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Can We Talk Depends Who We Is

October 27, 2002

Can We Talk? It Depends Who 'We' Is



THE words are possibly disrespectful but definitely jarring and decidedly provocative, engendering as much outrage as reasoned discourse. In recent weeks black people have set off noisy public fights by uttering what some have characterized as intemperate remarks. The targets of the barbs could not be more different: two icons of the civil rights era and the secretary of state. But stripped to their essence, the controversies surrounding the hit movie "Barbershop" and comments made by Harry Belafonte raise the same questions: What can black people say? And where can they say it?

It's easy, of course, to reply, anything and anywhere. But for a people long oppressed, such questions easily get caught up in issues of racial solidarity, individualism versus group identity and proper deference to those who struggled — and in some cases gave their lives — for black advancement, not to mention broader notions of truth, taste and freedom of expression.

The recent incidents are by now familiar. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, among other African-Americans, was enraged by disparaging references in "Barbershop" to Rosa Parks and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And Mr. Belafonte likened Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to a "house slave" for remaining part of the Bush administration.

What is noteworthy about the flaps is that the objects of the verbal slings weren't white people, but other blacks. As such, Mr. Belafonte's comments and the reaction to "Barbershop" have been seen by some people (mainly, but not solely, conservatives) as efforts by those on the black left to impose a kind of groupthink and to intimidate those who dare to dissent.

"We're free from white folks," said Debra Dickerson, author of the forthcoming book "The End of Blackness." "Now we need to be free from the notion that you are to be thrown out of the community if you believe A, B or C — that you have to believe in affirmative action, you have to oppose mandatory minimums in sentencing, you have to support racial gerrymandering. No. We're a free people and we need to act like it."

And while it is fashionable to point out that black thinking has evolved and is no longer monolithic, the fact remains it never has been. Vehement disagreement over goals and tactics has marked the black struggle ever since the first slaves were dropped off in Jamestown. And with black culture placing a hefty premium on the quick, creative insult — "playing the dozens" has always been high art — it is no surprise that the disagreements have been highly personal. The newspaper of A. Philip Randolph's organization, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, once termed the black separatist Marcus Garvey "a supreme Negro Jamaican jackass." Not to be outdone, Mr. Garvey once dismissed W. E. B. DuBois, the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as a "little mulatto." And before he moderated his views, Malcolm X was brutal in lashing out against integrationist civil rights leaders like Dr. King, deriding them as "house Negroes."

As cutting as black leaders can be in public, it's nothing compared with what black people can be in private. At parties, dinners, barbershops and beauty parlors — wherever blacks typically gather out of the earshot of whites — African-American icons like the Rev. Al Sharpton, Oprah Winfrey and Barry Bonds are often torn apart in tough and side-splitting ways. What may have led to the shock among some whites and the embarrassment of some blacks (including some who called for the film's video version to be edited) is that "Barbershop" invited whites to the party.

Some whites often complain that black people are permitted to say words to each other that white people would be condemned as racist for letting past their lips. But there are some lines that are crossed only with the greatest peril. No matter how raucous the insults heard at black gatherings, few people would be well received for calling Dr. King a "ho," as did a character in "Barbershop."

Still, as Ms. Dickerson says, efforts to get blacks to mind what they say are often designed to keep people in line. As such, they reflect the continuing tension among blacks — and among other groups like Jews, the Irish, Hispanics and Asians who have felt the sting of second-class citizenship — between responsibility to the group and responsibility to the individual.

Some, like the scholar Shelby Steele, argue that a major goal of the civil rights movement was to get a racist America to treat black people as individuals. To stifle free speech by suggesting that people who stray from the orthodoxy are insufficiently black is to betray the efforts of that movement. "The idea of individual freedom resonated with Negro freedom — a freedom not for the group but for the individuals who made up the group," Mr. Steele wrote in a recent article in Harper's.

But others argue that the country did not simply evolve spontaneously into one that allows more freedom of expression to blacks. The nation was pushed there by collective action, and without sustained collective action — which might require some care in what black people say and where they say it — things could fall apart.

"You might say that asking 'Is someone black enough?' is a kind of rude question," said Roger W. Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University. "But you do ask yourself the question of when a black person gets into a position of power whether he or she is sensitive to those issues you think a black person in a position of power ought to be sensitive to. Otherwise, what is the point of integration? You don't want to integrate just to make the class picture look better."

But class pictures have changed, and one thing the furor over Mr. Belafonte and "Barbershop" has shown is that blacks have attained enough positions of power and influence that the larger society actually cares what they say. When Mr. Garvey put down Mr. DuBois, it is doubtful many whites really paid attention; it is even doubtful many whites knew who they were.

Julian Bond, the chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., notes that a friend of his says that when whites think of blacks they are always interested in what black people think of them. "Maybe now they're equally interested in what we think of each other," Mr. Bond said. That, he agreed, is some measure of progress.

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