left arrow road sign Bear Left!

When Is Free Speech Not Free?
Paul Corrigan

When is free speech not free? When it tells a powerful truth that challenges the status quo. Harry Belafonte has come under a wave of criticism, including being called a bigot by Andrew Sullivan, for his recent public comments on the Bush administration and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Belafonte simply stated that during slavery "[slaves] got the privilege of living in the house if [they] served the master." He then followed up the historical analogy by stating that Colin Powell is permitted "to come into the house of the master. When Colin dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture." People might not like the tone of what Belafonte said, but that does not make it any less true.

Americans often forget that slavery was the status quo for much of America's history. Men, women, and children were totally subjugated to the will of the "master." Slaves were property and the rights of the property owner were paramount in our country. Those who benefitted from slavery fiercely resisted its abolition. It took a mass movement to end slavery, not individualism. Blacks, like Jews, share a common history of persecution and enslavement that promotes a strong sense of cultural community. Sullivan mistakes this sense of community for an attempt to "deny individuality." Belafonte is not, as Sullivan suggests, thinking for Powell and forcing him to be "a mere member of the group." Sullivan misses the irony that 95% of black voters in the last presidential election voted for Gore over Bush, but the three most prominent black appointments in the last two Bush administrations are Clarence Thomas, Condoleeza Rice, and Powell, all of whom provide evidence for Belafonte's point. All three of these "individuals" are more skilled at serving the "master" than they are in advocating for the interests of the 95% majority.

Ron Daniels, writing in Black World Today, expressed a clearer understanding of the meaning of Belafonte's words. He noted that Belafonte used Malcolm X's analysis of the attitudes of the "house Negro" and "field Negro" as a frame of reference. In Daniels' view, the goal of Black freedom was not to "collaborate with the plantation master or to become plantation masters." Rice and Powell do not bring diversity to the Bush administration. Daniels points out that these individuals put a black face on "policies and practices, which are intended to promote the interests of the powerful and privileged over those of the dispossessed . . . In that vein, Harry Belafonte's criticisms of Colin Powell were not personal, but political."

Sullivan's charge that Belafonte used "the race card" is absurd. Using the race card is what the senior Bush (who benefitted from the infamous Willie Horton ads in his campaign against Mike Dukakis) and the junior Bush (whose minions disenfranchised black voters in Florida) did to win the presidency. I am not surprised that Bush apologists got indignant about Belafonte's words. They are indeed powerful. Despite the abolition of slavery and the passing of laws to protect workers, most of us are not free from the "master," just on a longer leash. Singing the praises of individuality will not change that fact. Understanding that there is strength in the pack, and more freedom, is a history lesson black Americans have learned quite well. If only we could convince the Andrew Sullivans of the world.

Bear Left!: link library | archives | privacy statement | about us |
mailing list | home (with this week's columns and links)

© 2002 Bear Left!