Farrakhan Hits a Sour Note

CLARENCE PAGE

April 30, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- Most people probably don't know it but, long before Black Muslim Minister Louis Farrakhan began to make news for baiting Jews, he was a popular professional calypso performer known as ''the Charmer.''

Before that, he was a child violinist who performed impressively on the ''Ted Mack Amateur Hour'' in 1946 when he was only about 13.

Now the controversial Nation of Islam head says he hopes his music will have enough charm to smooth relations between blacks and Jews.

Surrounded by his bodyguards, he surprised the audience after an April 17 orchestral concert in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, by walking onstage and playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.

And he wasn't half-bad. A New York Times critic allowed that, although Mr. Farrakhan makes mistakes and can be erratic, his sound is ''wide, deep and full of the energy that makes the violin gleam.''

Afterward Mr. Farrakhan said he liked to play the music of a European Jew (Felix Mendelssohn's family converted to Christianity) whose music was banned by the Nazis. He also spoke on the need for reconciliation with American Jews.

Now he plans to repeat the performance May 17 in the Rev. Johnnie Coleman's Christ Universal Temple, a prominent church Chicago's South Side black community, to observe his 60th birthday.

Michael Morgan, assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who directed the first concert, hoped the May 17 concert, which will be a fund-raiser for the Nation of Islam scholarship fund, would be a grand display of brotherhood with a Jewish cantor singing alongside Mr. Farrakhan on violin in the Christian church. But efforts to get a good cantor were not successful. There simply wasn't enough time, says Mr. Morgan. Maybe later.

''I'm approaching this not as someone who is trying to get everyone to love Louis Farrakhan,'' says Mr. Morgan, who is also African-American, ''but as someone who spends a lot of time with children and believes we've got to set an example for them.''

Fair enough. I wish him luck, but I think Mr. Farrakhan might set a better example if his reconciliation gestures were a bit more forthright.

''To undo with music what words have done'' is the Charmer's charmingly stated goal. But if he really wants to undo the damage words have done, he should try words, not music, beginning perhaps with the words, ''I'm sorry.''

Consider his record. Outside the black community, Mr. Farrakhan is best known for saying during Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign that the creation of Israel was ''an outlaw act,'' Hitler was a ''great . . . wickedly great man'' and Judaism was what sounds on tapes like ''a gutter religion,'' although Mr. Farrakhan insists he only said ''dirty religion,'' as if that makes a .. whale of a difference.

His Nation of Islam headquarters has sold such blatantly anti-Jewish material as tapes by a professional speaker, Steve Cokely, that advance the notion that AIDS was created by Jewish doctors to attack black people.

Even if you are one of the narrow few who believes Mr. Farrakhan when he says he meant no offense to Jews, you have to wonder why he has not apologized at least for the offense Jews have taken. Instead, he says he wants to say it with music.

Sorry, but I don't think a few musical notes would be enough to soothe my rage as an African-American if someone talked about my people the way Louis Farrakhan has talked about Jews.

Neither does Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. ''Playing the music of dead Jews will not repair the depth of hurt, insult and damage that the Rev. Louis Farrakhan's mouth has spewed forth,'' he said. ''I wouldn't dignify his gimmick by calling it outreach. This man has said vile things, not to one person but on platforms, and every time he is challenged, he uses the shabbiest verbal acrobatics to try to explain it away. It's hard to say what one has to do after all that to make amends, but I think he can begin with an apology.''

That would be good, but it shouldn't end there. If Mr. Farrakhan is serious about improving relations with Jews, he will use his bully pulpit to preach not just to Jews, but also to African-Americans. He will go to college campuses, to Brooklyn's Crown Heights, to South-Central Los Angeles or his own Chicago South Side and expose the evils that hate has produced to the angry and disenchanted youngsters who turn to him for inspiration.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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