A New, Mainstream Al Sharpton Woos the Rest of the Nation

Al on America , by Al Sharpton, with Karen Hunter. Kensington Publishing, 304 pages, $27.

Al Sharpton recently had a meeting with Al Sharpton. It was, he says, one of the most important events of his adult life, and it occurred in prison, during a 90-day sentence for protesting U.S. military bases in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Where else would it occur? Can we forget Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Nelson Mandela? Political leaders have long found prison a fitting locale for rebirth (and an ideal literary device for declaring, “Out with the old me, in with the new”). After 90 days of monk-like fasting, reflection and study, Al has emerged, primed to be President. But is he really ready for a national campaign? Take the New York attitude out of Al Sharpton and you’re left with bland political rhetoric. In his quest for a bigger piece of the pie, he had better stay true to the Big Apple in him.

Al on America is an unabashed bid for your vote in 2004 (the book could very well have been titled Al for America ). During a first-class flight to Phoenix, Mr. Sharpton tells us in chapter one, he found himself chatting with the man next to him, a stand-in for Middle America. Halfway through the conversation, the man leaned over and declared, “You don’t seem so extreme.” Music to Mr. Sharpton’s ears. “What’s so extreme about a nonviolent Christian minister asking the courts and our judicial system to work for all people?” Slipping in and out of the third person, he reminds us, “There have been many misconceptions about Al Sharpton. I am not a rabble-rouser. I am not an ambulance chaser. I am not a troublemaker. I am not an anti-Semite or a racist. I am not unpatriotic.” Not, in other words, the radical demagogue that you, Average White American, thought he was. And he’s written a book to prove it.

The rhetoric in Al on America will, for the most part, shock only conservatives; Mr. Sharpton’s proposed policies follow standard liberal lines. He opposes the death penalty and school vouchers, and wants higher pay for teachers. He devotes a chapter to asserting that church and state ought to remain separate (which takes any sting out of “Reverend” Sharpton), and his economic assessments stem from the simple belief that the rich ought to pay the government more than the poor do (he suggests, for instance, eliminating estate taxes for estates under $500,0000). He’d like to see a Palestinian state and an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba. And as for 9/11, he rehashes the standard (and tiresome) “I told you so” routine: “America is beginning to reap what it has sown.”

Unfortunately, Al on America is mere political cant. It’s an extended pamphlet, not serious analysis. Though Mr. Sharpton makes many wise proposals, he bathes them in the sort of hazy generalities that political campaigns are made of. What, for instance, does it mean when he calls for the U.S. to “strengthen its African policy”? He’s eager to “maintain a strong military,” but to use it only when “absolutely necessary”; there are no examples of when “absolutely necessary” might apply. Here’s one of the two Constitutional amendments Mr. Sharpton proposes: “the right of legal residents of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of age, citizenry, or prison record.” That has a nice democratic ring to it, but does he really mean to offer voting rights to small children and green-card aliens?

Instead of analysis, Mr. Sharpton offers up simple, usually appealing declarations about the is and the ought . He has mastered the voice that American oratory is famous for: plain style (reminiscent of Puritan sermons), repetition that builds to a climax (echoing Martin Luther King), and a homily or anecdote at every turn (providing the sort of homespun wisdom that, as someone like Lincoln knew, appeals to everyman).

Some of these verbal flourishes are true gems. On slavery reparations: “If your grandmother stole a million dollars and your family was able to build an empire on that stolen money, do you owe a debt to the person you stole it from?” On black self-empowerment: “If I come from behind this podium and knock you onto the floor, that’s on me. If I come back a week later and you’re still on the floor, that’s on you.” On the argument that misogynistic hip-hop is merely a mirror to society: “Well, I don’t know about you, but I use a mirror to correct what’s wrong with me. I don’t look in the mirror and see my hair messed up and my teeth need brushing and just walk out of the house that way.” Best of all, on our President: “Bush has the kind of leadership that, when he gets to a fork in the road, he chooses the fork.”

Al on America tells us much that we already knew about Al Sharpton the man (he’s been groomed and mentored by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Jesse Jackson and James Brown, who, according to Mr. Sharpton, “had more impact on my life than any civil rights leader-maybe even my own mother”), and a little that we didn’t: He was having coffee at Junior’s in downtown Brooklyn on the morning of 9/11, and he never watched Seinfeld (evidence that blacks and whites, he rightly argues, still inhabit separate cultural spheres). He’d rather, as he told a disapproving junior-high-school teacher, be a dead lion than a living dog, because “a dog, no matter how long he lives, will never be anything but a dog. But that lion, while he was alive, he was king of the jungle. He stood for something.”

During pinnacle moments of his still-evolving political career, Mr. Sharpton has indeed been leonine. For many New Yorkers, his leadership during the Diallo trial transformed him from a Ras the Exhorter figure-the character in Ellison’s Invisible Man who stood on street corners, wildly boding doom-into a potent human-rights leader whose efforts helped dismantle the NYPD’s controversial Street Crimes Unit. He’s had his share of low points, too: the Tawana Brawley case, about which Mr. Sharpton says he has no regrets, and the Freddy’s incident and the anti-Semitic flare-ups, which he calls overblown and no worse than that of Nixon and Billy Graham. (Is that supposed to be comforting?) Al on America also offers the Sharpton account of the 2001 New York Mayoral campaign, a dramatic tale starring Mark Green, Roberto Ramirez and Fernando Ferrer, sprinkled with numerous accusations of race-baiting and featuring a top-secret meeting between Mr. Sharpton, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Clinton.

Mr. Sharpton’s noble mission is to “rip the veil off Northern established liberal racism,” to prove that racism “is not just a Southern redneck problem. This is an American problem.” This is a Baldwin-esque Al Sharpton at his best. Al on America begins with a whimper and ends with a bang: It opens with patriotic pap about “faith in America,” about “why they hate us,” about his agenda no longer centering on “black America or minority America. It’s now about America.” The book ends not with an address to America but a plea to black America to “take responsibility for ourselves.” It’s a fiery, inspired and inspiring chapter in which Mr. Sharpton’s true voice emerges loud and clear: “When I deal with the white power structure, it’s on my terms. When I deal with City Hall or the White House, I do so on my terms.” This is the Sharpton that New Yorkers know and love or hate; it is also, sadly, the Sharpton that will have difficulty winning the average American’s vote.

Baz Dreisinger is a post-doctoral fellow at UCLA’s Center for African-American Studies.