Beg pardon, but who died and made Al Sharpton president of the negroes?
Not that Sharpton has ever declared himself as such. But the fact that some regard him as black America's chief executive was driven home for the umpteenth time a few days ago after TV reality show bounty hunter Duane "Dog" Chapman got in trouble for using a certain toxic racial epithet - six letters, starts with "n," rhymes with digger - on the phone with his son.
As you may have heard, Chapman was expressing disapproval of the son's black girlfriend. "It's not because she's black," he said. "It's because we use the word 'n-----' sometimes here. I'm not going to take a chance ever in life of losing everything I've worked for for 30 years because some f------ n----- heard us say 'n-----' and turned us in to the Enquirer magazine."
Naturally, the son sold a tape of the conversation to the National Enquirer. Which leaves me in the awkward position of simultaneously loathing what Chapman said and pitying him for having raised a rat fink son who would sell out his own father for a few pieces of silver. Anyway, with his life and career circling the drain, an apologetic Chapman fell back on what is becoming standard operating procedure for celebrities who defame black folk. He contacted Sharpton.
In so doing, he follows the trail blazed by Don Imus, Washington shock jock Doug "Greaseman" Tracht, and Michael Richards, who sought out Sharpton (or, alternately, Jesse Jackson) after saying what they wished they had not. They were all in turn following the news media, which, whenever a quote on some racial matter is required, turn to the right reverends by reflex. You'd think they knew no other negroes.
I don't begrudge Jackson or Sharpton their fame. Jena, La., might have gone unnoticed had they not used that fame to direct public attention there. Still, I question whether we ought not by now have grown beyond the notion that one or two men can speak for, or offer absolution in the name of, 36 million people.
Certainly, black America has a long and distinguished history of charismatic leadership, from Frederick Douglass to Booker T. Washington to W.E.B. DuBois to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr. It was King to whom the "president of the negroes" honorific was jokingly applied during the civil rights era in recognition of the moral authority that allowed him to rally masses. Since King's murder in 1968, a number of men have jockeyed to position themselves as his heir. They have not been conspicuous by their success.
Louis Farrakhan couldn't do it, handicapped as he is by the fact that he is Louis Farrakhan. Sharpton couldn't do it; one hardly thinks of moral authority when one thinks of the man at the center of the Tawana Brawley debacle. Jesse Jackson seemed to presage a new era of charismatic leadership when he ran for president, but he is dogged by a perception some of us have that he serves no cause higher than himself.
But beyond the strengths and weaknesses of the men who seek to be charismatic leaders, there is a sense that the job itself has grown obsolete. Who, after all, are the nation's white leaders? To what one man or woman do you apologize when you insult white folks? Doesn't the very idea that there could be one person deny the complexity and diversity of the population?
Similarly, black America is served by dozens of magazines, Web sites, television networks and media figures that did not exist when King was killed. So it's about time news media - and those who will insult us in the future - get past this notion that one or two people are anointed to speak for 36 million. That is a simplistic, antiquated and faintly condescending idea.
I speak for myself. Don't you?