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Al Sharpton Does Not Have My Ear: Why We Need New Black Leadership Now

Al Sharpton's recent remarks at Michael Brown's funeral revealed the limitations of his moral and political vision.
 
 
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Racial politics in the U.S. is beholden to the space of black death. On Monday, Michael Brown’s family, friends and loved ones gathered to lay his body to rest, even though his unjust and untimely death leaves his community of Ferguson, Missouri, in a state of unrest.

Michael’s funeral, held in a local black Baptist Church, was reminiscent of so many familiar rituals of black cultural home-goings: raucous preaching, the call and response of the audience emboldening those in the pulpit to “make it plain,” and “tell it all,” while the truths being affirmed received “hearty amens.”

Black churches are a central part of the 20th century story of American racial politics. Dr. King was the consummate preacher, flanked by peers like Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Joseph Lowery, and protégés like Rev. Jesse Jackson. Last century, black churches were the locus of a kind of narrative authority in black communities – the way black preachers, mostly male, told our story to us in light of the story of Jesus Christ gave us hope, inspired change and helped us to make sense of black suffering, to believe that God had a grander purpose in the sure and steady sacrifice of black bodies, namely the fashioning of a better, more just America.

It is within that context, that of the black church and its relationship to black politics, that we have come over the last three decades to know the person of Rev. Al Sharpton.

In his sermonic remarks at Michael’s funeral yesterday, Sharpton tried to assume the mantle of black America’s spiritual leader, the one with the moral and rhetorical force to move us toward thinking of Mike’s death as the beginning of a movement, rather than merely a moment.

Al Sharpton, however, does not have the ear of this generation, and it is not his leadership that any of us who will live on the planet for the next half-century or so really needs. To be clear, I do not believe in the slaying of elders. Black cultural traditions hold within them a serious reverence for the authority and wisdom of elder people.

This is not about Sharpton’s age, but rather about how he has positioned himself in relationship to black politics. My issue with him resides squarely within the limitations of his moral and political vision for who and how black people get to be within the American body politic.

Those limitations emerged almost immediately in his sermonic remarks as he stood in a pulpit over Mike Brown’s casket. Unable to resist shaking a finger at “looters and rioters,” he told them “this is not about you. This is about justice.”  Justice apparently is not about us. Taking a page from the standard conservative black preacher playbook, he goes on to rail against a black community that mistakenly thinks the “definition of blackness” is “about how low you could go.” Among these misguided black people, there is the apparent sense that “it ain’t black no more to be successful.” Thus he concludes, that “we have to clean up our community so we can clean up the United States of America.” We have to do this because, “nobody is going to help us if we don’t help ourselves.” Thus, we must quickly dispense with our penchant for “ghetto pity parties.”

To quote Philip Agnew of the Dream Defenders, when asked recently about the helpfulness of clergy to the work in Ferguson, some of the clergy have been “problematic.” Problematic is putting it mildly. Sharpton’s words should certainly put to rest those critics who suggest that black people are never outraged about “black-on-black crime” and the ills that plague black communities. These sermonic turns of phrase rise to the level of cliché when set against any number of sermons preached from black pulpits on Sunday mornings.