Boston Magazine Headline Provokes Cries of Racism

The headline of a profile of Harvard professor and New Yorker contributor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the April issue of Boston magazine has provoked an outcry from several prominent civil rights leaders in Boston and forced Boston editor in chief Craig Unger to defend his publication against charges of racism.

The 12,000-word profile, written by a freelancer named Cheryl Bentsen, is headlined “Head Negro in Charge.” The phrase, in a cruder form, once applied to the “head slave” on a plantation and, according to Mr. Unger, has been appropriated by African-American intellectuals such as Cornel West and Michael Dyson to describe a black man whom whites appoint as a spokesman for the entire race. The headline–written by Mr. Unger, a former Observer editor–was meant as an ironic, enlightened take, Mr. Unger said, on Mr. Gates’ crossover from academe to near-celebrity status as a New Yorker contributor and occasional television commentator. “I thought it would be somewhat provocative, but I didn’t expect this,” Mr. Unger said. “It was not racist.”

But Mr. Unger’s critics–among them Leonard Alkins, the head of the Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Dr. Joan Wallace-Benjamin, the president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts–say the headline was at best too cute, and at worst racially insensitive. “The headline is a racial slur,” said the Rev. Charles Stith, who has led the denunciation of the headline. “It was used by white slave owners as an appellation for a black person who was put in charge of other slaves. It’s a derogatory term.”

Mr. Stith and his colleagues wrote to Mr. Unger requesting a meeting soon after they saw the offending headline–alongside a blond cover model and a cover line touting Boston ‘s choices of “The Best Places to Live.” Mr. Unger agreed to meet on Monday, April 6. In the meantime, Mr. Stith, an activist who heads the Organization for a New Equality, a civil rights group, forwarded his objections to the local media. A feeding frenzy ensued, with reporters and camera crews dispatched to Mr. Unger’s office. The story topped local TV news broadcasts on April 5, and Mr. Unger scrambled to defend himself and his magazine as his headline fell flat. “We’re not these lily-white liberals with no black writers,” Mr. Unger told Off the Record, echoing his comments to the Boston media. “They [ Bosto n’s black writers] and others in the black community thought the headline was very smart and sophisticated.”

One of those writers is the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, co-chairman of the Boston-based organization called the National 10 Point Leadership Foundation. Mr. Rivers has also been the subject of a flattering 10,000-word profile in the magazine, and was quoted liberally in the Gates profile. Mr. Rivers is also a political rival of Mr. Stith. He agreed to join Mr. Unger, along with a half-dozen other African-American friends of the magazine, for the April 6 meeting. Mr. Rivers said he agreed to go to the meeting because “I think the objections are ridiculous. Black leaders have more important things to do than to be the ebonics police … I object to it because it distracts us from more substantive issues.”

On the morning of April 6, Mr. Stith and his supporters at the Urban League and the N.A.A.C.P. arrived at the Boston offices, where news crews were awaiting a showdown. When Mr. Stith entered the room to sit down with Mr. Unger, sources at the meeting say, he instead came face to face with the magazine’s own camera crew and a half-dozen black colleagues there to take Mr. Unger’s side. According to sources at the meeting, Mr. Rivers winked at Mr. Stith and said, “Hi, handsome.” Mr. Stith said he felt “ambushed” and immediately left. For the next half-hour, both sides made their case to the media horde out in front of the building; the scene was the top story on local news stations’ lunch-time broadcasts. When word reached City Hall that the two sides had failed to make peace, the Mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, entered the fray, asking the magazine to apologize.

As The Observer was going to press, neither side was backing down. Mr. Rivers continues to support Mr. Unger. “The phrase ‘head Negro in charge’ is a common vernacular idiom employed by everyone in the black community who understands the various leadership modes in the black community,” Mr. Rivers said. As a headline for the Gates piece, he added, “It’s brilliant.”

Mr. Stith is taking his campaign to advertisers. “They put a racial epithet on the cover of the magazine and that’s wrong,” he said. “All this takes is an apology.”

Ms. Bentsen, the writer, disagrees with the headline and is urging her editor to apologize. She called the headline “naïve,” and said, “Craig didn’t understand its background or its context. He just put it on the cover … I knew immediately this was a big mistake.”

The one man who might be able to end the debate is Mr. Gates. But Mr. Gates isn’t talking. Sources familiar with his opinion on the matter say that he was “mortified” by the cover line. He has told colleagues he first heard the term from his father, who worked in an all-white speakeasy during Prohibition and recalled being addressed as “the head nigger in charge” by a white patron in search of a prostitute. Since then, colleagues say, Mr. Gates has considered the phrase a term of opprobrium. Sources close to Mr. Gates say he has privately urged Mr. Unger to apologize, and that he has called the notion that Mr. Unger is a racist “ridiculous.” Mr. Unger, though, has declined Mr. Gates’ advice.

“This is not calling Professor Gates a plantation slave,” Mr. Unger said. “It’s not racism and I feel we can’t apologize for it.”

On Feb. 18, a story ran in The San Francisco Chronicle claiming that Chow Yun-Fat, the Hong Kong action-movie star who has starred in a number of films by John Woo, “has long been associated with Hong Kong organized crime figures.” The article, headlined “Film Star Reported to Have Gang Ties” and written by the paper’s organized crime reporter, Bill Wallace, relied heavily on a recent book about the Hong Kong movie industry by Fredric Dannen and Barry Long. Mr. Dannen has written extensively for The New Yorker about the industry and Chinese gangs, and the cozy relationship between the two. The problem was, the book, Hong Kong Babylon , says nothing about any association between Mr. Chow and organized crime. Now, Mr. Dannen is ticked off and Mr. Chow is considering a lawsuit.

Mr. Wallace based his assertions on the fact that Mr. Chow, who has made 70 films, starred in two movies produced by Charles Heung, son of the founder of the “triad,” or mob organization, that dominates the Hong Kong film industry. Outside of those two films, the story cites no evidence of any relationship between Mr. Chow and Mr. Heung.

Mr. Dannen fired off a letter on Feb. 22 demanding an apology and a retraction. Not only had the Chronicle story misrepresented his writings, he said, its premise was totally wrong. “Chow Yun-Fat is the cleanest person to come out of that dirty business,” he told Off the Record. Mr. Dannen had words with the paper’s lawyer and its executive editor, Matt Wilson. He said he told Mr. Wilson, “God help you if you ever have to stand in front of a jury and prove that you had a good basis for this article, because you’re going to fare very poorly. You’re gonna lose!”

A day later, Mr. Chow’s lawyer, Jay Lavely, also sent a letter to The Chronicle , demanding a retraction. On March 4, The Chronicle ran a correction, saying that the story “may have been misunderstood by some readers” and that it hadn’t intended “to state or suggest that Chow Yun-Fat was involved in any criminal conduct or that he has relationships with criminals other than through their role in the Hong Kong movie industry.”

Mr. Lavely and Mr. Dannen found the correction sorely lacking. In a second letter, dated March 4 and addressed to Mr. Wallace, the reporter, Mr. Dannen wrote: “You were either too lazy or full of yourself to do the most fundamental research, and so you have smeared an earnest, kind, well-intentioned and hard-working man, and probably caused him immigration problems.”

A week later, The Chronicle ran a second, more conspicuous correction. “A Feb. 18 article headlined ‘Film Star Reported to Have Gang Ties’ may have been misunderstood by some readers as suggesting that film star Chow Yun-Fat is or was involved in organized crime or criminal conduct.” Again, the readers were blamed for drawing the obvious conclusion from the headline and the piece. And again, nobody was satisfied. Mr. Chow and Mr. Lavely have not ruled out a lawsuit; Mr. Dannen has declared himself “reluctantly” willing to testify on Mr. Chow’s behalf.

” The Chronicle has taken the cowardly road from beginning to end,” Mr. Dannen said. “It’s so naïve,” he said. “‘Gang ties’ has a specific meaning. It means you are a member of a criminal enterprise, not that you bumped into some wiseguy at Elaine’s.”

“As far as I’m concerned, the stuff taken from Dannen’s book was reported accurately,” said Mr. Wallace. “We stand behind the story.” Neither Mr. Wilson, the executive editor, nor a lawyer for The Chronicle returned calls seeking comment.

–Nick Paumgarten

Boston Magazine Headline Provokes Cries of Racism