Ties that bind can also choke

September 10, 1998|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

I KNOW you'll find this hard to believe, but I once wrote a column that sparked a racially charged confrontation, with readers making daily demands for my severed head on a stick.

One day, at the height of the heat, I got a call from a black woman I had never met. She said she had put a group together that was prepared to march in front of the newspaper in a show of support.

I thanked her and told her it wasn't necessary, but the gesture has always meant a lot to me. I take it as evidence of the unspoken covenant that exists among black people. Call it an embrace of the dispossessed, an abiding knowledge that one belongs to a larger and grander something. And that the something will always defend you, always back you.

That covenant can be blessed succor in trying times. But it comes at a price. That's what comedian Chris Rock is discovering now.

Mr. Rock recently roiled racial sensibilities with a Vanity Fair magazine spread that depicts him in clown garb -- and whiteface. For some, the picture was an unpleasant echo of the days when white men in blackface -- and some black men in blackface -- bestrode vaudeville stages with demeaning racial mimicry.

Black reporters asked Mr. Rock about the photo at a recent news conference in New York. His response: He's just a comedian. Mr. Rock further complained about the need to factor race into every career move and told the reporters that there are opportunities he will never have "because of people like you."

It reminded me of a story I heard a few years ago. It seems Louis Gossett Jr. was up for the role of the murderous Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs." It was a complex part any actor would, well . . . kill for, but it ultimately went to Anthony Hopkins, who won an Oscar. Mr. Gossett lost the role, the story goes, not because of acting considerations, but racial ones. Filmmakers feared the fallout that would come with having a black man play a cannibal.

So here's the question raised by all this: Just how much does a black person owe black people? Do black people have the right to tell a black person how to live?

The implications of it extend beyond a comedian who poses in whiteface or an actor who wants to play a cannibal. Extends even to the sister who marries a white man or the brother who prefers Mozart to Motown.

In a sense, black people have traded one slavery for another, given up iron chains for cultural and ideological ones. And the man who strays too far from the plantation of accepted mores will be strung up before a court of his peers that will question his blackness and demand explanation of his actions.

It's part and parcel of the same unspoken covenant: You belong to us.

Which is, of course, the same thing the slave master once said.

Makes you wonder. If we were truly free, couldn't a black actor play a cannibal or a black comic paint his face white without fear that they were somehow going to damage an entire race?

If we were truly free, yes. But we're not.

So we're left instead with this imperfect paradigm common to marginalized groups, this sense of the individual as property of the group. And each individual has to decide where to draw the line, how answerable they wish to be. Otherwise, the embrace of the dispossessed comes to weigh heavily upon you. The hug becomes a headlock.

I've never forgotten how it felt to pick up the phone and find people I didn't know ready to stand up for me. In time of turmoil, it's a glorious thing to know your family has your back.

But the price is so high sometimes. You surrender the independence granted to individuals and take instead the burdens imposed on representatives. You lose, ironically, the very thing black people have sought for centuries: Freedom.

Is that too much to pay? Sometimes, yes.

After all, Louis Gossett would have made a great Hannibal Lecter.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 9/10/98

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