© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2003
I hate when cultural icons do not know when to quit, when to leave public life with dignity, while they are on top. Rosa Parks is such a misguided icon. Considered the mother of the modern civil rights movement, she just could not muster the common sense to leave public life with grace.
Mrs. Parks made history in 1955, when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., to a white man. Her arrest sparked a 381-day boycott by blacks nationwide, which led to court rulings that ended segregation on public transportation and planted the seeds of the civil rights movement.
Until recently, Mrs. Parks had been an untouchable in African-American culture. If you said anything negative about her, you whispered it far away from public venues.
Well, the gloves came off last October with the release of the film Barbershop. The 102-minute comedy is a straight-talking yet positive story about life in a black barbershop in Chicago and about how the shop's owner, family man Calvin, played by Ice Cube, struggles to keep the business afloat.
The film triggered a brouhaha because some jokes told by the character Eddie, a wise, curmudgeonly old barber played by Cedric the Entertainer. At the eye of the storm is a two-minute scene in which Eddie blasts Rodney King, saying the LAPD should have beat him; O.J. Simpson, saying he was guilty of murder; Martin Luther King, saying he was a ho'; and Mrs. Parks, suggesting she did not earn her apotheosis.
When another character warns, "Don't let Jesse Jackson hear you talk like that," Eddie responds: "F-- Jesse Jackson!"
Eddie argues that other blacks had refused to give up their seats and were arrested long before Mrs. Parks, secretary of the local NAACP, became a cause celebre.
Specifically, Eddie says: "Rosa ain't did nothin' but sit her black ass down."
Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton threatened boycotts, demanded apologies and asked the producers to remove the offending scene from the film. Then came the truly unfortunate episode in this sorry mess: Mrs. Parks refused to attend the 34th annual NAACP Image Awards ceremony because Cedric the Entertainer was the host. The awards honor people and companies that support positive change for blacks in arts and entertainment.
Willis Edwards, a friend of and a spokesman for Mrs. Parks, told NAACP officials: "(Mrs. Parks) wants to thank the NAACP for lifting her up. She wants to thank all of you for loving her. She was not happy with what was said about her and she has a right to do that (snub the ceremony)."
Sure, Mrs. Parks can do what whatever she wants. By not attending the event, however, she became just another black icon who cannot take a joke, who is out of touch with the reality of black life today, especially the odd fit between the new hip-hop culture and that of the civil rights old guard.
As far as I am concerned, Mrs. Parks showed no class by snubbing the ceremony. And in trying to mollify Mrs. Parks, the NAACP trashed more of its credibility by denying any award to Barbershop, a hit that raked in $75-million.
The 90-year-old civil rights icon should have attended the affair and gracefully accepted her award. Then, she should have given the following acceptance speech, or something like it, which I gladly would have written, free of charge, if her people had asked:
"Good evening, my dear friends, my sisters and brothers in the struggle. I'm in my golden years, and I'm still receiving wonderful awards. For that, I am thankful. How many other black people are so lucky? We as a people have come a long, long way, but we still have a long way to go before we realize our dream of freedom and equality in America. I hope that my small act of not giving up my seat that day in Montgomery moved us closer to our dream.
"And, now, Cedric, the Entertainer, or whatever you call yourself, I thank you for your unique interpretation of the civil rights movement. It tells me that we have further to go, even in 2003, than I had imagined. You are right about one thing, Mr. hotshot Entertainer: I ain't did nothin' but sit my black ass down. I was just plum tired that day. But, Ced, where have you sat your bountiful black ass lately, besides on a bar stool and the other place I dare not mention in public? Where have any of your fellow young bloods -- with their gold chains, gold teeth, baggy clothes, filthy underwear showing -- sat their black asses lately, except on jailhouse bunks?
"Oh, I know you all make a lot of money with your music and all the infantile garb that goes with it. But your tunes, outfits and behavior have coarsen black culture, bruh Entertainer. They have diminished us. But I didn't come here to be negative, funny fella. I came to accept my award and show the world that old Mrs. Rosa Parks holds no grudges and has her pride.
"Again, I thank the NAACP and praise its leadership. Before I close, however, I want to know one thing, Mr. Cedric the Entertainer: Who in the hell are you? Does your mama, or whatever hatched you, know you changed your name, boy? Good night, everyone. And remember that I love you all. Thanks so very much for honoring me tonight.
"Wait a minute! Hold it! Shut up, Cedric! And, for a change, sit your black ass down!"
I can see it now: The crowd goes wild with love and respect. Cedric the Entertainer, the magnanimous sport that he is, hugs Mrs. Parks. Then, he whispers in her ear.
The two of them -- instant friends -- double over over laughing.