When Harry Belafonte compared Secretary of State Colin Powell to a plantation house-slave, it was not a mere case of one famous Black man calling another famous Black man outside his name. When Harry Belafonte compared Secretary of State Colin Powell to a plantation house-slave, it was not a mere case of one famous Black man calling another famous Black man outside his name. Nor did it foment division within the race. And the incident shouldn’t be minimized as nothing more than an expressed opinion which, beyond making headlines, has little or no consequence: in fact, Belafonte’s calling Powell to account could well lead to a positive end.
Belafonte marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. to challenge the government’s ruthlessly entrenched oppression of Black Americans. He has earned to right to have his remarks weighed in the light of that activism, saying over San Diego’s KFMB radio, “In the days of slavery, there were those slaves who lived in [shacks] and there were those slaves that lived in the house. Colin Powell [is] committed to come into the house of master. When Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants [he can] be turned back out to pasture.”
He went on to acknowledge that Powell signed onto President George W. Bush’s administration as a token figurehead, facilitating the illusion that Bush is serious about Black American’s interest being served by the nation’s highest political office.
If either of these two high-profile individuals have worked against the concept of unity among African Americans, it indeed is Powell, and not Belafonte. By his mealy mouthed acceptance of his appointment and failure to so much as mention the strongly questioned, vehemently protested means by which his boss came to power, Powell divided himself from the Black leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus and other conscientious figures who don’t kiss Bush’s behind but, instead, put their foot where it stands to do the most good in declaring to the president that he didn’t fool anyone in acquiring his ill-gotten ascendance to ultimate authority.
Belafonte’s remarks, more than merely exercising free speech, hopefully lead people in a necessary direction. Hopefully his criticism signals an increased unwillingness by Black Americans to be, as it were, grateful for what little we get. It has long been considered ungracious to criticize Powell or, for that matter, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, in the same way that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is vilified as an enemy of Black people who’re fighting institutionalized racism. It’s been considered ungracious because we’re supposed to be so darned glad the president’s cabinet has two Black faces on it that we don’t complain about Powell and Rice benefiting by and then ignoring the social struggle that helped make them attractive choices (and which still goes on). Bush put Powell and Rice in place as screens to deflect criticism that was sure to be voiced against his racist tenancy in the White House. Belafonte has held Powell up to the light, setting a precedence by which Black America, one must hope, will be less about graciousness and more about nullifying Powell’s effectiveness as a screen so that Bush is revealed as a soulless power-monger who could not possibly care less about Black citizens’ well being.
Powell’s two-faced, weak-kneed response on CNN’s “Larry King” to Belafonte’s forthright criticism is galling. He called the reference to slavery “unfortunate” and a “throwback to another time and another place [that] I wish Harry had thought twice about using.” Neither Belafonte nor anyone else needs to think twice about the appropriateness of the house-slave analogy. Powell should’ve thought twice about being Massa Bush’s boy: if anything, he’s worse than the “house-slave”, because he has an even-handed choice of whether to act on principle or be a sell-out. Nobody would’ve flogged Powell for refusing to be George Bush’s lackey. His food-and-clothing rations would not have been cut. He would not have