Belafonte's dissing of Powell is unfair - and unhistorical

October 16, 2002|By Gregory Kane


Might make a great new theme song for singer-actor-left wing loudmouth Harry Belafonte, no? Most of you have probably heard the story by now, but here's a refresher for those of you who haven't.

About a week ago, Belafonte went on a San Diego radio show and excoriated Secretary of State Colin Powell, who, like Belafonte, is a Jamaican-American who achieved success through hard work and dedication.

Did Belafonte chastise Powell for his beliefs? Nah. That would have been too much like right. Would have been too dignified, too classy. Belafonte went for the race card, played more and more by blacks on the left/liberal side of the political spectrum these days.

"There's an old saying," Belafonte said on the broadcast. "In the days of slavery, there were those slaves who lived on the plantation and [there] were those slaves that lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master ... exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. Colin Powell's committed to come into the house of the master. When Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture."

Compare Powell's reaction to Belafonte's invective.

"If Harry had wanted to attack my politics, that was fine," the Secretary of State said. "If he wanted to attack a particular position I hold, that was fine. But to use a slave reference, I think, is unfortunate and is a throwback to another time and another place that I wish Harry had thought twice about using."

A very measured, very cogent response. Others not of Powell's character might have said something like "that's mighty big talk coming from a guy whose major achievement in life is something called `The Banana Boat Song.'" But maybe Powell figures that by letting his statements and Belafonte's stand by themselves, prudent Americans will be able to figure out which one should get the 2002 Silly Award.

That would be Belafonte, who implies that President Bush is the massa of some vast plantation called the United States of America, that its 33 million black inhabitants are still slaves and that Powell is the Handkerchiefhead House Negro in Charge. That language went out - or should have gone out - in the 1970s. Even Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan doesn't use it anymore.

If there is a plantation here, it's the one Belafonte is on: where all blacks are supposed to act a certain way, think a certain way and vote a certain way. Those who, like Powell, stray off that plantation to think for themselves are considered a threat and subject to name-calling and vitriol.

It sounds like Belafonte needs a lesson in being more tolerant of the views of those blacks who don't think like him. You would think he'd know better. Currently running on some cable and satellite premium movie channels is a documentary called Scandalize My Name. It tells the tale of those black actors and artists of the 1950s who tried to get roles other than stereotypical butlers, maids or buffoons and of the blacklisting that some faced in the McCarthy era.

Belafonte was one of those interviewed, and he lamented the narrow-mindedness, the guilt by association, the shame of it all. In other words, it was horrible when he and others of his political persuasion were the victims of intolerance but quite acceptable for him and others to dish it out to Powell and other black conservatives.

It's strange that after his public whining in Scandalize My Name that Belafonte would now want to scandalize Powell's. But you'd think he'd at least want to do it with some truth. Like the "Willie Lynch" folly, it's time blacks buried this notion of the house slave as collaborator and field slave as resister.

Most of those slaves involved in Denmark Vesey's conspiracy rebellion in 1822 were house slaves. Historian Douglas Egerton in his book Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 points out that most blacks involved were also what might be called "house slaves." Egerton also noted that Gabriel had trouble recruiting so-called "field slaves" into the rebellion.

Haiti's Toussaint L'Ouverture, who led the slave revolt that resulted in victory, was also a house slave. The paternal great-grandparents of Malcolm X, responsible for popularizing this "house slave/field slave" nonsense, were house slaves.

Two lessons may be learned from this. When dissing another black person, be careful you're not dissing your own ancestors. And being called a "house Negro," far from being an insult, is actually a compliment.

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