Brawley had concocted an excuse for staying out late, to avoid her stepfather’s anger – and Pagones successfully sued Sharpton for defamation. Turned out, Pagones was nowhere near the scene of the rape that never happened. The jury ordered Sharpton to cough up $345,000.
Sharpton has never apologized or acknowledged his mistake. As he said a decade ago, “Apologize for what? For believing a young lady?” And referring to his defamation of Pagones, he simply said: “Juries can be wrong.”
He has since been a wee bit contrite about his anti-Semitic rhetoric. That happened in 1991, after a black kid in Brooklyn was accidentally killed by an ambulance. The driver was an Hasidic Jew. Blacks marched in the streets – led by Sharpton, who declared that the “diamond merchants” had “the blood of innocent babies” on their hands. A mob attacked and killed an innocent Hasidic student, Yankel Rosenbaum, who was visiting from Australia. Twenty years later, Sharpton floated a mushy quasi-apology: “I did not know the full volatility of the situation…I believe I have grown.”
(Plus, it’s wrong that Sharpton has his own show on MSNBC. Granted, this is a separate issue; my beef is with MSNBC for booking him. But just imagine what liberals would say if Sarah Palin was speaking at conservative rallies – then covering those rallies on her own Fox News show, for an hour of hectoring agitprop each night.)
But hey, I’m hip to the reinvention gestalt. As the cynical mogul Noah Cross intoned in the movie Chinatown, “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” That can apply to agitators, as well. If Reverend Al can indeed trace the arc from agitator to insider, moderating himself to the point where he can speak inconvenient truths to his own community, then who are we to deny him that very American journey?
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