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Jewish World Review June 5, 2001 / 15 Sivan, 5761

Stanley Crouch

Amity Shlaes
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Consumer Reports

Sharpton's rise and fall -- THE Rev. Al Sharpton never ceases to inspire contemplation or exasperation. When I became aware of him about 20 years ago, I found him absurd. He was almost always in a jogging suit with a Martin Luther King Jr. medallion hanging down his chest and some fried hair topping the package. He specialized in marching and chanting.

I thought he was just comic backup or a hustler.

And, in fact, the Sharpton tale frequently has been attended by the hilarious. For instance, back in his pre-fried days, he was sent on a mission to meet with singer James Brown. The purpose was to talk Brown into deprocessing his hair. His sort of hair style was supposed to express a lack of pride in one's African origins embracing the African and the nappy was a better way of becoming truly black and happy.

Sharpton left the meeting with Brown inspired and got his own hair processed! Since then, he has been the only figure in the civil rights establishment with a shoulder-length mane blowing in the wind.

Yet Sharpton periodically rises above our expectations, especially if we think of him as only a hustler. When he was nearly murdered during a march in Brooklyn by a white guy who shoved a knife into his chest, Sharpton, as he lay in the hospital on the thin line between life and death, told his followers not to sink down into bloodshed. He did not punk out with some bitter call for violent retaliation.

That fine moment remains overshadowed, however, by the Tawana Brawley farce, when Sharpton hooked up with Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason. Riding Brawley's lie about being abducted and raped by some white men, the three attacked anyone who raised questions about the case.

Many will never forgive Sharpton for being a part of that mess.

Since then, Sharpton has run for mayor and the Senate, attacked rap music, been there first whenever a black man or woman seemed a victim of police racism, brought together the father of Yusuf Hawkins and one of the white kids who was in the mob that murdered Yusuf and become a powerbroker who supposedly controls the Harlem vote.

With Jesse Jackson descending in flames, Sharpton is preparing himself to take on the mantle of the civil rights establishment's main man. That is why he was down in Vieques, Puerto Rico, protesting U.S. military exercises. He is intent on expanding his base, which is why he is on a hunger strike, protesting the 90-day sentence he got for acting up in Vieques.

Some have said it would be good for Sharpton to remain on his hunger strike until he trims down. But I think he may be more concerned about his time behind bars because he might not be able to get his hair done. That would be quite serious, because few of his followers have ever seen Sharpton looking like a representative of the wild kingdom. Combine that with the hunger strike, and he might come out looking like Bob Marley.

But we can be sure of one thing: Whatever tune he may be singing, it will be conceived to get him even more respect.

JWR contributor and cultural icon Stanley Crouch is a columnist for The New York Daily News. He is the author of, among others, The All-American Skin Game, Or, the Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994,       Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, and Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2001, NY Daily News