When Is Free Speech Not Free?
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
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.
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