A few years ago at a State of the Black Union event, I remember an interview with Harry Belafonte wherein he shared one of his last conversations with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said Dr. King told him, “I fear, I am integrating my people into a burning house.” Concerned, he asked Dr. King, “What should we do?” Dr. King replied, “Become the firemen. Let’s not stand by and let the house burn.”
That tete-a-tete kept popping into my head all day, so much so that I've had trouble finishing this post. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for the entire conversation, then I wouldn't have to speculate about what Dr. King actually meant. But I wasn't. So, drawing on my own life experiences in the Jim Crow South, I believe he was equating the state of American politics, policies and business at the time, to the "Burning House" - a house in which Blacks had NO hand in building.
Racism, more overt than covert, was both institutionalized and personal; poverty was then, as it is now, overwhelming for the have-nots and ignored by the haves; the Vietnam War, like Iraq, was un-winnable and unconscionable but, we kept fighting. Then, largely through his efforts, Blacks were thrust, uninitiated, into the "games" those politicians knew all too well how to play in order to line their pockets, stroke their own egos, bamboozle the people and maintain the status quo.
I'm so tired of this cliche, but both parts still hold so much truth: Blacks have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. The games, the political calculations and machinations, the "burning house" strategies - still exist. The only difference is the faces of the gamesmen have morphed into our own. We need only look to this very small, partial list to realize both halves of the truth in the cliche:
- Former D.C. mayor, Marion Barry
- Detroit mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick
- Former Louisiana Congressman William J. Jefferson
- Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Gen. Colin Powell
- Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice
- Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas
- Former HUD Secretary, Alphonso Jackson
- Talk-radio show hosts Armstrong Williams and Michael Baisden
- Prior presidential candidates, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton
- Television talk-show host, Oprah Winfrey
- Actor and comedian, Dr. Bill Cosby
- NPR Senior Correspondent, Juan Williams
- Presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama
The house WAS, and still is burning. And yes, the senator from Illinois has especially learned how to play those games very well (an interesting article from Todd Spivak of the Houston Press lays out some of his lessons). One has to admit that using the color of his skin and channelling MLK or Malcolm X to get the Black vote, then distancing himself from them after he's gotten what he wanted so as not to upset white folks, is perfect - for him! Having used Rev. Wright and his congregation to firmly plant his image in the Black community, then denouncing him when the shit hit the fan, to only later come back and tell white folks what they wanted to hear to assuage their guilt by excusing the reverend as some old, doddering, retiring, used-to-have-been is brilliant, learned, "burning house" strategy. Even Sun Tzu would have been proud!
Don't get me wrong, for minorities, learning those "games" was and remains essential to surviving and trying to thrive in the burning house. But Sen. Obama's pouring more fuel on the fire, through playing the same games that held us in bondage, is not where I expected we'd be after 40+ years. I, like Dr. King, thought we would be the firemen.
During the afore-mentioned State of the Black Union event, Dr. Cornel West said, “We must transform the House.” Much as I admire Dr. West, I don't see much transformation in the senator from Illinois.