Friday, March 02, 2007

Al Sharpton on the Daily Show

A few days ago, on 2007-02-25, news broke that genealogical records indicate that the Reverend Al Sharpton's great grandfather was a slave owned by a relative of Senator Strom Thurmond. Thursday night, the Reverend stopped by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to discuss the revelation and its real and symbolic significance. The video clip is not yet up on the Comedy Central web site, but you should check it out when it pops up. In the mean time, here's my commentary on their interview.

Jon introduced the segment with a summary of the news story, peppered with Daily-Show-esque spin, musing on what Hollywood might do with the plot line, showing a "preview" for a film starring Bernie Mack as Sharpton and Seth Green as Thurmond's grandson.

Jon Stewart: Now, people, it's March 1st. Black History Month is officially over. But did you know, black history continues — almost all the time! [summary of news story that Al Sharpton's great grandfather was owned by a relative of Strom Thurmond]
Reverend Sharpton: I assumed that my forefathers were slaves, but the connection to Strom Thurmond is something that I couldn't've imagined in a worst nightmare.
Stewart:How big of a dick must Strom Thurmond be, that slavery isn't the worst news you hear? "Listen, Reverend, your ancestors were slaves — now here's the bad news ... Thurmond's involved!" [etc.]

[Reverend Sharpton enters.]

Stewart: Reverend, how would you, as a prominent civil rights leader, counsel you, someone who just found out this news, on where you proceed? It's somewhat difficult to even conceptualize, is it not?

Sharpton: Well, it is. I didn't solicit it; it came. I think the real story is that it brings home to a lot of Americans how brutal the idea of owning people was, which African-Americans went through. Whether there's a DNA test done or not, the stark reality that my great grandfather was owned, and named after the owners, and then given to someone else to work to pay off their debts — I mean, I arrived the other night at Miami airport, and a guy asked me for an autograph: first time in my life I had to think about the reason I'm named that, is because my great grandfather was owned by someone named Jefferson Sharpton, who was married to Julia Thurmond Sharpton. So, it's a real personal wakeup call, but I hope the country learns some of what we have had as an ugly past, so we can stop the continued ugliness in today's life. So the good news is, it could bring people to a realization of what we need to correct in this country.

Stewart: Do you actually have hope that that will happen?

Sharpton: I fight every day that it will happen, and when I have a bad day I watch you at night. Then I know that we cannot lose.

Stewart: Reverend, the amazing thing to me in the story is that it's your great grandfather. I knew my great grandfather. This is not — you know, it's very easy to look at slavery as our ancient history —

Sharpton: This was my grandfather's father.

Stewart: Your grandfather's father — a man that you knew well.

Sharpton: Just three generations: I knew my grandfather — his father. I think a lot of us do have this notion that we're talking about something thousands of years ago. I mean, this directly impacts you, because it happened within a span that is reachable. I think Americans need to realize that.

Stewart: It always amazes me when there's this sense that, you know, this had nothing to do with us, this was our ancestors and we didn't have anything to do with it — you remember the woman that sued to get into Michigan Law School, she was a white woman who didn't get into the law school of her choice, and she sued and raised a ruckus and 15 years later she's still steaming mad about it. Imagine that — she can't get over not getting into her perfect law school choice, but slavery is one of those things that people should just go, "Ah, yeah."

Sharpton: We should "just forget about it." And I'll tell you, I called my father Sunday when the news broke, who's now just 80, and he said, "You gotta remember, I didn't have the right to vote until '65 — half my life," (this is my father), "I wasn't a full citizen." And I don't think many Americans just understand it, and maybe the coming out of this story brings it out.

Stewart: Isn't it also the brilliance of America, though, in some respects? A guy who ran as a segregationist in 1948, Strom Thurmond, whose family enslaved people in your family — not 50 years later, you run for President.

Sharpton: I think that it shows what we can do. A lot of people struggled, white and black, and paid a price, so that we can go from a '48 Thurmond for President to a 2004 Sharpton for President, but we got a long way to go, and if we can be serious about it, and not have too many guys doing "Ebony and Irony" jokes, we might get it going.

Stewart: Ahh! You weren't supposed to see that! Do you think, at some point, this moves the country in a different direction, to address it in a different way? What I don't understand is, with slavery, you have this sense that people don't even want to talk about it, because they think it impugns their character.

Sharpton: And I think that we've gotta come out of that denial. I think that we've got to admit what happened, we've got to admit what's lingering, and even on the African-American side, a lot of us want to act like we don't want to just remember the pain. And it's there, it still has ramifications today. Like I said, every time I write my name, I'm writing the slave story of my family. There's nothing for me to be ashamed of. There's a shame there, but there's also a glory there of where we've come. I have options my great grandfather never had, which is why I should never denigrate him by not continuing to build the options for all Americans.

Stewart: And that is the poignancy of it, and that, I think, is the pride of it. And it's an amazing thing. We appreciate your being here.

Sharpton: Thank you.

Stewart: Reverend Al Sharpton! We'll be right back.
When I heard about the grumbling in some parts of the African-American community that Barack Obama is "not black enough." I'm not African-American, but I do know a few things about racism from my relatives on the oppressor side of the coin. The most popular wedding anniversary in some branches of my family is June 3rd, Confederate Memorial Day. I can tell you that my kinfolk wouldn't have cared in the least if your ancestors were slaves brought from West Africa to the United States. If your skin is darker than a deep tan, then you are, depending on who's speaking, an African-American, a "nigra" (nigra : nigger :: arse : ass), or a nigger. One of my ancestors in the late 19th century refused an invitation to join the KKK — not because he disapproved of lynching and burning crosses, but because he thought it was cowardly to cover your face while doing it. On the other hand, Al Sharpton sheds light on the real difference it does still make whether your ancestors were slaves.

Of course, another astonishing "Ebony and Irony" moment this week was the revelation that, due to a wardrobe malfunction on Air Force Two, Vice President Cheney flew instead on a plane named The Spirit of Strom Thurmond. For all of his years of service in the Senate, and the "moderation" of his views on race and other political issues late in life, if I were a politician of any stripe, I wouldn't set forth on an airplane named for Strom Thurmond if there were any other option. Stranded on a desert island with no one but a volleyball, I'd get on the plane, but not for much less than that.

Locally here in San Francisco, there's been an uproar because an op-ed piece ran in AsianWeek under the title "I Hate Blacks." The article gave a litany of ignorant stereotypes about African-Americans as justification for racial hatred, from the perspective of an avowed Asian supremacist. Community leaders are seizing on the opportunity to open a dialogue about race, particularly the stereotypes between Asian- and African-Americans. Still, it is shocking that such a hate-filled racist screed would appear in a serious publication in the 21st century. Racial supremacy is such a destructive myth; our delineation of "races" is inevitably somewhat arbitrary, and any generalization on a racial scale is hopeless. There are brilliant people and morons, athletes and couch potatoes, heroes and cowards, in every race.

If I may be pedantic for a moment (And why else have a blog if not to be pedantic?), I should point out that from Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat candidacy in 1948 to Al Sharpton's 2004 Democratic candidacy was 56 years, which is more than 50 years. Yeah, well, we aren't paying Jon Stewart to teach advanced math, and as for me, I put the hyphen in anal-retentive.

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