Is Colin Powell black enough?
Strip away the verbiage, and that's essentially the question Harry Belafonte raised in his recent controversial interview with a San Diego radio station. It is the question that has long lurked in the subtext for blacks suspicious of a black man too beloved by the Republican Party faithful.
For those who missed it: The singer and activist, who is at odds with the Bush administration over its push toward war with Iraq and its dubious record on civil liberties, accused the secretary of state of being scared to confront his boss on these and other issues.
Specifically, Belafonte likened Powell to a house Negro, those "yassuh-boss" toadies who kissed up to the master and sometimes betrayed their fellow slaves in hopes of being allowed to live and work in the comfort of the master's home. "When Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture," Belafonte said.
Powell struck back in an interview with CNN: "If Harry had wanted to attack my politics, that was fine. If he wanted to attack a particular position I hold, that was fine. But to use a slave reference, I think, is unfortunate and is a throwback to another time and another place that I wish Harry had thought twice about using."
Belafonte said last week that he stood by his remarks.
Me, I would stand upwind of them. Belafonte embarrassed himself here. And I say that as one who admires him.
It's not that I think he's wrong about the administration's post-Sept. 11 record on civil rights. When the government interns people without allowing them access to legal representation, observers ought to be alarmed.
Nor am I here to fight about Belafonte's opposition to war. Where Iraq is concerned, George Bush seems destined to go down in history as the reincarnation of either Winston Churchill or Chicken Little. Belafonte would not be the only one to suspect the latter.
No, my disagreement with Belafonte has nothing to do with his critique of White House policy and everything to do with playing blacker-than-thou with Colin Powell. Black folk do that entirely too much, throw around "House Negro" and its synonym, "Uncle Tom," with reckless, unthinking and injurious abandon.
Not that such behavior is unique to black people. Most marginalized groups tend to be zealous enforcers of their members' loyalty. To belong to one is to know that you will be called traitor and figuratively cast out if you fail to be what the group feels you should.
I'm not so naive as to think there aren't people filled with loathing for the color or culture into which they were born. Nor am I so charitable as to feel they shouldn't receive some abuse when they are found out. I'm pleased to treat harshly any black man "paging Ward Connerly!" who disavows, disparages or distances himself from black folk while genuflecting at the altar of white acceptance.
For my money, though, Belafonte questioned Powell's racial bonafides for the same misguided reason blacks often do. Not because of disavowal, disparagement or distance, but disagreement.
After all, one would be hard put to make the case that Powell, who once defended affirmative action at a GOP convention, has groveled for white folks' approval. What he has done is hold conservative political views not shared by many other blacks. You may think he's wrong, but doesn't he have the right to be wrong without it becoming a question of his racial fidelity?
I'm no fan of the administration Powell serves. But he is no more a racial traitor for that service than Belafonte was for divorcing a black woman to marry a white one back in 1957. Some people suggested that he, too, was not black enough.
So he should know better. Should know that sometimes, "black enough" is just a means people use to regulate how you think, what you do, where you live and who you love.
And that's not freedom. It's just a different set of chains.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.