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So where were the leaders?
By Kimberley Jane Wilson
After the September 11 terrorist attack, the worst ever on American soil a whole lot of people had their say. Some Americans cheered on the terrorists. In California a 6th grade teacher set fire to a portion of the US flag in front of his startled students.
In my comfortable Virginia suburb I watched a gleeful young gas station cashier raise his hands in the air and make the V for victory sign when the radio he was listening to announced the latest death toll. Judging by the engineering text books on the counter next to him and his sweat shirt I assume this kid attends our local community college. He actually looked surprised when I put down my candy bar and left.
Other Americans reacted with fear and hoped that the United States could just smooth everything over with the organization that was behind the killing. In general Americans were moved to both grief and fury. Politicians, journalists, and celebrities all rushed to make their comments. A few (in particular a couple of pop singers and a comedian) made fools of themselves and a few were profound.
I'd like to know one thing. Where was the black leadership? Within days of the attack Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam vigorously condemned it but I didn't hear anything from Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton.
Both men are ordained ministers and Al Sharpton lives in New York. I would've expected some public words of comfort to the families of the victims from both of them. Instead in the first days after the attack there was silence.
Jesse Jackson's eloquence is well known. His preaching has moved even the most sophisticated audiences. Except for a weekend at home when the existence of his out-of-wedlock daughter became public he's never shied away from the spotlight so why he didn't immediately speak up is a mystery. He has made a something of a rebound in recent days. According to his staff Jackson has spoken almost daily to Secretary of State Colin Powell and is talking about going to Afghanistan to talk to the Taliban leaders.
Al Sharpton is another mystery. He's been toying with the idea of running for President of the United States. He made a big media splash earlier this year with his trip to the Sudan when he visited former slaves and when he joined the parade of celebrity protesters in Vieques, Puerto Rico He's even taken the step of organizing a presidential exploratory committee. Of course, I have more chance of being elected Queen of Sweden than he has of actually winning a single primary but here was a perfect moment for him to make a statement that would've received national attention.
.A number of observers say that what Al Sharpton really wants is to replace Jesse Jackson as the nation's premier black power broker. To his credit Sharpton has taken a 12 year old into his home whose mother is among the missing at the World Trade Center and reportedly the money he solitcited for his 47th birthday party went to "victim services" but these are private actions.
He had a chance to speak to those in the black community who still see him as that flashy preacher from New York and to those who because of the Tawana Brawley and the Freddy's Fashion Mart incidents, don't see him as a serious figure but he let the chance past by. Like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton seems to have sensed that he stumbled in the first few days after September 11th and let it be known that he wasn't in the public eye because he was busy leading prayer vigils and making plans to visit Israel in October. Lately he's pleased himself by attacking Mayor Rudy Guilliani and playing King-Maker in the upcoming New York mayoral election.
Where was the statement from the entire Congressional Black Caucus? They are members of Congress supposedly working on the nation's business aren't they? Untold numbers of black people are among the thousands of victims yet our so called leaders didn't have much to say. Wasn't the deadliest day in America's history worthy of some kind of comment?
The NAACP which a few months ago was so passionate about finding jobs for black actors has been rather tepid during this crisis. There is a nice message of support for the victims of the attacks on the organization's web site and it's President and Chief Executive Officer, the normally firery Kweisi Mmfume, has said some remarkably sensible things in recent interviews but has been so low key about it that I doubt that very many people know anything about it.
Maybe it's time to re-think this whole black leader thing. The idea that only one black person or one small group of folks have the divine right to speak for an entire race of people is insulting anyway. The idea that black public officials should only speak out about "black issues" is equally insulting.
The black community is extraordinarily diverse. Some are rich, some are poor. Many are Baptists, others are Catholics, or Muslims. A lot of us live in Northern cities, others are busy migrating back to the South. Many never left it. Some of us live racially separate lives, others have white spouses and relatives. Most of us are Democrats but others are Republican or Independent. There are a number of black people who for various religious and social reasons ignore politics altogether. We aren't monolithic.
When those planes slammed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and into the Pennsylvania soil they did not discriminate. Black lives were not spared. The terrorists came to kill Americans and didn't care about their victims races, creeds or color. The catastrophe that hit America on September 11th was not a white thing nor was it an East Coast thing. With so many ordinary Americans of all races working together to protect this nation, to comfort the living victims, and to recover the dead it's a shame that our leaders couldn't have remembered that we are all members of the same American family.
Kimberley Lindsay Wilson Author of Work It! The Black Woman's Guide to Success at Work (Iuniverse, ISBN 059500122X, $8.95) & Eleven Things Mama Should Have Told You About Men (African American Images, September 2000, ISBN: 0913543691, $12.95)
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