Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Rev. Al Sharpton Takes 'Em To Church

In the African-American community, when somebody in a crowd hollers, "Take 'em to church!" it means there's an emotional connection between the speaker and the audience that's producing a crucial response. All the listeners are...well, listening. The speaker is bulldozing the walls that most folks hide behind and downloading a hefty dose of whatever will wake them up, set them on fire, and remind them what it is to be alive.

I got taken to church today. In a church. And the Rev. Al Sharpton did the taking.

The good Reverend, whose National Action Network was a driving force in Jena, Louisiana, recently when twenty to fifty thousand people descended on that town in a show of solidarity not seen in decades over a single incident, looked introspective as he waited in a row of ministers for his turn in the pulpit. But from the time he adjusted the microphone until he whirled abruptly, with perfect timing, and retook his seat, Sharpton was totally in control. And he knew it. He displayed the savvy of a man who, as the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church minister and host, Rev. Moses Gordon put it, has reached "his season." But there was no arrogance. No grandstanding. In fact, none of the stuff I was prepared to see--and forgive him for.

I told myself I wouldn't take notes, even though I know Sharpton is a master of the turned phrase and I knew I would be blogging about the service. In fact, I let the first couple of zingers go by before I jerked out my pen and began hastily jotting down all I could, considering the speed with which he spoke and the way he went from point to point like a man who is paying by the minute to do so.

During his introduction, Rev. Gordon said that he had told his visiting counterpart that he could speak or he could preach, but that he should deliver whatever he perceived as necessary and the end result was electrifying. For a man who has been mercilessly castigated and ridiculed, Rev. Al Sharpton is not only a formidable orator, but an unapologetically inspiring man and I, for one, was inspired. I hooted. I wept. I applauded. I jumped to my feet so many times, I was hard-put to keep track of my pen.

"People talk about what happened back in the day," he started out. "But this is the day! Some folks go to church and don't do anything out in the world where the work is waiting to be done. Going to church is supposed to prepare you to DO that work! The reason I went to Jena is that those could have been MY sons. That could have been MY daughter calling me up to tell me she got into a fight at school and was sentenced to twenty-two years."

Then, in response to those who have criticized the mass mobilization in Jena, he declared, "You can't cause pain and then tell people how to holler. Hanging nooses -- the symbol that's been used to threaten our lives for over one hundred years -- is not a prank. If it was only a prank, how come it didn't happen until after African-American boys sat under that tree?"

In the dark, he explained, roaches will come out to eat a six-course meal, but when you turn the lights on, they all scatter. "The march wasn't designed as a solution," he went on. "but to expose the problem. On September 20th, we turned the lights on. If you don't want the lights on, you must be hiding something."

Addressing the rangling for position so often highlighted in and encouraged by the media between the more well-known African-American leaders and organizers, Rev. Sharpton euphemized, "If I'm drowning, then I want whoever's got a branch to help me. We can argue when I get to shore about who gets the headline, but right now, get me out of the water!"

By now, he was systematically attacking every possible excuse a person could have for laying low in the face of institutionalized oppression. "If you expect the ones who knocked you down to lift you up, it won't happen!" he warned. "If they wanted you lifted up, they wouldn't have knocked you down in the first place!"

He had chosen as the framework for his presentation the story from the Old Testament in the Bible about a powerful meglomaniac by the name of Nebuchadnezzar who threw three young men into a fiery furnace for not bowing down to him. It was not hard to follow the analogy. And the end of the story, of course, is that, when the men are thrown into the flames, they don't die. But Rev. Sharpton didn't even mention that. It wasn't the point he was going for. The point he was going for was that, in the face of the flames, they didn't bow down.

"If you're scared, say you're scared!" he bellowed. "And then sit down and shut up and let somebody else stand up and talk who isn't scared!"

I came unglued. I yelled and applauded so long with tears streaming down my face, I became convinced that the wall to wall crowd, virtually entirely African-American, must surely think I was nuts. But I didn't care.

See, I've been edgy the last few days since I committed to do a campus presentation on "What is Racism and How Do I Know I Have It?" You know how I write. Well, imagine this stuff coming out of my mouth, complete with inflections and expressions, face to face with my listeners. It can create some emotion, let alone I'm talking to folks who sport "Proud Redneck" bumper stickers on their F-150's. So, yeah, I was scared. I know I've been doing this for decades, but this is a new venue. And while I absolutely believe I'm here "on assignment," it doesn't mean I don't feel the pinch. The pinch, in fact, was all over Al Sharpton's face when he left the building, escorted by huge African-American sheriffs to his vehicle, though he had earlier quipped light-heartedly, "I want to meet Jesus, but not today. I still have work to do."

So I was afraid. But three days ago, I found out Sharpton was coming to my little town. So I went to hear him, of course.

My mother swears that I wasn't more than four when I was riding down the highway with my parents one afternoon, stuck my head out the window and screamed into the rushing wind, "Look out, world, here I come!" That was a long, long time ago, but that little girl's still in there. She took me to see Al Sharpton today. He took us all to church. And now I'm ready to do the work that's waiting.


Rent Party said...

Lots of great lines!

"You can't cause pain and then tell people how to holler."

"If they wanted you lifted up, they wouldn't have knocked you down in the first place!"

And: you're having fun, it's great!

Anonymous said...

Change, this was a beautiful post, I find it amazing that it is virtually impossible to find one media story where Sharpton is quoted this much. Funny thing is that I've been meaning to write on Sharpton for a while now, This might help nudge. ... the drowing line is so true... I'm tired of hearing people derisively saying that Sharpton or Jackson is "an opportunist". Shit if I had the opportunity to fix the Jena 6 situation I would myself... but only 3 people would show up to the march that I called upon... shit, we neeeed Sharpton & Jackson, they bring the camers... and they bring the justice...

Another Conflict Theorist said...

I'm sorry. I don't like Al Sharpton. Never have. I realize that he does good work but the fact of the matter is Al Sharpton IS an opportunist. More to the point, if the only people we can turn to in times of racial crisis are Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson it might speak volumes about how much we have been marginalized in this country.

changeseeker said...

Rent Party: Yep! I had BIG fun! And, if I get a chance, I'll go back for more. I couldn't help but think that the Universe provided exactly what I needed at this moment in my life. It doesn't get better than that.

Modi: Glad I could nudge you. I'll look forward to seeing what you write.

ACT: I've given this some thought. I used to feel the same way, but it occurs to me that it's difficult to draw the line between what is "opportunism" and what is "accepting responsibility." Maybe what we need in this country is a few MORE "opportunists" willing to put (and their lives) on the line to make a difference. It's a whole lot easier to hang back and not take the spotlight than it is to risk the slings and arrows of public opinion. Martin Luther King was far from spotless. And Malcolm X followed a man I certainly wouldn't have supported. But it doesn't change what I saw and experienced in church yesterday morning (and please understand, I don't typically go to church at all). People who wind up having "a season" (in the spotlight) are often larger than life. U.S. history, though, suggests that being in that position as an African-American is brutally hard work and flat out dangerous. And I don't see people lining up to take the job.

Rent Party said...

Where did this take place?

Another Conflict Theorist said...

Peace Changeseeker,

I know that Malcolm and Martin had some issues but I wouldn't even mention them in the same breath as Al Sharpton.

Perhaps I have a jaded view of the good Reverend Al having grown up on the East Coast. My first impression of Sharpton is of him running around in a track suit seeking "justice" for Tawana Brawley - despite the fact that her story was shaky at best. During that time, it was painfully evident that the former street preacher would do whatever it took to make a name for himself. This has played itself out in a myriad of ways, not the least of which was his using Roger Stone to prop up his run for presidency.

At any rate, I don't believe it's a coincidence that he happens to have come into his "season" at the exact time that Jesse Jackson was having his "love child" issues and Louis Farrakhan was declining in both health and his trademark scattershot anger. He'd been biding his time all along.

changeseeker said...

Rent Party: In Louisiana ;^)

ACT: I'm not taking your comments personally. I just meant that everybody's got a history (Malcolm was a pimp...). And yes, most leaders come into their "season" through others going down (either in death or something else). But all that doesn't change the fact that Al Sharpton has tied up his loose ends (as have a number of us, yours truly included) and become a force with which to be reckoned. We go up and we come down, and Myckal Bell's being out of jail is due to a number of things, but Sharpton played a key role. Whatever his past.

Besides, who else is half as effective right now or willing to put him or herself on front street like Sharpton is? You talk like there's all kinds of folks ready to step into the mantle. There's a difference between tryin' and doin' it. Sharpton's doin' it. In the Governor's office. I'm all about what works.

Anonymous said...

ACT, OF COURSE, Sharton (and Jackson) are "opportunists". they are ACTIVISTS! Activists don't have the luxury of of picking and choosing when to get their causes covered. Activists are saddled with two simple choices: become an opportunist or be ignored. THAT's IT!

Bloggers and other activists have been talking about Jena for months, but Sharpton and Jackson call a rally then the cameras come. I really could care less about analyzing the psychology of Sharpton or Jackson, I care about justice. If they are the only ones who can save Mychael Bell from a 22 year sentence, then THAT is what is important...

Another Conflict Theorist said...


Both of you are right, of course. Al Sharpton does seem to get it done. And Changeseeker you're right, there doesn't seem to be a lot of folks willing to replace him. However, having become so familiar with his first act I'm just still not accustomed to his second.

Anonymous said...


Thank you and please keep doing what you are doing. My name is Tanya and I'm the secretary at Macedonia where Rev. Sharpton
"took us to church", in Hammond. I was blessed with the oppututnity to sit and talk with Rev. Sharpton during his time here on more than one occassion and I must say personally that the views that I allowed the media to give me of Rev. Sharpton have all been wiped away. I was not there for the marches with Dr. King or to have witnessed the riots and beatings of OUR ancestors but in a brief instance I came to understand what was meant when they have said that the struggle is far from over, it's not just JENA or hidden it's in our everyday lives at work, school, at the bank trying to buy a home for our families and that Rev. Sharpton is genuine is his work.

He declined our church giving him any specific amount of payment for his apperance and he made a profound stament that changed my life. He said; " If I reach one who is willing to stand up for themselves and make a difference, then my work is not in vain". I at once understood that God placed each of us here for a purpose, all the bible studies I've been too and heard the words repeated over and over, studied the word for myself to gain more understanding and suddenly it made sense. Not only is he in his season, but all he has withstood has been to prepare him for his season. Jackson, Farrakun, and whosoever else did what they felt they were suppose to do, Rev. Sharpton has been doing this for a while and it's his time to get the message out. Not Opputunity but THE RIGHT TIME. God gives us all a season it's up to us to follow it.

Be blessed and I pray you continue your research and spread the word so that my children will be know the struggle didn't end with my grandparents it continued and someone stood up for us and rallied us togeather to stand up for ourselves.

changeseeker said...

ACT: I know what you mean about first and second acts. I guess it's the memory of my own first act that makes it easier for me to accept that sometimes we just have to trust the process.

Tru: Thank you so much for your kind words. I doubt that you could begin to imagine how much it means to me to have you write them. And I'm also grateful that you've added your personal experience here so that we can all benefit from that, as well. I'm sure I'll be seeing you (again) soon.

FreeIndeed said...

You know, I'm finding more and more respect for Sharpton by the day. I never thought I'd say that, but I am.

This is good.


changeseeker said...

Hey, Free. Thanks for dropping by. And I agree. Life is interesting, isn't it?