Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Run Jesse Run

If we only spoke well of others, we'd need never whisper.--proverb, anonymous

I was at a lounge when someone passed me a mobile phone, and I read the news of Jesse Jackson's now infamous comments about Barack Obama. I stared at it dumbfounded for a while, thinking--hoping--I was reading something from The Onion. Then I found out the source was FOX News. Aha! I was certain then it wasn't true. Faux News tell the truth? Yeah right! I went to bed confident I'd wake up in the morning and learn the whole thing was cooked up by Bill O'Reilly during a midnight loofah run. But alas, the new day came, and the craziness was there--with a youtube video to boot. Jesse Jackson, social activist, stalwart of the Civil Rights Movement, international peace negotiator, had claimed he wanted to castrate another black man. I remarked that day the only way things could be worse, was if on that recording Jesse had called somebody a "N---a." That would be the coup de grace. One week later... Sigh. Sometimes I hate being right.

In the aftermath, Jesse's detractors--who span the political and social spectrum--have been unable to conceal their glee. From angry rappers to white conservative pundits, everyone has made sure to give Jesse his licks. It's been an unashamed, free-for-all festival of "schadenfreude" that some are contending might be the end for the 66 year old activist turned public pariah. So I figure since everyone has been so quick to write Jesse's obituary, we might as well do the man the honor of recounting his life outside of one disastrous and ill-timed mic gaffe.

"Run Jesse Run." That was the famous slogan that fueled Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 Presidential campaigns. Though selectively forgotten in recent history, the two runs were far from mere "stunts." In 1984 Jesse got 18.2 percent of the Democratic vote, winning five primaries and caucuses, including Louisiana, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, Virginia, and one of two separate contests in Mississippi. In 1988 Jesse ran again and some 7 million Democrats of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds cast their vote for him, providing victories in at least a dozen primaries and caucuses. Long before the multi-racial coalition built by Sen. Barack Obama, candidate Jesse Jackson was reaching not only blacks, but poor disfranchised whites and others looking for "change." A case in point, while Sen. Barack Obama handily lost Puerto Rico in the 2008 primary, Jesse Jackson won over its overwhelming Latino constituency in 1988, who cast their vote without reservation for the black candidate.

Part of his appeal was that in American political culture, Jesse was no light weight. A veteran of the Civil Rights movement, he not only marched with figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but stood on the very balcony alongside the "King of Peace" on the day he was tragically martyred. A figure of international fame, Jesse was repeatedly involved in negotiations between enemy factions, and even successfully secured the release of American pilots shot down during missions--once in 1983 in Syria and again in 1999 during the Kosovo war. A staunch anti-war activist, anti-poverty crusader and advocate for the downtrodden, he was vocal against the Bush administration before 9/11, directly after, in the run up to the Iraq War, and long before "Dubya-Bashing" became popular. In 2004, his speech at the DNC lambasting the Iraq War was so adamant and clear, prime time networks refused to air it. Not one to allow partisan loyalty to blind him to wrongs, he has been critical of Republicans and Democrats alike. When President Bill Clinton used a speech organized by the Rainbow Coaltition to engage in his infamous "Sister Souljah" moment, he got a strong and angry rebuke from Jesse, who saw the race-baiting stunt for what it was.

Yet for all his deemed "good," Jesse has found himself on the receiving end of relentless criticism. For black conservatives he has been a regular object of scorn, a figure who in their eyes creates crutches for blacks and whines about racism--representing the worst aspects of modern "black leadership." For many in the black nationalist community, he is not radical enough--and deemed a collaborator with white America. The more radical of this grouping even charge him with treason, a member of the much maligned black Boule, in league with sinister forces out to wreak havoc through endless conspiracies. To much of white America itself, Jesse has come to be viewed as a grand annoyance--a figure who always seems ready to point out racism, who seems to appear at the head of every march, at every incident, there to "stir up trouble" and white guilt. Jesse hasn't helped his own cause, with more than a few questionable acts. In 2001 it was revealed he had fathered a child outside of his marriage in 1998, while consulting President Bill Clinton as a spiritual advisor during the Lewinsky affair. Questionably, the mother of his child was given $40K from funds taken out of Jesse's Rainbow PUSH coalition to make a maternity move. (*Jesse has kept up continuous financial responsibility for the child) Media Hog. Limelight lover. Overly Flamboyant. Ambulance chaser. Black loudmouth. Egotistical. Arrogant. Uppity. Say Jesse Jackson, and his detractors can rattle off an endless list of offenses. Whatever good will and diversity coalition Jesse was able to gather in 1984 and 1988 by today has been whittled away, leaving his image a tarnished one.

Enter Barack Obama.

Jesse and Obama aren't exactly strangers; they're even--in a fashion--familial. Michelle Obama went to school with Jesse's oldest daughter Santita, who not only sang at the couple's wedding--which Jesse attended as well--but became godmother to their daughter Malia. Through his wife's friendships with the Jackson family, Barack Obama had met and spoken to Jesse on numerous occasions. Yet this did not always mean the two men were close. As early as 2000 when Obama made his first run for the House seat of Rep. Bobby Rush, Jesse would back his long time friend (Rush) over the Southside Chicago organizer and state senator just starting to make a name for himself.

In 2007 as the Illinois Senator rose to prominence and entered into a presidential bid, Jesse's detractors took glee in comparing the two men. The rise of Obama was going to rid the world of Jesse, they cheered. Obama was the new leadership, Jesse was the old news. Conservative columnist and pundit George Will claimed Obama's rise would end Jesse's "Selma forever" tour. Even former President Bill Clinton, attempting to stir up racial animosity against Sen. Obama, would invoke Jesse during the South Carolina primary. Rumors of comments disparaging Obama by Jesse--in which he allegedly claimed Obama was "acting white" in his response to the Jena 6--made headlines. Rumors arose that the Obama campaign was keeping Jesse at arms length--the tarnished activist considered a liability with white voters. The two men however adamantly denied these claims. Jesse threw his support behind Sen. Obama, even as his wife threw hers behind Sen. Clinton. His son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., would become the Obama campaign's co-chair. Obama himself would state publicly that there was no competition between the two, and his presidency would not do away for the need for Jesse's activism.

Yet it's undeniable that the recent relationship between Obama and Jesse has been a strained one. The two have certainly not been enthusiastically courting each other. But this may have less to do with the "jealousy" of the superstar Obama, which has become a common narrative, and perhaps more so to do with the separate roles the men play. Though his detractors like to mockingly label him a "black leader," activist is the more fitting title for Jesse. As an activist, he is free to take very strong progressive positions on everything from the war to poverty. And he has done so on a national and international stage. Sen. Obama meanwhile is a presidential candidate, a politician who can't be called a "black leader" either. And while he ran left of centrist Sen. Clinton in the primaries, the Illinois senator has never espoused strong progressive values. And, true to form, once the primaries ended he shifted back to his more centrist positions. Sen. Obama is perhaps the candidate more likely to be responsive to progressive stances, but he's not one himself.

For Jesse, one can imagine this is especially irksome. As a presidential candidate, Sen. Obama is set to perhaps make history. And the glamour and glory surrounding that is almost electric in much of the black community. So much so, that criticism of Sen. Obama--even legitimate--is roundly condemned as some form of "black treason." One-time much beloved black radio and talk show host Tavis Smiley learned this the hard way. Jesse and other more progressive black activists have been forced to keep their mouths shut, unable to put forth any sound criticism of Sen. Obama for fear of not only being tagged as treasonous, but ending up playing into the media narrative of "jealousy" and "competition."

Somehow, all of that self-imposed silence managed to explode in precisely the wrong place and at precisely the wrong time--on a biased, unethical "news" network that has shown it not only has little problem with eavesdropping on his guests, but turning their private words into media catching headlines. Jesse's legitimate critique triggered by his progressive leanings--that as a politician Sen. Barack Obama should stick to talking about the government's social responsibility rather than playing the role of chastising father to black men on individual responsibility--was lost in the midst of a foul-mouthed gaffe of epic proportions. Not only did he use the very "n" word he has championed against, but he also invoked sexual violence akin to historical acts of race lynchings. It was stupid, inexcusable, asinine and most of all--tragic. The fact is that a figure like Jesse is hardly irrelevant--in fact, far from it. Barack Obama's possible victory in November, despite all its symbolisms, isn't going to make issues of racism, poverty, militarism, wealth inequality and more disappear over night. And progressives like Jesse--with all his faults--are as key now as ever. The worst result of this single irresponsible act is that it has not only given his detractors more ammunition than they know what to do with, but is being used to bludgeon a voice that spoke truth to power into silence.

Yet, although many are quick to write his obituary, I wouldn't count Jesse out of the fight yet. In his 1984 Presidential bid Jesse made a gaffe just as stunning. Telling black reporter Milton Coleman "let's talk black talk," Jesse went into a tirade of frustration over what he saw as obsession over Israel by members of New York's Jewish community. "That's all Hymie wants to talk about, is Israel," Jesse said, using a common racial slur for Jews. "Every time you go to Hymietown, that's all they want to talk about." Then, as now, Jesse's reliance on inner black solidarity did him in. In 1984 he was let down by Milton Coleman, who doing what journalists do, ignored the rule of "black talk" and reported what he heard. Today it was a crude remark made to another black guest that ended up on an open mic for none other than FOX News. And yet, even after the Hymietown comment Jesse survived and emerged stronger for 1988.

If anything perhaps now, away from the media spotlight, and outside of the Obama candidacy, Jesse can reorient himself and remain active in the causes where he matters most. This Jesse will hopefully be less apt to be on FOX "News" and give more interviews to worthy reporters like Amy Goodman. This Jesse will stay out of tit-for-tat dust-ups with braggadocios rap stars over their language, and focus more on his marches on Wall St over the subprime mortgage debacle. This Jesse will spend his valuable airtime detailing more about his trip to Haiti and his demand for food aid to the impoverished nation, and show less concern with Obama's seeming Bill Cosby-isms. This Jesse needs to show he is more than a lover of the media spotlight, and should not allow himself to be silenced by those who would like to see him--and the issues he supports--simply disappear.

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