Trim Black Leaders, Not "Barbershop"

Talk about going way over the top. The Reverend Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson's demand for an apology from MGM over two minutes of irreverent humor in the film "Barbershop" is nearly as laughable as the film. No one who is not comatose could dare take seriously the deliberately silly, and inane crack by Cedric the Entertainer that the towering contributions of Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to the civil rights struggle had no value, and that almost certainly includes Cedric. None of the characters in "Barbershop" certainly believed it. They immediately jumped all over him.

In fact, it's due in large part to the magnificent contributions of Parks and King and other legendary civil rights heroes that entertainers such as Cedric the Entertainer, the writers, director, and producers of "Barbershop," all of whom are black, could even get a major Hollywood studio to bankroll their film.

Their struggle also opened wide the doors to blacks in education, business and professions. The crumbling of those barriers have given blacks the awesome economic muscle to make "Barbershop" a smash box office success. And it's that black economic clout that virtually guarantees that the box office cash registers will keep jingling for the film. Look then for a Barbershop 2, and 3, and the inevitable TV series clone.

But underneath Cedric's wisecrack about black leaders flows an undertow of disenchantment and resentment that many blacks feel toward those who designate themselves, or more likely are designated by whites, as "black leaders."

Most of these leaders are middle-class business and professional people. Their agenda and top-down style of leadership is remote, distant and often wildly out of step with the needs of poor and working-class blacks. They often approach tough public policy issues such as the astronomical black imprisonment rates, the dreary plight of poor black women, black homelessness, black-on-black crime and violence, the drug crisis, gang warfare and school vouchers, with a strange blend of caution, uncertainty, and wariness. They keep counsel only with those black ministers, politicians, and professional and business leaders they consider respectable and legitimate and will blindly march in lockstep with their program.

Worst of all, they horribly disfigure black leadership by turning it into a corporate style competitive business in which success is measured by piling up political favors and corporate dollars. The sad thing is that it wasn't always this way. For decades mainstream black organizations such as the NAACP relied on the nickels and dimes of poor and working-class blacks for their support. This gave them complete independence and a solid constituency to mount powerful campaigns for jobs, better housing, quality schools and against police violence and lynching.

The profound shift in the method and style of black leadership began in the 1970s. With the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the collapse of the traditional civil rights organizations, the destruction and co-optation of militant activist groups, mainstream black leaders, politicians and ministers did a sharp volte-face. They quickly defined the black agenda as: starting more and better businesses, grabbing more spots in corporations universities, and the professions, electing more Democrats, buying bigger and more expensive homes, taking more luxury vacations and gaining admission into more country clubs.

The biggest gripe many blacks have about some black leaders is that they arrogate to themselves the sole right to speak exclusively on behalf of all blacks. That is clearly evident in Sharpton's demand that MGM excise Cedric's politically incorrect quip from a film that has already been seen by thousands. This makes it seem that the demand to slice is made on behalf of all blacks.

Black leaders get away with this arrogant presumption because many whites regard blacks as so far outside the political and social pale that they see blacks solely through the prism of a racial monolith. They are profoundly conditioned to believe that all blacks think, act and sway to the same racial beat. They freely use the words and deeds of the chosen black leader as the standard for African-American behavior. When the beleaguered chosen one makes a real or contrived misstep, he or she becomes the whipping boy among many whites, and blacks are blamed for being rash, foolhardy, irresponsible, and prone to shuffle the race card on every social ill that befalls them.

"Barbershop" is more than a comedic slice-of-black-life film. It spotlights the historic role that barbershops in black and probably other ethnic neighborhoods have traditionally played in allowing working people to vent, swap gossip and information, keep abreast of social and political issues, and to express their own special brand of ethnic in-group humor. There is no need to apologize for or to cut that out.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).


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