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The Rev. Al Sharpton has begun opening his mind

Friday, April 13, 2001

Twenty-seven years ago, when "Shaft in Africa" hit my neighborhood theater, I got my first whiff that all was not right in what we West Philadelphians called "the Motherland." In John Guillermin's semiclassic blaxploitation flick, John Shaft traded in the coolest leather jacket the world had ever seen for the filthy fringed shawl and skin-tight knickers of slavery.

Sporting an impeccable Afro and mustache, the Harlem-based private detective was deep cover in "French-controlled" Africa investigating reports that slave traders were at it again.

As befitting the blaxploitation films of the day, the men behind the slave trade were the usual assortment of white, blue-eyed suckers whose master plan involved smuggling human cargo to Europe. There was nary a hint in Guillermin's film that slavery in modern Africa was anything but the continuation of the familiar interracial crime against humanity.

Following John Shaft's excursion to the continent a generation later, another Harlem-based superhero is investigating reports of modern slavery in Africa. Earlier this week, the Rev. Al Sharpton traded his faux Nobel Prize pendant and agitprop spandex for an open mind and a round-trip ticket to Sudan, the epicenter of world slavery, according to the American Anti-Slavery Group and Christian Solidarity International.

"I think it's outrageous that no nationally known civil rights group has gone over to Africa to criticize what is happening there," Sharpton, ever the self-aggrandizing opportunist, told the New York Post this week.

Perhaps Rev. Al isn't aware that the NAACP, which typically moves at a glacial pace when it comes to issues outside the simpleminded black/white dynamic, announced a campaign to tighten sanctions against Sudan and the companies that do business with it several months ago.

Sharpton may have physically landed in Sudan before the NAACP and its allies in the Congressional Black Caucus, but he doesn't have a monopoly on compassion. Black sororities have had a piece of the anti-slave action for a while. American schoolchildren regularly raise money to "buy" the freedom of slaves in Sudan. White evangelicals and fundamentalists have been beating the drums about modern slavery in North Africa longer than anyone except human rights groups in the region and maverick newspaper columnists like the Baltimore Sun's Gregory Kane.

Even predictable establishment types like Coretta Scott King and Dick Gregory have added their voices to the protest over slavery, despite Louis Farrakhan's insistence several years ago that reports of human bondage in Sudan were an anti-Arab smear campaign sponsored by Israel and the CIA.

Still, it would be mean-spirited to begrudge the good reverend his photo-op on the road to Khartoum. I applaud his courage for going on a fact-finding mission in a war-torn, famine-starved land when he knows in advance that those he'll have to denounce have black skin.

He should also be commended for taking slavery out of the realm of abstraction where Farrakhan was content to leave it after his notorious tour of despotic Islamic regimes in the late 1990s.

The only voice conspicuously absent from the discussion about slavery in North Africa belongs to the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Because of that and many other things, I'm annoyed with Jesse these days. Jesse has been trying in vain for a week to break off a piece of Bush's now settled China crisis. Yes, Jesse's been an effective hostage negotiator in the past, but there are several hundred thousand "hostages" in North Africa who could use his help.

In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that I'd one day prefer Sharpton to his mentor in the civil rights movement. I blame Jesse's recent distractions.

Until recently, Sharpton's politics have been along racial lines. He's consistently lacked the subtlety that distinguishes great leaders from demagogues.

Back in West Philly half a lifetime ago, we filled theaters and cheered as John Shaft liberated Africans from a fate worst than death. Everyone applauded the exploits of "the Brotherman in the Motherland." There wasn't going to be any slavery in Africa as long as John Shaft was around to kick some white slaver's ass.

Now the Rev. Al Sharpton has stepped into his shoes, but all the white devils have been replaced by equal opportunity black slavers.

For once, when it comes to Reverend Al, we'll have to resist the temptation of saying "Shut yo' mouth."

Tony Norman's email: tnorman@post-gazette.com.

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