Jesse Jackson has never interested me much. I’m a little late out of the gate in commenting about Jackson’s latest diversion, analogizing LeBron James to a runaway slave in light of Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s sputtering about James’ departure to Miami. I’ve always been a little laggard in dogpiling on Jesse. When I first started writing about race, I quickly noted a certain cognitive dissonance: everybody expected the new cranky black “conservative” to have a Jesse obsession. I never did, and don’t now.
He shouldn’t be news, really. For me, the key image of Jackson is the photo of him with Martin Luther King’s blood on his shirt. That was fake: Jackson never cradled King’s head in his arms and in fact, like most of us would have, fled the scene upon hearing the shots that killed him. Jackson transparently wanted to be “the new King.”
Now, one could want to do that in order to forge the kinds of changes King did—but then there’s the next Jackson image, lesser known but always sticking with me. A few years later at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, Jackson, complete with the big Afro, stood before the black crowd shouting “The water has broke. The blood is spilled. A new black baby is going to be born.” But there had been not a sign at this event that any such thing was happening that would bear any fruit. What excited people there was the crackle in the air, the pop music on the loudspeakers, the outfits, the incense, the theatre. “We met, therefore we won!” Brooklyn Assemblyman Thomas Fortune exclaimed to the media, which said it all.
Here was gesture in the guise of action, a theme that would sadly live on in the black political community—one can imagine Brooklyn’s Charles Barron today, making noises about a new black political party, saying the same kind of thing at the same kind of event. In fact, at that convention in Gary, Jackson actually led the audience with “When we form a political party what time is it?” “NATION TIME!” everybody yelled back. Jesse was right on board with the new groove. And that was all.
Some black leaders have been all about service. That was King, of course, as well as lesser known figures like The Other Robert Moses, who was key in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and has since worked humbly in teaching math. Some are one part service and one part drama—Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was Exhibit A—central to desegregation efforts but also a walking party, such that he played along with the Black Power routines when he had to, and was eventually done in by hubris.
Then there are black leaders who are pretty much all about drama, and it has been hard to escape that verdict on Jackson. Upon which it has never been clear to me why he is continually listed as important. I agree with The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates for once here, although I’d expand his point. Not only is it unclear who Jackson was speaking for in his performance over James. You could ask who Jackson speaks for in general at all these days.
This is not, although it will seem like it, a hit piece—because, once we’re done sniping about the man, what exactly would we prefer that a Jesse Jackson have done along the lines of being a single Leader of Black America? Jackson, ultimately, was just born too late. By the late sixties, there were no more signs to get taken off of the doors, and no more “Don’t buy where you can’t work” marches to hold as Powell did. The work that remained, and remains, was slow and undramatic. By 1970, to take your place as the new Leader of Black America was to give oneself a kind of figurehead position. You didn’t really have anything to do—at least, nothing constructive.
Crucial point here: I can well imagine not being aware of this while living through the period day-by-day. Bigotry and racism and even segregation didn’t vanish entirely overnight after 1965 (I spent years of my childhood living on the other side of a fence from a golf course that was notoriously closed to blacks—in New Jersey). There is no need to paint Jackson as willfully holding out against the reality of change in an evil quest to line his pockets (more on the pockets in a bit). Jackson is one of those people who came of age when America turned upside down and, while appreciating the new reality, has never found it quite as exciting and gratifying as the old fight.
Is this really so appalling? To suppose so is to tar an awful lot of innocent people. We’re talking Maxine Waters, Julian Bond, Jeremiah Wright, Ishmael Reed, Harry Belafonte (remember that little dust-up when he called Colin Powell a “house slave”?), and so on. These people fought to create my life, I well know. But is it all that odd that they have tended to wish they could keep blowing the walls down? Again, I know I would.
Some years ago, I was on a double bill at a university with a man of this vintage, complete with the adopted African name (no, it was not Amiri Baraka). I spoke for 20 minutes. He actually went on for an hour and ten without a break—and just talking, not preaching. In his ranging over one anecdote after another about what he had helped to do in the sixties with no reading of his audience, there was a certain latent frustration evident, a questing for a catharsis that he couldn’t quite nail.
As he sat there, often pointing to his well-thumbed copy of a book he wrote 25 years ago, I could see that he knew that an era was over and didn’t quite know what to do about it. No, I’m not being condescending, either, because during those 70 minutes I kept thinking, “There but for the grace of being born in 1965 rather than 1945 goes I.” –I’d even have been carrying a copy of my book just like him.
And that is, in the end, Jesse Jackson, just smaller-scale. To treat Jackson as unique in this, worthy of news for statements which, big surprise, do not dovetail with modern America, is like blaming the recession on one Wells Fargo branch in Connecticut. Jesse Jackson is a microcosm.
As such, nothing he does ever strikes me as interesting. How interesting is it, for example, that the Rainbow Coalition is really a kind of shakedown operation prizing money out of corporations accused of racism in order to give boosts to black businesses favored by Jackson? This, and its modern manifestations as the Citizen’s Education Fund and the Wall Street Project, certainly have had their seamier moments (Kenneth Timmerman’s Shakedown is the must-read here if you need a dirt fix). But surely, Jackson sees this as his being a modern Booker T. Washington-style kingmaker enforcing a kind of Affirmative Action, innocently making a living as well.
Ego? Sure—but how many famous figures don’t turn out to be driven by it? Almost anywhere you look it’s the same story—Theodore Roosevelt. The White Robert Moses. Betty Friedan. W.E.B. DuBois. As always with Jackson, old story. So, Jackson has done what we’d expect—perform. The media goes crazy every time he draws a parallel between some event and the way America was 100 years ago—but in the grand scheme of things, imagine a black history book of the future: “As a result of the efforts of Jesse Jackson, _______.”
Fill in the blank. See? What would it be, imprinting “African American” as a term? Okay, although I’m not sure that has helped anyone. He ran for President, but the idea that this “paved the way” for Barack Obama or that Obama “stands on his shoulders” is more cadential than real. Think about it: it is perfectly plausible that in our moment, Obama would have won if Jesse Jackson had never left Chicago. Meanwhile, Jesse goes around Taking Offense—lately, Michael Richards; Jena, Louisiana; and now a basketball team owner speaking critically about a star black player leaving the nest—and offensive things keep happening.
There are those who would appear to suppose that Jackson has some kind of influence over black thought, presumably part of the media’s impulse to cover his statements as worthy of chewing over. But there’s a difference between thrilling to his oratorical knack and his being a “leader.” The man can definitely make a speech. I’ve heard him do it twice, and had that weird feeling of agreeing with someone without being able to remember what he said. Language is partly music, and Jackson, like Obama, could whip a crowd into a frenzy reading Finnegan’s Wake backwards. And there is that certain Element X charisma: meet him in person and you immediately see how he got ahead in the pack. Unlike most celebrities, he’s physically larger than he tends to look on television, and your eyes would naturally go to him even if you didn’t know who he was.
He has star quality. But that’s really it. The black community is not checking in with the man whose most prominent statement about Barack Obama involved testicles.
And yet at least once a year we can count on Jackson getting serious press for some Thing he says somewhere. My favorite example of the media obsession with the man: one reviewer of my essay collection Authentically Black had clearly read only the handful of pages I wrote about Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and trashed the whole book as claiming that the black community’s problem was them. What the essay was actually mostly about was lesser known local black leaders and how the rock stars like Jackson are a distraction from their activities. The reviewer’s red-hot hankering for what I had to say about Jesse Jackson—he must have gone straight to the index to smoke out what I had to say about him—was highly indicative, and sadly typical.
Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image is one of those that is now ancient but still so dead on that I have even given it as a present once or twice. He identifies the pseudo-event as too prevalent in media coverage, about symbolism and drama rather than substance. To me, as meaningful black activism and history goes, Jesse Jackson has always classified as a pseudo-event.
And yet I am aware that the very existence of this post will only contribute to the impression otherwise—which is why this is only the second time, after those pages in that essay collection, that I have written about Jackson at any length. And it will be the last.