Reverend Al Sharpton and The Rejected Stone
Reverend Al Sharpton is in no way slacking in the “story to tell” department.
Whether it’s his controversial defense of a now-disgraced Tawana Brawley in the late ’80s, the attempt on his life in 1991, or his iconic mane , the activist has occupied a powerful pulpit in pop culture.
Depending on the time period and who is telling the story, he’s either a tireless activist or a camera-thirsty “ambulance chaser.”
That’s probably why it’s best that the Politics Nation host defines himself and his legacy, which he does effortlessly in The Rejected Stone, an inspirational guide/autobiography starting with the pint-sized preacher wannabe grappling with a dysfunctional home and mockery from classmates about his early calling to the church.
As he talks about his own mentors, mentees and spiritual struggles, Sharpton pulls no punches. He unblinkingly explores the love/hate relationship he holds with the public and waxes poetic about pivotal moments in his life (and history), such as attending the inauguration of President Barack Obama and coaching Michael Jackson on how to conduct himself at the funeral for the late, great James Brown.
The book–published with Massenburg Media, Cash Money Records, the National Action network, Syndication One News Talk Network–is filled with captivating portraits of society and race relations, as well as Sharpton’s wry sense of humor. It arrives on virtual and physical newsstands on Oct. 8.
JET caught up with the Reverend at the revered WVON-AM studio on Chicago’s South Side, just as he was broadcasting his eponymous talkshow. Check out what the author and activist shared about the inspiration behind the book, as well as related topics, including the seeming “war” among Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, himself and President Barack Obama. We also got him to comment on Chicago violence and whether he would ever alter his signature look.
JET: Your book starts out grappling with an issue that stays in the headlines for Black America: fatherlessness. Why is this theme so persistent throughout? You say your father left your family. James Brown adopted you and served as a father figure for you. Diddy asked you to be a father figure for him, though you aren’t too far apart in age….
Reverend Al Sharpton: We have a problem with family. We have a problem with fatherhood. That’s part of the reason I wrote the book. I wanted to air this. I wanted to raise this. I have serious scars from my father and James Brown has it from his and Diddy didn’t have a father. We have to be able to deal with this in reality and heal a wound…not talk about a return to the good old days. We as Black people have never had those good old days.
JET: That’s right. You couldn’t even be considered a man in slavery days or during the days of segregation. So how could you really assert yourself as a father?
AS: Unless you’re living in this Andy Griffith and Opie world, then you can’t be talking about us. Because in the Andy Griffith world, we were in the back of the bus.
JET: Many would look with pride at what you’ve accomplished. We’re looking at you on TV and then, of course, we’ve made huge strides with President Obama in the White House, but we also have a rift among male Black public figures. You are seemingly working with the President, but meanwhile Cornel West is constantly going after Obama and it’s known that Jesse Jackson does not have the best relationship with the White House. Is that disconcerting to have this play out on the media stage?
AS: Couple of things. One, I think that, I would look at is as the Solomon approach. When Solomon was confronted with two women who both said they were the mother of a child, the mother that said split the child in half because it’s alright with me, caused him to say: “Okay, the other one’s the mother.” The Blacks that are out there causing the confusion are showing it’s more about them than it is about the people. Why would you hurt the people because you’re angry at somebody else? As much as they are trying to condemn the President from the right, why would you want to feed into that? Unless your feelings and your ego are just more important. I’ve been able to work closely with the President, but I don’t agree with everything the President says or does. But I know that our people are more important than my feelings.
JET: But is there a way to fix this situation?
AS: If a person’s problem is the ego, how do you fix it? But you know, there never was a time in Black history when we didn’t have Blacks disagreeing. Malcolm and Dr. King didn’t get along. We’ve got to accept the fact we’ll always have these differences and move on despite the differences and watch to see who’s sincere and who’s not sincere. But I think if we were to stop, for example, some of them are upset with me because I work with Obama. How are you going to sit down and meet with them about whether or not I work with Obama? I’m not going to NOT deal with Obama to make them feel better.
JET: It seems, from your book and recent incidents in the media, that you’ve gotten to a place where you don’t hit back. How do you manage that?
AS: My concern for the people is more than just me feeding into it. And I think at some point, people will say well, why do you keep attacking him and he’s not responding. What is your problem? I mean, nobody’s fighting you or fighting back, so what is your problem? You keep calling the President names, Al Sharpton names, so what’s the point? If we don’t respond, fine. You don’t like us, you don’t agree, okay….Move on, next.
JET: Food stamps are on the line right now, with conservative politicians pushing for cuts. The perception is that more Blacks are on it than Whites, which we know is not true. What does this battle to cut the supplemental nutrition programs say about America?
AS: It shows the most inhumane, immoral aspects of this country. When you look at the fact that we are talking about cutting 39 billion dollars over 10 years of food stamps at a time when we just celebrated the five-year anniversary of bailing out Lehman Bros, this is as sick as it gets. And most of the people on food stamps are White. And they’ve colored it Black. If this is allowed to stand up and doesn’t energize us for the midterm elections, I don’t know what will.
JET: Don Lemon made a statement during a recent interview with Tom Joyner that stars today are the new Black leaders. What do you think of that?
AS: I don’t agree at all. We’ve always had civil rights leaders and Black stars. We have Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, we had James Brown, Stevie Wonder. We always knew the difference between them and the leaders. The example of that is when Trayvon happened, Trayvon’s parents called people in the Civil Rights movement. She didn’t call any hip-hop stars. When Shawn Bell happened, they didn’t call any hip-hop stars. So what evidence does he have of that? We always had stars that young Blacks looked up to, but when it came to our civil rights, we always called on Civil Rights leaders. I think that he would be hard pressed to say that when he saw the movement we built around Trayvon Martin. More Blacks that came out in ’12 than came out in ’08 to vote…all that was the Civil Rights movement. What rappers did that? What entertainers did the fight against voter ID last year? They support it; they don’t lead it.
JET: They supported it…
AS: They supported it when we all started it. Thing is, Don’s a journalist. He’d have to document a political or Civil Rights movement where Black people rallied around the entertainers. They rally around the entertainers’ entertainment. That’s not Civil Rights. [laughs]
JET: I liked when you brought up in the book how Civil Rights and entertainment worked hand in hand. Singers provided the soundtrack essentially…
AS: When Trayvon Martin’s family called me and we got the rallies and we got started, after we got it going, some entertainers called in and said “What can I do?” Jay Z and Beyonce came to the rally we called in New York, but they didn’t call the rally. Didn’t even anybody know they were coming.
JET: Are the ties between civil rights and Hollywood as strong as they were when James Brown, Harry Belafonte worked with the movement? There was the fight between Harry Belafonte and Jay Z.
AS: But that was two Hollywood people fighting. That’s not a fight between Civil Rights and entertainment.
JET: Well, these days, younger people might see Harry Belafonte more as an activist than an actor…
AS: But he was an entertainer who was an activist. He was not a leader. I think people misconstrue that.
JET: But is it harder for today’s stars and activists to work together?
AS: By me growing up in the movement, I don’t think Hollywood was ever as close as people give them credit for. I think you had a Harry Belafonte, you had two or three. Like today, you have Common, uh, you have others that are very involved and then you have the majority who are not.
JET: See, this is what we are missing, the historical vantage point…
AS: I think people give credit to a lot of things in the past with a rewrite of history. I tell students all the time that you would think everybody in the ’60s was marching. That’s not true. We didn’t have a Million Man March until ’95. So we act like everybody was involved. There’s never been a time when the majority of Black people were in the movement.
JET: So, you are planning to move into a building on the West Side of Chicago in an effort to deal with the violence that is putting the city in the national headlines? What do you hope to accomplish? What are your suggested solutions?
AS: I’m not necessarily bringing solutions, but I can bring a spotlight shows the good and bad. It’s like putting it on a nice suit. It shows the prettiness, but also shows the lint. I’m not coming with an answer. I’m saying let’s expose what’s going on and why. And I hope that will help. I just couldn’t sit by and with what we represent in NAN around the country and watch hundreds of people die and we’re not coming to do something. I am one of the few people today who has a syndicated radio show and the only one with an evening show. I don’t want anyone to be able to say I didn’t use those vehicles to put a light on what’s going on.
JET: I enjoyed hearing about the inspiration behind your hair. After all, you styled your hair this way in homage to James Brown since he served as a father figure, mentor and even employer for you. I liked your line in the book that if he told you “we’re going to wear short pants” every day, you’d have done that, too. That is a part of your iconic look.
AS: Well, like I said, I did it because of my bond with him. Then, became so known by it. A guy told me who was a hardcore Black nationalist who was against my kind of hairstyle, he said man if you cut your hair now, I’d say you were a sellout. You can’t turn around now because that’s who you are. I’d think someone made you conform. It started as a pride thing with James Brown, but now it’s me.
JET: Would you ever change it?
AS: Nope, now it’s me. I’m just going to be me.