Listening to Sister Souljah

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

June 20, 1992|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

I started the week thinking the ''Sister Souljah'' flap started by Bill Clinton was a non-issue. Now, after a week of having white pundits speak for me, I am not so sure.

There is no question that Sister Souljah is a bright young woman. The way she handled the press conference called to rebut the Arkansas governor's attack proved it.

Mr. Clinton took out of context remarks the young rapper uttered while trying to explain the attitudes of the black gang members who had just razed to the ground whole sections of Los Angeles. And angry remarks aside, Sister Souljah has spent considerable time working as a community organizer. So it made sense to include her on a Rainbow Coalition panel on youth.

Or has everyone over 25 forgotten the central premise of freedom of speech -- that by allowing even the angriest of expressions you allow steam to blow off that, unchanneled, would blow up? That you gain legitimacy among America's most bitterly disenchanted by opening the floor to voices carrying their unvarnished message as well as those who would tell the hopeless to ''stay cool''?

It is strange to have to remind people who fight for the right of even the basest neo-Nazi to march in Atlanta, the metropolis of black middle-class aspirations, that the angriest of America's black youth are just as entitled to a forum.

The watchers of celebrity doings say Sister Souljah now is enjoying a new spotlight, since Bill Clinton put her onto Page One. That is the least she ought to enjoy, having been used by Mr. Clinton to take a swipe at Jesse Jackson and, as political pundits Mary McGrory and Richard Cohen have said, by implication ''stood up'' to all blacks.

I've listened to Sister Souljah raps before this, and I can't say she turns me on. Before this, she surely was a minor star in the constellation of rappers anyway. But if attacks on her are supposed to stand for attacks on me -- and the whole discussion of how Mr. Clinton demonstrated through her that he could ''stand up'' to the blacks assures me that they do -- I find it's time to defend her. Although no less a journal than the New York Times has chosen to dispute Sister Souljah's claim, it's pretty plain that she was used. Just like Willie Horton.

I have a problem with that.

Jesse Jackson has been nothing but a loyal Democrat all through this presidential year. He eschewed running himself, to the ecstatic relief of Gov. Clinton, Stuart Eizenstat and the whole raft of Democratic strategists committed to the idea that it's somehow less legitimate for a black non-office-holder to make a serious run than for Ross Perot.

Mr. Jackson has held his tongue like a disciplined soldier while enduring a series of unprovoked slights by the leaders of his party. And he has kept his speeches focused on the evils of Reagan-Bush mismanagement of the economy rather than, as he could, on the anger he must feel at being shoved rudely aside when he did as asked and mounted no third campaign.

Now, he finds himself dragged into the fray anyway, on an occasion he had afforded Mr. Clinton to speak before his followers.

Does anybody out there in white America think blacks are so badly lacking in perception as not to be able to feel Mr. Jackson's humiliation? All those so convinced, sit down. You need to re-learn a fundamental lesson.

If Jesse Jackson, Sister Souljah or even Louis Farrakhan, also dragged into this when he hadn't said a word, doesn't speak for all blacks, most blacks or even ''most thinking blacks,'' Bill Clinton never will. Ditto for the pundits congratulating him for gratuitously ''standing up'' to Mr. Jackson and, by extension, to black America.

Are you listening, Mr. Clinton? Sister Souljah is telling you that this country will be quite ungovernable if there is no peaceful forum in which she can vent her anger, no broad recognition of its valid roots in the abandonment of her generation by an economy and a polity determined to be irresponsible.

The rest of us blacks, whose votes or decisions to stay at home will determine whether you get to be president, are watching for the answers you devise. Michael Dukakis missed that point when he showed the world that he intended to ''owe'' blacks nothing when he walked into the White House.

''Owing'' nothing, he got nothing either, when neither the Reagan Democrats who turned away from his party for racial reasons, nor Jesse Jackson's ''rocks lying unused'' rallied to his cause. Now he walks in the White House as a tourist. Even if the Ross Perot phenomenon fades down the home stretch -- I still think it will -- it is likely to force the kind of race our 11 million votes can dramatically affect. Or would you really rather be Mike Dukakis?

L Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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