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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 13, 2002
SAN ANGELO, Texas -- The recent flap between calypso singer Harry Belafonte and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell goes to the heart of American history. During a radio interview, Belafonte compared Powell with a "house slave" -- a harsh insult in black culture.
Some background: One of my favorite films is Spike Lee's Bamboozled. Released in 2000 to uninterested black moviegoers, it satirizes television's demeaning treatment of African-Americans.
If that had been the film's only theme, blacks would have lined up to see the in-your-face satire. But Bamboozled had another damning theme: Although TV sitcoms routinely portray blacks as fools, clowns, slackers and criminals, blacks are eager participants in this jig of dehumanization.
But Bamboozled's greatest insult is how Lee delivers the film's message: He puts the story's two black minstrel show stars in blackface. The act of blacks wearing blackface points out the chilling reality that blacks willingly demean themselves for fame, money and power.
One of my favorite scenes in Bamboozled comes when Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith) and her brother, Big Black Africa (Mos Def) meet in her apartment. Sloan is struggling to build a career with a mainstream TV network. Big Black Africa, leader of the Mau Maus, a violent revolutionary rap band, wants Sloan to find a spot in her network for his group.
When Sloan rejects his request, Big Black Africa accuses her of being a traitor to her race -- a "house nigger." She responds by calling him "a field nigger." They part company and never reconcile.
Well, here we go again, this time with Powell as Sloan and Belafonte as Big Black Africa. This is how the fraternal fight began: During a radio talk show in San Diego on Tuesday, Belafonte, 75, a liberal civil rights activist, lashed out at the Bush administration's handling of civil liberties issues in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and its heavy-handed dealings with the United Nations.
When asked if he thought Powell had finked out as Bush tries to make a case for declaring war against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Belafonte unloaded. Until a few weeks ago, Powell, the nation's first black secretary of state, had been considered a voice of sanity in an otherwise war-obsessed White House and was a leading advocate of securing U.N. approval for military action.
Belafonte accused Powell of having abandoned his principles and likened his turnaround to the behavior of a "house slave."
"In the days of slavery," Belafonte said, "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. . . . 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 the pasture."
Of course, Powell could not let Belafonte's words go unchallenged. On CNN's Larry King Live on Thursday night, the secretary said: "I think it's unfortunate that Harry used that characterization. If Harry 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."
The New York Times reports that Powell initially "smiled" when told about Belafonte's comments. Later, however, he suggested that his service in Massa's House (the White House) is noble, and it has been a personal financial sacrifice. After all, as a field slave -- before working in the "house of the master" -- he was earning high lecture fees.
Powell should not be mystified by Belafonte's allusion to slavery and the era when whites abused blacks with impunity. Even then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, the up-by-your-own-bootstraps poster boy of Republicans, instinctively dipped into slavery-time imagery when he confronted questions about his relations with Anita Hill. He called the inquiry a "high-tech lynching." Remember, this description was from a man who claims that race does not matter.
Slavery -- with its collective memory and evil legacy -- remains the most powerful symbol in black life, and references to it are as natural as breathing. No one, except black Republicans and white conservatives, should be surprised that blacks invoke and evoke such imagery in the circumstances in which Powell finds himself.
When Powell and other black Republicans, such as U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and Thomas, want to brag about their success, they readily tell us how they overcame the effects of slavery. But when they are accused of acting like slaves, such references become, as Powell said, "unfortunate."
Black history is filled with characters, real and fictional, who served the "house of the master" for personal gain and power. In modern times, such service is condemned when the master is seen as the enemy of black people's principles and aspirations.
The Bush administration, as represented by the tactics of Attorney General John Ashcroft, for example, scares many non-Republican blacks. And blacks working for the administration are seen as "house niggers" who are aiding and abetting bad policies. They help give the impression that the administration is racially diverse and that blacks support these bad policies.
"What Colin Powell serves is to give the illusion that the Bush Cabinet is a diverse Cabinet, made up of people of color," Belafonte said. "In fact, none of that is true."
To Belafonte, Powell is not a person of color. He is a house slave who has been ordered to get with the program or go back to the field. In other words, Powell has burnt cork on his face. He has been bamboozled.