In the 1970 movie, "Cotton Comes to Harlem," directed by Ossie Davis
and based on the novel by Chester Himes, two black detectives, Gravedigger
Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, go to great and hilarious lengths to uncover
the real rip-off artists who swindled a bundle from the charity of good-hearted
Harlem residents. It was a classic "things ain't what they seem" caper.
I thought of that movie as I joined President Clinton and a cavalcade of former members of his administration at the recent opening of his post-presidential Harlem headquarters. In the wake of his overwhelming welcoming by the residents of Harlem, many pundits have speculated and some have outright insinuated that Bill Clinton has hoodwinked black America. They assert that underneath the smooth black handshakes and memorized lyrics to the black National Anthem, lies a wolf in sheep's clothing who simply uses black people to further his own selfish agenda and legacy. They wonder how, in the face of "ending welfare as we know it," and dissing Jesse Jackson by dissing Sista Solja, could we maintain such allegiance to this white man from the sticks of Arkansas. Quite frankly, the question smacks of paternalism and condescension --- as if black people are not smart enough to figure out who is our friend and who is not.
The fact is, most African Americans consider Bill Clinton to be a bona fide brother. I use that term in the broadest biblical sense. It does not mean that Clinton is an honorary black man or the first black president. And it doesn't mean that his positions on issues affecting black Americans are universally accepted throughout the community. Welfare reform and school vouchers are two notable points of vigorous debate.
But, Bill Clinton has earned the respect and admiration of most African Americans, both for his words and his deeds. To most of us, his long-standing embrace of black people, black culture, and black concerns is, well, unimpeachable. Black people took note and did not forget that it was Bill Clinton who fought for the expansion of empowerment zones to places like Harlem. It was Bill Clinton who insisted that we "mend, not end" affirmative action. It was President Clinton's voice of outrage that led the chorus against the outbreak of church burnings and hate crimes across America. And it was Bill Clinton who kept his promise to put together a Cabinet and White House staff that "looked like America." The fact of the matter is, black people felt that for the first time in a long time there was someone in the White House who took our struggle for equal opportunity and justice seriously. And let's not forget, Bill Clinton did all this while presiding over the longest and strongest economic expansion in history --- a rising tide that lifted all boats from Wall Street to Main Street to 125th Street in Harlem. During his time in office, all the things that really mattered to most Americans improved --- jobs and income --- rose at all levels, crime reached record lows, homeownership reached record highs, teen pregnancy was down, educational achievement and college attendance were up. So, in black America the question is not why we love the man so much, but why you don't.
I think there is another thing that many white pundits just don't get when they attempt to assess black attitudes toward Bill Clinton. African Americans really relate to Clinton's cool-under-fire tenacity. As Congressman Rangel said during his introductory remarks on that stage in Harlem, we saw it as no accident that the same people who were out to get Bill Clinton were out to get us first. That may be a tad hyperbolic, but there are many in the black community who believe that the only reason Bill Clinton was hounded so vociferously as President is that he was a friend of black America.
And then there is Monica. There is a palpable undercurrent of moral superiority in the voices of many conservatives who contrast their outrage at Clinton's sexual dalliances with the nonchalance with which they are regarded in the black community. To many of us, Monica was a convenient smokescreen for unbridled attacks on a left-of-center Clinton by hyperventilated far-right conservatives. Our "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" attitude revealed that, in this instance, blacks were not less moral than whites, just less hypocritical. We applauded Clinton for standing tall in the face of that hypocrisy. Strength in the face of adversity. Joy in the midst of sorrow. Faith in the depths of despair. These have been the indispensable garments of black survival for as long as we can remember. In the darkest days of his Presidency, Bill Clinton wore them well. That alone makes him a brother in the struggle.
Yes, it is true that his choice of Harlem as his post-presidential home was not his first choice. But Bill Clinton cannot be accused of being a Johnny-come-lately to the African American community or to our issues. That is why I stood with pride alongside both black and white former Clinton officials in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Plaza to welcome the brother home.