A year ago I wrote an article for New York Press in which I examined Rev. Al Sharpton’s pre-2004 campaign. I presented Rev. Sharpton’s campaign as being in the "tradition" of a resurgent trend in black politics, namely the Head Negro in Charge Syndrome. Wayne Barrett’s Voice article "Sleeping with the GOP" showed the depths to which African-American political culture has sunk. His investigation regarding Al Sharpton’s connivance with Roger Stone, a Republican dirty-trickster whose roots go back to Richard Nixon, the Darth Vader of American politics, ought to convince any astute observer that Al Sharpton is the logical outcome of that pathological syndrome which has made his presidential bid a scampaign.
This political practice reaches as far back as Booker T. Washington, who skyrocketed to fame and prominence as the first post-Civil War HNIC due to his masterful performance as a black leader who told whites what they wanted to hear at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition. There, Washington acquiesced to the Jim Crow regime of segregation and terrorist violence that became staples of black existence in the South. He said, amongst other utterances: "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."
Washington essentially capitulated to the program of the New South that solidified itself under the Democratic "Redeemer" regimes that disenfranchised blacks across the board, aided and abetted by the so-called party of Lincoln, the Republicans, in the aftermath of Reconstruction. Over the last one hundred years blacks have witnessed the rise of various HNIC types— Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Father Divine, Daddy Grace, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and now Al Sharpton. What characterizes these men (and they are always men) is that they tend to operate within the black church tradition of charismatic leadership, individuals who possess unique individual gifts of leadership and mission. This is also known as the "Messiah" complex. As W. E. B. Du Bois noted in the Souls of Black Folks:
The preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil. A leader, a politician, an orator, a "boss," an intriguer, an idealist— all these he is, and ever, too, the center of a group of men, now twenty, now a thousand in number. The combination of certain adroitness with deep-seated earnestness, of tact with consummate ability, gave him his preeminence, and helps him maintain it. The type, of course, varies according to time and place…
Martin Luther King was the charismatic leader but not solely within HNIC mode since he came out of a popular movement and a democratic political struggle in which, to varying degrees, he was answerable to a constituency. As the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King was answerable to his church and to the larger black community in that city. With the fragmentation of the civil rights movement in the middle 1960s after the successful passage of the voting rights and public accommodation acts, along with King’s assassination and the rise of black power politics, the civil rights movement began to fragment along ideological/philosophical lines and class divisions. Protesting was over. Now was the time to go from "protest to politics," as Bayard Rustin famously advocated.
During the 1970s the black liberation movement was defeated by the forces of state repression and by black liberation’s own ideological confusion and immaturity that basically resulted in "kente cloth politics" which revolved around issues of black cultural practices and black identity, but failed to address critical issues of political organization and economic development. Despite having numerous black political conventions, the nationalists seldom entered the political arena to compete with the new black political directorate that was coming to office during the 1970s, and had been incorporated and co-opted by the Democrats.
Within national politics, black voting strength increased and black representatives in Congress founded the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) as a means to maximize black political clout. As such, the CBC was able to gain some programs and addressed some issues of concern to its constituents. However, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 ended the golden age of integration. The Republican Risorgimento was implacably hostile to the civil rights-oriented agenda of black America. Black America, however, through both its political leaders and its lack of grassroots mobilization, had unilaterally disarmed itself; it no longer engaged in "protest" politics or large movement organizing, and it most certainly did not see the possibility of a return to a neo-post-Reconstruction politics. This was, at least by 1984, the beginning of the post-civil rights HNIC.
Sensing that established black leadership was weak and ineffective, Jesse Jackson threw down the gauntlet and proclaimed himself within the tradition of King. However, rather than organizing blacks and others as an outside political force, Jackson basically organized his true believers as a means to an end: making him a player within Democratic Party politics. As well as displaying the charismatic nature of black political culture, Jackson’s own personal needs for power and recognition also laid bare another aspect of black political culture, the "Massa" complex, which is rooted in white domination over black life. Prior to the civil rights movement, the Massa complex was black deference to whites; now it’s about blacks demanding and wanting respect and recognition from them, which still gives whites a powerful hand to play. Jackson’s demand for such is one of the reasons why there is no Rainbow Coalition today. Whites, ruling as an overclass, understood that with individuals like Jackson they can buy blacks for trinkets: a speech at the nominating convention; an airplane to fly around in to whip up the black vote; one or two useless planks on the party’s platform. Most important, they grant recognition to the leader of black America, who lacks any democratic mandate from the very people one claims to lead. Such a position is based on the number of votes obtained in a primary, but lacks effective power. In a word, it is symbolic.
This has been the political stuff of black America for the last twenty years. Consider the symbolic posturing of the likes of Louis Farrakhan, whose Million Man March will experience its 10th anniversary next year. True to fashion, like Jackson, Farrakhan has done nothing since his self-coronation on October 16, 1995. While Jackson and Sharpton engaged in political scampaigns, Farrakhan masterminded a symbolic scampaign of his own by calling for a march that evoked the famed one of 1963.
Now we have Al Sharpton, who is so corrupt and venal that he has the temerity after losing the South Carolina primary to talk about "redeeming the soul" of the Democratic Party while taking money from a man who calls himself a Reagan Republican. Although Sharpton has talked about "too many elephants in donkey jackets," he is essentially the Richard Nixon of black politics. Like Nixon, Sharpton is corrupt, paranoid, greedy, and always out for "respect," which makes him perfect for Republican grifters who know how to trim their marks.
According to one source, Sharpton didn’t even bother to get ballot signatures in South Carolina. Instead he probably asked Stone for the money which would have allowed him to buy his way onto the ballot. Apparently, establishing an organization of blacks to canvass on his behalf was too much work for the Rev. HNIC’s aren’t interested in the nuts and bolts of politics; as Marion Barry once said of Jackson, they are more interested in running their mouths than running for office.
The rise of Al Sharpton is a clear example that African American political culture is utterly bankrupt not solely because of Sharpton, but due to the silence that surrounds it. It is interesting to note (at least as of this writing) the sounds of silence from the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, Jesse Jackson, Sr., or from any of those well-heeled black individuals who initially gave Sharpton money— in other words, black leadership. That one hasn’t heard from them means, in effect, that it doesn’t exist. Which is why since the 1980s this syndrome has plagued blacks. Effective black politics has become meaningless to most black Americans. Nothing of substance is either said or done. That nothing is neither said nor done also reflects the dead end of black group consciousness, which has become group think or black orthodoxy. As such, black orthodoxy prevents African Americans from engaging in critical assessment of ideas, issues, or leadership.
African Americans spend close to $600-700 billion annually as consumers, yet there is not one significant journal of public affairs regarding policies, politics, or opinion. While whites have the Nation, the Progressive, the New Republic, National Review and the Weekly Standard, blacks have nothing. Emerge magazine was killed by BET’s Robert Johnson. In the brain-dead world of black culture in which style and rhetoric matter, ideas, issues and policies take a backseat to hip-hop, hair-care, and pussy & dick politics. Instead, one can turn on the Tavis Smiley radio program and listen to Cornel West or Michael Eric Dyson give a "loving" critiques of Sharpton as he denigrates the memory of people like King and Robert Kennedy by comparing himself to them. Or watch Skip Gates clucking on PBS about the state of black America while using his fiefdom at Harvard as a marketing tool.
While some contend that it was important to have a black presence in the Democratic primaries, both the recent revelation about Sharpton and the demise of former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun’s campaign show another problem: blacks have no structural organization independent of the Democratic Party. Since the 1970s, the black vote has been enfolded into the Democratic Party apparatus. Unlike the civil rights movement or the Christian Coalition, the black vote has produced no independent political formation capable of making politicians come to it. Rather than being agenda-driven or grassroots-oriented, black politics are based on personality and charisma. We have regressed back to the days of Booker T. Washington, the era of the one Indispensable Leader. Individuals like Sharpton have no respect for processes; they feel by dint of personality— or, in the case of Russell Simmons, by cash— that they can bum-rush the show. They are able to do so because African American political "structure" has been weak since the Reagan Revolution beat back black progress. African Americans never regrouped and pressed forward. Instead, black politics has been reactive.
Toward the end of his momentous 1963 speech, King said that he was returning to the South with a faith that "will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." Thirty-six years after his assassination that stone of hope has now become a huge boulder named Al Sharpton, tied around the neck of black America as it sinks deeper into the dark gloomy waters of black orthodoxy. This will be the legacy of Scampaign 2004.
Norman Kelley's Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music is now available in paperback from Akashic Books.