2001: Leonard Pitts, The Miami Herald
Award for Community/Column writing
Monday, January 28, 2002
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Commentary/Column writing

Leonard Pitts

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Flag of lies still flies in face of truth

January 20, 2000


Masochist that I am, I think I’ll talk about the Confederate battle flag again.

Last time I did so, I argued that the state of South Carolina needs to remove that dirty symbol of slavery and racism from its spot above the capitol building. Which, naturally, produced howls of outrage, loads of racial invective and not a few lamentations for my ignorance of history. As one writer put it, “If you are intelligent, and I think you probably are, then you know the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.’’


If you know me, then you know I can’t let that one pass unchallenged. Especially since it is repeated ad nauseum by apologists for the old Confederacy. The war wasn’t about slavery, they say, because only a fraction of the Confederate soldiers owned slaves.

It’s a nonsequitur masquerading as logic. Put another way, I’d be willing to wager that the average American soldier had never even heard of Kuwait before George Bush ordered him or her to defend that desert kingdom. Because, you see, it’s not the soldiers who determine whether or why a war is fought — it’s the leaders. In the case of the Confederacy, the leaders could hardly have been more explicit.

In an early message to his Congress, Confederate President Jefferson Davis flatly cited the “labor of African slaves’’ as the reason for secession.

His vice president, Alexander Stephens, called slavery “the immediate cause ... of the present revolution.’’ And he added this: “Our new government is founded upon ... the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.’’

Not about slavery? Oh, please.

Yet, the attempt to separate the Civil War from its dominant cause proceeds apace, without the barest hint of shame. Defenders of the Confederacy huddle behind euphemisms — “state’s rights,’’ “economic issues’’ — but always, it devolves to the same thing, the bondage of African people. A century and a third later, much of the South still finds it impossible to face that truth squarely.

Instead, there’s this taxing insistence that if grandfather fought bravely and truly believed in his cause, then surely this must transfigure the cause, must leave his deeds somehow ... ennobled. But that’s just another nonsequitur, another blind alley of logic. I mean, surely there were Nazi and Japanese soldiers who, during the Second World War, fought bravely and truly believed in their cause. But who among us would call their cause anything but reprehensible? Who among us finds honor in what they did?


Indeed, some years back, when Japan issued school books that distorted or ignored that nation’s wartime aggression and atrocities, American observers promptly condemned it as an attempt to whitewash the past.

Small wonder. The Japanese can never be allowed to forget how awful that past was — else they might be tempted to relive it.

What would we say to the Germans if they chose to fly the swastika above their capitol? How would we reply if they told us they were simply honoring the heritage of forbears who fought for what they believed? Would we call it a “controversy,’’ suggesting there were competing opinions of roughly equal validity? Would we, in the manner of certain rubber-spined presidential candidates, declare it a local issue of no concern to “outsiders?’’ Or would we be alarmed? Would we say that here was a people too deluded to learn the hard lessons of history?


And if that’s the case, then how can we say less about the South? How can we say less about the region where, five years ago, a governor proposed educational standards that would have required teachers to refer to slaves as “settlers?’’ Where in 1998, a school district rejected a black history poster because it included an image of a lynching? Where a banner symbolizing slavery and white supremacy flies above a house of the people?

Every day that sunrise finds it there, South Carolina shames itself, shames its ancestors, shames the nation, shames the very truth — and profanes the ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Yet there it hangs anyway, a cloth lie flapping in the Dixie breeze.

Look away, look away.

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald

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Why lose yourself in group’s cause?

January 22, 2000

Compromising your individuality for sake of belonging can be costly

Our question for today: How much of you belongs to you?

I’m moved to ask this by one of the students in my writing class. The assignment was to compose and read aloud an essay describing themselves and their lives. The piece this student wrote was about how confusing and painful it is to have people pigeonhole you just because you’re black. It’s difficult, wrote this 14-year-old, to have others always expect you to operate, be confined by, or bend your behavior to, their expectations.

 What was intriguing is that the people the child was complaining about were not white, but black.

 It seems my student gets a lot of grief for speaking standard English, singing the songs of a white pop group, and cultivating a rainbow coalition of friends. Some black folks in the kid’s immediate circle have responded with the harshest epithet they can muster. They call the child ... “white.’’

If this were a movie, this is the spot where you’d hear scary music and a shriek of unadulterated horror.

If you’re a member of a minority — racial, sexual, cultural, religious — there’s a good chance you already understand what’s going on here. If not, I can only refer you back to that opening question: How much of you belongs to you? You may think the answer is self-evident. Truth is, it’s anything but.

The life of the American minority group is governed by a deceptively simple equation — oppression from without creates cohesion from within. People who find themselves besieged because of their sexual orientation, skin color, culture, or way of approaching God tend to draw together with similar others. They circle the wagons, raise the drawbridge, close the gates, and make of themselves a community — a people.

It can be a soul-saving thing, belonging to a people. You love them unreservedly for providing you an emotional home, for instilling in you a sense of worth, for giving voice to your aspirations. Most of all, you love them for standing up on your behalf when the world comes calling with reproach and accusation.

A soul-saving thing, yes. But you find, not infrequently, that you are expected to pay for this wonderful gift at the cost of bits and pieces of your own individuality. When you belong to a people, when you are born into this association that exists on a basis of mutual defense, of watching the world from a bunker and waiting for the next attack, it’s easy to lose your very self to them. So easy to become the group.

 Small wonder. The group enforces its cohesion strictly. Its members are discouraged from doing, saying or thinking that which does not reflect the consensus of the whole. Sometimes, one is discouraged from even associating with members of the “enemy’’ camp. And there’s a heavy penalty for transgression: One is cast out, ostracized.

As in a colleague I once had who told me his people constantly criticized his work. Their complaint? He was “not Cuban enough.’’

It’s a charge that finds its echo across the American demographic. Not lesbian enough. Not Jewish enough. Not black enough. The unstated irony is that all these peoples who plead for tolerance of difference sometimes have so little tolerance for the differences within their own ranks.

So sometimes, yes, a person wonders: How much of you belongs to you? Where’s the point beyond which fealty to the group becomes a compromise of self?

I wish I’d had an easy answer for my student but of course, I did not. I did tell the kid this: What you are should never be the sole determinant of who you are. You have the right to your own taste in music, your own choice of friends, your own self. These are your prerogatives, no one else’s. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Someday, I hope my student will learn. That you have to honor what you belong to, yes. But you must also protect the things that belong to you.

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald

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2nd thoughts following N.Y. verdict


March 2, 2000

“....[A] wallet in the hand of a white man looks like a wallet, but a wallet in the hand of a black man looks like a gun.’’

- Bill Bradley

I was ready to jump to conclusion. Then four black women got in the way.

Meaning the four who sat on the Albany, N.Y., jury that last week acquitted four white cops in the shooting death of an unarmed African immigrant.

By now, you know the story. How New York City police officers encountered Amadou Diallo standing in front of his apartment building early last year. How he went into his pocket for something. How somebody yelled, “Gun!’’

How they shot him. And then shot him some more. Forty-one rounds fired over eight seconds, 19 of them finding their mark.

Then the awful discovery: the “gun’’ was only a wallet.

The thing seemed cut and dried to me. Which is why the jury’s verdict was ... impossible. Not guilty of murder, not guilty of manslaughter, not even guilty of criminal negligence? Now New York City is steaming, the kettle of racial acrimony threatening to boil. And I’d be ready to boil right along with them, except ...

Except for the inconvenient fact of those four women.

I find myself caught between — not able to believe, not able to dismiss. And I’m forced to confess that they are the only reason I’m willing to cut the justice system even that sliver of slack.

It’s a painful admission. It’s also an unavoidable one. How many times has an encounter with a white lawman resulted in the unjustifiable injury or death of an innocent African-American woman or man? And how many times has an all-white jury justified it anyway?

So it makes a difference — it shouldn’t, but it does — that four of the jurors who vouched for the legal blamelessness of these cops are black. Granted, blackness is no more a character reference than whiteness is a character defect. But you’re more willing to listen — a friend says she had to think twice — because of the race of those women.

It’s a sad truth that speaks volumes about the reputation cops and courts have earned in minority communities. If trust is the currency of justice, then the justice system is bankrupt in those neighborhoods.

Fact is, black folks know a different system than their white countrymen do. Think Rodney King, smashed to pulp by Los Angeles police while the nation stood witness. An all-white jury set those officers free. And then there’s O.J. Simpson, whose defense team drew laughter with the suggestion that Los Angeles cops might plant evidence or frame suspects. Over 20 L.A. cops have recently been fired or disciplined for planting evidence and framing suspects.

Understand those things and you’ll understand why blacks have no trouble believing cops could willfully execute a man in the vestibule of his own building. Or why they would distrust a jury that said otherwise.

Here’s the question: If Amadou Diallo was white, would he still be alive? Would some jittery cop have been so quick to see a gun where there was none? Would they have been so filled with fear that they’d fire 41 times — 41 times! — to bring him down?

We cannot, of course, ever know for sure. And I’m not at all convinced the conclusion I was ready to jump to is not in fact the correct one. Yet at the same time, I’m troubled by the realization that we as African-American people jump by reflex now. That experience has taught us this is the wise thing to do.

I feel sorry for those women, having to bear the weight of expectation. I don’t like having to trust more in the fact of blackness than in the promise of justice.

But that’s where we stand. And until courts and cops begin to work equally hard at earning the trust of all citizens, it’s where we’re likely to stay.

Until that moment, these episodes will continue to move with sad predictability.

White cop shoots unarmed black person. Outrage burns like fire.

And we jump.

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald

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ReparationsÂ’ weight still burdens soul of some black folks

September 21, 2000

“Don’t depend on the train from Washington. It’s 100 years overdue.’’


— Gil Scott-Heron

In January of 1865, as the Civil War was grinding to a close, Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, awarding captured farmlands in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to former slaves. Each freedman was to receive 40 acres and the loan of an Army mule. Four months later, President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order and returned the land to the former slave owners.

But “40 acres and a mule’’ fired the imagination of ex-slaves and their allies. Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania unsuccessfully pushed legislation to give freed blacks this leg up on their new life. It was as inconceivable to him as it was to them that millions of illiterate and impoverished people would be turned loose in a hostile region without food, shelter or means.

Surely, they thought, there would at least be 40 acres and a mule. Something to get a man started. So they waited, filled with expectation and hope.

All of which adds a certain poignancy to recent news stories of a reparations hoax targeting African Americans in South Florida and elsewhere in the South and upper Midwest. In one version of the scam, old people are told to supply personal data so that the government can pay them money under the fictional “Slave Reparation Act.’’ Another centers on a supposed $40,000 reparations rebate on 1999 taxes open to African Americans who file an amended return with the IRS. The con artists offer to do the necessary paperwork for a fee of up to $150. Dozens have fallen for it.


Small wonder. After all, these cons play on a point of emotional vulnerability. Meaning that, where compensation for the long night of our American odyssey is concerned, many black folks are still doing as our forebears did: waiting for compensation. Waiting for reparations.

It’s not that I disagree with folks who argue that cause. From where I sit, their reasoning is unassailable. If it’s an accepted practice that governments pay restitution to citizens they have materially damaged, if it’s proper for Germany and Austria to compensate Holocaust victims and the United States to recompense Americans of Japanese heritage interned during World War II, then what argument can be made against reparations for blacks, who suffered 246 years of slavery and an additional century of Jim Crow privation?


But for all that, reparations is not an issue that resonates with me. It strikes me as a righteous but impractical crusade, a tilting at windmills that diverts time, attention and political capital from more pressing matters.

Where reparations for African Americans are concerned, I consider two things unarguable. The first is that they can’t print enough money to compensate the crime. The second is that, even if they could, reparations would still not happen because the mood of the country would not allow it. Inevitably, it would be seen as giving some unearned thing to black people. Never mind that we’ve never been “given’’ a damned thing; that’s still how it would play.
I know white America is not some wicked monolith, any more than black America is.

We could argue the point, I suppose. Win the debate on its merits and still never see a dime.

Or we could invest that time and energy to improve the education of our children, reconnect our men with their communities, dismantle discrimination in housing and labor, fight police profiling, rescue our boys from the maw of the criminal injustice system. Take our destiny in our own hands for a change.

I guess I’ve just grown tired of black people asking white people to “do’’ things. Tired of black folks’ contentment always being held hostage to white folks’ will.

Forgive me if I seem to paint with too broad a brush. I know white America is not some wicked monolith, any more than black America is. I believe in human fraternity.

But the belief does nothing to still that fatigue — marrow-deep and newly exacerbated by the thought of scam artists preying upon this emotionally vulnerable spot.

We’ve been looking for those acres and that mule for 135 years. I guess I’m just tired of waiting.

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald

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Gangsta rap’s mask a rip-off

October 26, 2000

“We wear the mask that grins and lies’’


— Paul Laurence Dunbar

The great black Vaudevillian Bert Williams is supposed to have been a very funny guy. “The funniest man I ever saw,’’ W.C. Fields once said.

Offstage, Williams was reputed to be exceedingly intelligent and reserved to the point of snobbishness. He was a great reader, too, favoring the likes of Twain, Goethe, Kant and Voltaire.

Onstage was another matter. Every night before he went on, Williams put on his mask. That is, he applied to his face gleaming black cork and whitewall tire lips. Then he shuffled out there, a shiftless ne’er-do-well, slow of foot, slower of mouth and slowest of mind. He and his partner, George Walker, billed themselves as “Two Real Coons’’ by way of assuring white audiences that they were getting something they were not: authentic black comedy.

This was obligatory behavior for black performers a century ago.

I was reminded of Bert Williams’ life as I watched Spike Lee’s movie. Bamboozled is easily the most controversial release of the season; a satire about the rise and fall of Mantan’s New Millennium Minstrel Show, a TV variety show built on the coarsest racial stereotypes you can imagine. Two shiftless clowns, grinning from blackface and red lips, perform in a watermelon patch. Featured players include Aunt Jemima, Sambo and assorted pickaninnies. Mantan is the brainchild of a disgruntled black television executive who only wants to get fired. Instead, he gets acclaimed. Mantan becomes a sensation.

It’s not a great movie — the final act is a mess, and the characters are sometimes unrecognizable as human beings. And yet Bamboozled is, at times, strangely compelling.

One scene in particular. You watch the characters played by Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover burn the cork black, mix it with water, then apply that paste to their faces. Watch them draw lips with lipstick the color of firetrucks. Watch them disappear behind the mask. Then they take the stage for the first time, these human caricatures straight out of a segregationist’s fever dream. There’s a moment of stunned, airless silence. White members of the studio audience turn hesitantly to black ones, looking for a cue, wordlessly asking if they should find this funny.

And, softly at first, the black people laugh. That laugh stays with me. There’s something in it both troubling and true.

Because the better part of a century later, the “coon’’ act has changed and yet remains disturbingly the same. Consider that some of us now sell a crude, violent, values-free music that’s supposed to be as definitively black as Bert Williams’ shuffling jive.

Consider, too, that we still wear masks: A few years ago, there was a church-going ballet student who, seeking success as a rapper, remade herself as a foul-mouthed, malt liquor-swilling homegirl called Boss. Then there’s the guy who began his career wearing lipstick and rouge until that went out of fashion and he transformed himself into a crude street punk called Dr. Dre.

Some of us still wear the mask that grins and lies. Only now they do it not because they have to, but because that’s where the money is. Because black kids — white ones, too — will pay good money for fake lessons in authentic blackness.

“Keepin’ it real,’’ they say. And it’s hard not to hear a ghostly echo of Williams and Walker: “Two real coons.’’

I’m not mad at Bert Williams. Not mad at Mantan Moreland, Butterfly McQueen, Nick Stewart, Stepin Fetchit or any other black performer who had to shuffle his feet, bug his eyes, slur his words, or wear blackface because the white men who did the hiring would not accept them otherwise.

But I am mad at gangsta rap. And at those of us who passively accept the insult. Have we, African Americans, become so numb, dumb, despairing or disconnected that we’ve forgotten who we are? Forgotten how to give a damn?

Or have we just worn the mask so long we’ve forgotten the face that lies beneath? Forgotten everything except the rictus grin of the clown. And betrayed ancestors’ sacrifice in the process.

Because there’s only one difference between Bert Williams and Dr. Dre.

Bert Williams had no choice.

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald

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