The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The improbable and true story of how Al Sharpton, Cornel West, Marion Barry’s wife, and Tucker Carlson (yes, that Tucker Carlson) flew to Liberia to negotiate a ceasefire in the midst of a civil war. Written by Carlson for Esquire Magazine 2003, and featured in the American Society of Magazine Editor's The Best American Magazine Writing 2004.
Recently, an eminent, varied, large, and unlikely delegation of Americans, led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, went to Africa to heal a wounded continent. They took the whitest man in America with them.
FIVE MINUTES before we boarded the plane to Africa, Al Sharpton called the group into a circle to pray. It struck me as a fine idea. Sharpton's plan to lead a delegation of American civil-rights activists into the middle of the Liberian civil war clearly was going to require some divine support. And that was assuming we even got there. A man in the departure lounge at JFK had just finished telling me a long and disturbing story about Ghana Airways, the carrier we had chosen for the eleven-hour flight over. Apparently, much of its fleet was in Italy at the moment, impounded for debt. The rest was aging, creaky, and, given the virtually bankrupt condition of the company, spottily maintained. "Ghana Airways probably won't even exist a month from now," the man said. I was all for praying.
Fourteen of us gathered across from the gate one afternoon in late July and held hands. On my left was Sanford Rubenstein, Abner Louima's lawyer in the NYPD brutality case. On my right was His Eminence Franzo W. King, D.D., archbishop and lead sax player of the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco. Across the circle was former D. C. mayor Marion Barry's wife, Cora Masters Barry, and three guys from the Nation of Islam, two of them named James Muhammad. Cornel West, the writer and scholar, led the prayer. "Lord, keep us safe," West intoned as we bowed our heads. "But more important, keep us soulful."
No one looked more soulful than West himself, who was dressed, as always, like a slightly flashy undertaker: white shirt, black three-piece suit, silver pocket watch and chain. He could have been on his way to meet the next of kin. In fact, he was coming from a jazz club. West had stayed in the city until 4:00 A.M. before returning to his "crib in Jersey" (Princeton, New Jersey, where he teaches), then catching a ride to the airport. Along the way, he'd neglected to pack. West boarded the flight for Ghana with two books and a tiny carry-on the size of a woman's cosmetic case. That was it. He had no suitcases or garment bags or luggage of any kind. Nor did he have any real idea where we were going or how long we might be there. "When are we coming back?" he asked me as we walked down the ramp onto the plane.
It was not an idle question. By the morning we left, Sharpton's office had released only three days of what was supposed to be a weeklong itinerary. From what I could tell, the plan was to fly to Ghana and charter a plane from there to Liberia, where Sharpton would meet with indicted-war-criminal president Charles Taylor and talk peace. Of course, Sharpton doesn't have the standing to negotiate anything on behalf of anybody other than himself. But to get hung up on this fact is to miss the improvisational brilliance of this trip. And besides, Sharpton had actually spoken to Colin Powell about it just two days before. The State Department had raised no objection.
Once Sharpton had completed whatever it was he planned to do with Charles Taylor, we were going to leave Liberia, presumably again by charter, and head back to Ghana. Unless plans changed and we decided to fly down to South Africa for an audience with Nelson Mandela. Or something like that. At the end, we'd come home.
Those were all the details I got, and they were hard earned. I'd first heard about the trip only five days before, when Rachel Noerdlinger, Sharpton's spokeswoman, sent me a two-sentence e-mail: "Rev. is planning to head to Liberia this Sat. and if you want to go, call Minister Akbar Muhammad for travel details." She added that if I wanted my visa expedited, I should call a number in Brooklyn and "ask for Brian."
I called Brian first. He was friendly enough and seemed to know a lot about embassies. But when he declined to reveal his last name, I decided against sending him my passport. Next I called Akbar Muhammad. Muhammad is the international representative of the Nation of Islam and a longtime assistant to Louis Farrakhan. He was recruited into the Nation in 1960 by Malcolm X himself. A few years ago, when it looked as if Farrakhan might die of prostate cancer, Muhammad was considered a likely successor. In the Nation of Islam, Akbar Muhammad is a big deal. In his spare time, he runs a travel agency in St. Louis.
Muhammad agreed to purchase my plane tickets and set up hotel and travel arrangements, all for a 2.5 percent processing fee. Rachel Noerdlinger seemed surprised when I told her about it. "You gave your credit card to Akbar Muhammad?" she said. "The entire Nation of Islam is going to be buying clothes on you. Louis Farrakhan's going to get a new house on your MasterCard." Actually, she assured me, "they'd get their ass in trouble if they did that."
Not that the possibility really bothered me. Sure, it would be a hassle if Louis Farrakhan bought a new house on my MasterCard. But what a story. The trip had the same sort of appeal: an African war zone. With Al Sharpton. Accompanied by a busload of black nationalists and Abner Louima's lawyer. It was hard to say exactly what it all added up to, apart from a pretty interesting scene. That was enough for me.
Midway across the Atlantic, the captain informed us that we'd be making an unscheduled stop in the Azores to refuel. It was the middle of the night when we landed on Santa Maria Island, a ten-mile-long rock with a gas pump. We were sitting on the runway in the dark when I Love Lucy came on.
Due to budget cuts, Ghana Airways does not provide headphones. This means that all in-flight entertainment must be piped through the plane's PA system. The effect is to make even the chirpiest dialogue sound like an Official Announcement. I knew Ricky was saying something to Lucy about her spending habits, but I couldn't shake the feeling he was talking about emergency exits and flotation devices.
Suddenly, a commotion broke out in business class. The Reverend Al Sampson, the pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church in Chicago and a longtime friend of Sharpton's, had collared a flight attendant and was berating him about the choice of entertainment. "We're going to Africa," Sampson said, very agitated. "This is Ghana Airways. And you put this on? We shouldn't have to watch I Love Lucy in the year 2003."
The flight attendant was squatting in the aisle, doing his best to listen politely. He was obviously confused. Julianne Malveaux, the liberal commentator and PBS host, who happened to be sitting nearby, jumped in. "This is offensive," she said.
Overwhelmed, the flight attendant left to get his superior, who arrived at a half trot. The discussion continued at high volume for the rest of the episode. Sampson never explained precisely what was so disturbing about I Love Lucy. His main point seemed to be that it was a show "with no cultural context," which I took to mean that it had too many white people.
He was still stewing when we arrived in Ghana at five in the morning. On the bus to the hotel, someone mentioned a story that had run on Black Entertainment Television about Sharpton's trip to Africa. Apparently it was unflattering. Sampson made the connection immediately.
"Who owns I Love Lucy?" he said. "Viacom. And what's part of Viacom? BET. BET is part of Viacom."
"That's right," said someone from the back of the bus.
Sampson nodded sagely. "So you know that the disinformation is just beginning."
It was a tantalizing introduction, and I wanted to hear more. Unfortunately, before Sampson could flesh out the BET--Viacom--Ricky Ricardo nexus, we had arrived at the hotel. After a shower and a change of clothes, we were off again.
As a rule, the civil-rights establishment is not punctual. But even by the standards of the chronically late, Sharpton is chronically late. Like all politicians, he tends to schedule an impossible number of events in a single day. But that's only part of the problem. Habit accounts for the rest. After spending so many years on the road, with so little cash, so far from the edge of respectability, Sharpton has lost the ability to travel like a legitimate person. In Sharpton's world, itineraries are merely suggestions. It's a measure of his awesome natural talent that he's able to get anything done at all. He's that disorganized.
One of the few commitments that Sharpton never misses is church on Sunday. He attends a service no matter where he happens to be. If you know Sharpton primarily through his political activism--or his history as a Tawana Brawley adviser or FBI informant or James Brown protege'--it can be hard to believe that he's actually a Christian clergyman. Doubts disappear when you hear him preach.
Sharpton preaches like a man who has been doing it since before he could read or write. (He was only four when he gave his first sermon on John 14 in front of nine hundred people at the Washington Temple Church of God in Christ in Brooklyn). His sermons are as extemporaneous as his schedule. Not a word is written down; everything is subject to change. Often he switches the topic of a sermon midway through in response to what he feels from the crowd. Sometimes he bursts into song.
Most surprising of all, there's a fair amount of religion in Sharpton's preaching. He quotes at length from the Bible, talks without embarrassment about Jesus and redemption and heaven and hell. He believes in the supernatural and says so. He's probably the only Democratic presidential candidate this year who is comfortable discussing faith healing, prophesies, and speaking in tongues, all of which he has seen and is convinced are real.
Sharpton was scheduled to preach at Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Accra the first morning of the trip. We arrived more than an hour late. Annoyed, the pastor interrupted Sharpton's sermon after just five minutes. For the rest of the service, the congregation sang. Archbishop King of the Church of Coltrane stood in front of the altar in full clerical regalia playing the saxophone. Two local men played the congas. Women danced in the aisles. Cornel West hugged me for the second time that morning. After a few minutes, Sharpton got a call on his satellite phone and went outside.
It was Jewel Taylor, the first lady of Liberia, calling from Monrovia once again to offer the spare bedroom in the presidential palace for our scheduled visit the next day. Sharpton was polite but skeptical. "We'll call her tomorrow morning," he said once he got off the phone. "If she doesn't answer, we'll know what that means."
AT SOME POINT during our flight across the Atlantic, Charles Taylor had lost control of his country. Two rebel armies--Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, known as LURD; and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, known as MODEL--appeared to have taken everything but downtown Monrovia. LURD was said to be within ten miles of Taylor's home.
Liberia has been in a state of low-grade revolution since at least 1980, when a twenty-eight-year-old master sergeant named Samuel Doe executed virtually the entire leadership of the country, most of them descendants of freed American slaves. President Doe himself met his end ten years later, when he had the misfortune of being captured by a guerrilla leader known as General Prince Johnson. Johnson force-fed Doe his own penis, then cut off his ears and rolled him around Monrovia in a wheelbarrow until he died, videotaping the whole thing for posterity. The country went downhill from there. Taylor knew he had little hope for mercy if LURD made it to his house.
Which, it occurred to me, might explain why he seemed so eager to have Sharpton come visit. When you're facing slow death by acetylene torch, even a third-tier American presidential candidate can look like a lifeline. If Taylor did have to meet his enemies face-to-face, Sharpton might help him talk his way out of being castrated. In Africa as in Brooklyn, Sharpton is famous for being a good talker.
A similar thought had occurred to LURD, as I discovered when I called CNN's producer in Liberia. The network had asked me to bring a box of audio equipment to the CNN crew in Monrovia, which had essentially been stranded in the city when commercial air service was suspended the week before. The producer wasn't bullish on Sharpton's prospects of success. LURD was well aware he was coming, he said. They viewed the trip as an effort to prop up Taylor. LURD might try to kill Sharpton at the airport, the producer explained, or possibly at one of the roadblocks on the long drive into the city. It "would be brave" to come to Liberia tomorrow, he said.
The producer said one other thing. Actually, he didn't come right out and say it, because foreign correspondents, particularly Australian ones, almost never admit they're afraid, even when they're bleeding or on fire or falling out of airplanes. But the tone of his voice indicated that Monrovia was getting unruly. He and the other foreign press were hunkered in the U. S. embassy compound. Outside, Taylor's troops were fighting street battles with LURD forces. Many of the soldiers on both sides were barely in their teens. Some of the LURD forces were dressed in women's clothes--wedding dresses, blond wigs, high heels--and were deranged from huffing gasoline. It sounded like an uncomfortable scene.
If Sharpton was aware of what was happening in Liberia, he didn't show it. He just nodded when Akbar Muhammad explained that we'd be taking an ambulance plane into Monrovia after breakfast. He didn't flinch when told that LURD had just seized the airport. None of it seemed to bother him.
An hour later we drove to a hotel in Accra, where representatives of LURD, MODEL, and the Taylor government were holding "peace talks." The talks had been going on for six weeks, during which time, all sides agreed, nothing had been accomplished. Sharpton had decided it would be a good venue for his diplomatic skills.
Late in the afternoon, about thirty Liberian factional representatives and exile leaders filed into a room off the lobby of the M Plaza Hotel. Sharpton was sitting at the head table, alongside Archbishop King, Rev. Sampson, Cornel West, and Marjorie Harris, the capable, good-natured director of Sharpton's National Action Network. The idea was for Sharpton to moderate a discussion among all sides, as a disinterested third party. I believe that was the idea.
The secretary general of the National Patriotic Party, Taylor's man in Accra, spoke first. "The U. S. has been the drum major behind problems in Liberia," he began. With that in mind, the United States government should take steps to atone for its sins, mostly by not helping anybody who might be seeking to replace Charles Taylor. That, said the secretary general, would be "rewarding rebellion."
A representative from an anti-Taylor group immediately objected. His name was Mohammed Kromah, and he identified himself as the head of something called the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas. When not conducting diplomacy in West Africa, Kromah is a supervisor at the Maryland Department of Human Resources in Baltimore. Kromah, like most Liberians outside the Taylor government, had seen relatives and friends die in the endless cycle of wars and was desperate for U. S. intervention. He spoke passionately about the historic ties between the United States and Liberia. He pleaded for American troops to come and end the killing. Finally, Al Sampson cut him off.
Sampson, a heavyset man in his sixties who is partial to gold chains and safari suits, began by describing himself as "the man who was ordained by Martin King." Then he launched into what was perhaps the most patronizing lecture that I have ever personally witnessed. Addressing Kromah, Sampson explained that the very idea of sending U. S. troops to Liberia was immoral. African-American soldiers fighting in Africa? That would be "black-on-black violence." Indeed, it would constitute a kind of civil war within the African diaspora. "The problem is," Sampson thundered, "we ain't seeing each other as brothers."
That was for sure. Apart from skin tone, Sampson has more in common with Trent Lott than with the people he was haranguing. The average Liberian, it turns out, does not share the same assumptions as the average black Methodist minister from Chicago. "He doesn't understand," Mohammed Kromah said to me later. "Being brothers because we're all black. It sounds good. But when there were riots in Los Angeles after Rodney King, did they ask gang leaders to get together and talk? No, they took them to court. They sent police."
It was a good point, but Kromah had to wait a long time to make it. The Reverend Sampson was just getting started. By the time he got to our upcoming trip to the war zone, he had a faraway look in his eyes.
"Nobody in the White House is prepared to step into Liberia tomorrow to live or die," Sampson said. But we are. Because we cannot know the hour that God will call us home. We cannot know when our work on this earth is done. We can only do our duty. As Martin did. As Malcolm did. As Ron Brown did. For, like them, we have been to the mountaintop. And we are unafraid.
Or something like that. My notes trail off after the first die. I was too mesmerized to keep writing. Sampson seemed delighted by the idea of buying it in Liberia. You could tell he was imagining the headlines back home: "Spiritual Leader Slain on Quest for Peace: Chicagoland Minister Leaves Legacy of Healing."
I wasn't on board. For one thing, I hadn't been to the mountaintop yet. For another, my kids would miss me if I got killed. And since when did Ron Brown, Clinton's commerce secretary, get inducted into the pantheon of civil-rights martyrs?
By dinner, details of the chaos in Liberia were all over CNN, but as far as I know, no one in the group piped up to suggest that flying in might be a bad idea. I didn't. Around midnight I headed back to my room, feeling slightly ill. As I passed through the lobby, I saw Archbishop King sitting alone against a wall. I liked King. It's easy to mock a man who has founded a religion based on John Coltrane, who considers A Love Supreme, whatever its merits as a jazz album, to be holy scripture. It's hard to take a man like that too seriously, and I confess that my first instinct was not to. But after spending a week with him, I can report that His Eminence Franzo W. King is a genuinely spiritual man.
He certainly talks like one. King tends to speak in riddles and dictums and parables, and at an almost inaudible volume. One day I told him that I considered some person or other a bit of a phony. King looked at me intently for a moment, then put his hand on the back of my head and pulled my ear to his lips. "Is a tree phony because it loses its leaves in winter?" he whispered.
I suspect that Archbishop King did a ton of acid at some point. Either that or he really is a mystic. I'm still not sure, and that night I didn't care. I wanted to know what he thought of our impending trip to Monrovia. He didn't answer the question directly, of course. Instead he quoted John Coltrane: "During Vietnam, they asked Coltrane what he thought of the war. He said, 'I'm against all wars.' " King looked at me and nodded slowly. I nodded back, then said goodnight and went to bed.
IN THE END, the question of whether or not to go to Monrovia was settled by the pilot of the ambulance plane. The next morning he refused to fly in, on the grounds that we'd get killed. Apparently he hadn't been to the mountaintop yet, either.
Sharpton accepted the news like the flexible traveler he is and immediately began planning peace talks of his own at our hotel. The logistics weren't complicated, since much of the leadership of LURD happened to be staying on the same floor. They were all over the hotel at all hours and very hard to miss. They were the sinister ones with guns. I didn't meet anyone affiliated with LURD who didn't look as if he'd just returned from a long but enjoyable day of summary executions.
One morning I was sitting in the lobby interviewing Ruth Perry, who for a brief time during the 1990s was the president of Liberia and lived to tell about it. With her was a fellow Liberian named Marie Parker. Parker was also unusually lucky, having made the last charter flight out of Monrovia the day before. While her plane taxied down the runway, LURD troops lobbed mortars onto the tarmac. Looking out the window, she saw a child decapitated by shrapnel.
As Mrs. Parker told her story and Mrs. Perry gasped, a tall man dressed entirely in black approached the table, pulled up a chair, and sat down. He did not remove his sunglasses. He introduced himself as Lieutenant General Donzo of LURD. The outline of a handgun stood out in relief against his leg. He smiled at the women. They glared back.
Unprompted, Donzo gave the three of us an update on the fighting in Monrovia. "Mr. Taylor cannot escape," he said. "We will catch him. Mr. Taylor is on a suicide mission now. We could run the whole city in seventy-two hours."
Donzo grinned and fiddled with his cell phone, which he said he used to command his fourteen-year-old transvestite gas-sniffing troops in the field. It was a newish Nokia, with Internet service and a built-in camera. Aiming it across the room, he took a picture of an air-conditioning unit to show off the picture quality. Donzo claimed to be thirty-five, but I'd bet my car he was at least ten years younger.
I remembered a piece of propaganda I had seen, produced by the Taylor government, that accused LURD soldiers of practicing cannibalism and human sacrifice. I was glad when Lieutenant General Donzo left the table.
Sharpton wanted every member of the delegation at the first round of his peace talks, scheduled for 9:00 P.M. in a conference room at the hotel. LURD agreed to come, though it wasn't clear whether its members understood what they were coming to. (LURD's deputy secretary general told me that he was looking forward to talking to "Ashcroft" at the meeting.) Cornel West had high hopes nonetheless. "This is going to set the tone for the post-cold-war era," he said with real enthusiasm.
The LURD guys were precisely on time. They walked in as a group with their heads down, like tenth graders late for class, and sat together in the third row. Representatives from Taylor's government were supposed to come, too, but at the last minute they didn't show, claiming they were caught in traffic.
Undaunted, Sharpton reached Sam Jackson, Taylor's unusually slick minister of economic affairs, on his cell phone. Sharpton carried on the conversation while the rest of the room listened. "These brothers have come to the table," he said, referring to the LURD guys, who were still sitting with their heads down. "They're willing to talk. You've got to respond." Jackson said he'd call back with an offer.
Cornel West, meanwhile, had started a one-man teach-in, a complex rap on the struggle for indigenous self-determination in the postcolonial era. It sounded a lot like a graduate seminar on Third World politics. "The alternative to bloodshed is dialogue," West said. "The dialogue has to be one where reasons have weight. The Liberian people will have to take their future in their own hands. What we all want to avoid is some sort of imperial imposition."
Before it was over, I'm fairly sure West had used the term dialectic several times, possibly even paradigm. The LURD guys obviously didn't understand a word of it. They sat in perfect silence for the duration. At one point, a cell phone went off in the LURD row, ringing the theme from Woody Woodpecker. No one answered it.
Sam Jackson called back at 9:40 with Taylor's latest offer, which sounded suspiciously like the offer he'd been making all along: If the United States was willing to send peacekeepers to Monrovia, Taylor would leave the country within a day and allow an interim government, with representatives from both rebel factions, to take his place.
Sharpton sounded skeptical: "If Taylor equivocates, I will blast him all over the world as a liar." Jackson offered his strongest reassurances. All right, said Sharpton, "I'll get Cornel and them to draft a statement." The deal was almost done.
All that remained was to convince the LURD delegation. In theory, it should have been easy. The points Taylor had agreed to--U. S. troops, exile in Nigeria, an interim government--were precisely those that LURD said it was fighting for. The problem wasn't with details. It was with comprehension. The LURD guys were utterly confused.
Sharpton tried his best. He explained the deal at least three times, each time with increasing vehemence. By the end, he was preaching, every sentence ending with the rhetorical "Is that right?" Unfortunately, the typical African warlord doesn't know much about the customs of the American black church. Sharpton's call-and-response routine left them even more bewildered.
Finally, the leader of the LURD delegation stopped Sharpton to ask a question. (He may have even raised his hand.) Does the deal include a cease-fire? Do we have to stop fighting? he wanted to know.
Sharpton looked as if he were going to drop dead of exasperation. "Of course there's got to be a cease-fire!" You morons.
I imagine it had been a long time since anyone had spoken that way to LURD leaders and lived to tell about it. The meeting broke up shortly after. Sharpton dismissed the LURD contingent like a class. "We'll be back to you in a few hours," he said. "We got your numbers." They shuffled out obediently.
There were several more meetings over the next few days. For a short time it looked as though Sharpton might have achieved a breakthrough. LURD seemed to figure out most of what was going on. Taylor appeared to be getting more flexible. On the third day, the State Department sent a foreign-service officer from the Africa desk in Washington to brief Sharpton on Liberian politics. (Sharpton had spoken again to Colin Powell.) I ran into him at lunch. "I don't have a position on the Sharpton Plan, official or unofficial," he said.
Then it all fell apart. Predictably, the plan unraveled when it reached the LURD troops. They didn't want to stop fighting. When called by their commanders from the hotel coffee shop in Ghana and told about the cease-fire, the pantyhose-clad guerrillas in Monrovia simply hung up the phone. As any parent knows, fourteen-year-olds can be hard to control.
SUDDENLY, THE bring-peace-to-Liberia portion of the trip was over. There was talk of heading to Johannesburg to see Nelson Mandela, but no one could find his number. We spent the next few days sightseeing, visiting a refugee camp, and following Sharpton as he made campaignlike stops around Accra, including a remarkably contentious in-
terview on Good Evening, Ghana. The rest of the time, we sat around talking about religion, death, and politics.
The Nation of Islam guys turned out to be terrific conversationalists, the two James Muhammads in particular. They were sharp and informed and extremely polite. The most striking thing about them, though, was how relentlessly normal they seemed. Both had been loyal members of the Nation of Islam for more than twenty years. Presumably they believed, as NOI doctrine teaches, that the white race is intrinsically evil and will be incinerated by an enormous spaceship currently hovering above the earth. You'd never guess it from talking to them.
The first James Muhammad, James G., was at the time the editor of the Final Call, NOI's weekly newspaper and a forum for every conceivable crackpot racialist view. In his heart, James G. may be convinced that Jewish doctors are injecting black babies with AIDS, but he could not have been nicer to me. Almost every morning he called or came by my room to make sure I was awake. Once we got home, he sent me digital pictures of the trip. He ended his e-mail with a smiley face.
The second James Muhammad, James L. (formerly James 10X), was if anything even gentler and more friendly. An accountant in the dean's office at Yale, he confided to me that his first love was photojournalism. "If I could come back as anything, I'd be a National Geographic photographer," he said.
I decided that it was their sincere belief in black supremacy that made the James Muhammads such good company. From their point of view, I was an irredeemable White Devil, cursed by Allah and marked for destruction. They had nothing to prove to me; I was like the retarded kid. We got along great. At the end of the trip, James L. pronounced me an honorary member of the Nation of Islam: Tucker X.
Only occasionally were there reminders that the Nation of Islam is not a mainstream religious organization. One afternoon, I called the CNN news desk and learned that Uday and Qusay Hussein had been killed by American troops in Iraq. At dinner I mentioned the news to Akbar Muhammad. He looked crestfallen. "That's unfortunate," he said. Akbar had known the Hussein boys, as well as their father. He reminisced about their time together in prewar Baghdad.
As the NOI's chief diplomat, Akbar seemed to spend most of his time traveling to the world's most repressive dictatorships. I forgot to ask him if he'd made it to North Korea, but he'd been just about everywhere else. Occasionally he'd drop references to "Brother Qaddafi" or the meal he had recently shared with Robert Mugabe, the lunatic of Zimbabwe.
On our final day in Ghana, Akbar mentioned another old friend, Idi Amin. Amin had slipped into a coma that week at a hospital in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, and wasn't expected to recover. This put Akbar in a sentimental mood. He told me about the first time he met Idi. It was 1977. The two had strolled through downtown Kampala, which at the time was "safe and quiet." If Amin dies, Akbar said, and CNN decides to run an obituary, "maybe you can present the other side."
Sharpton laughed when I told him about the conversation. He seemed amused by the Nation of Islam, whose theology he summarized as "no booze, pork, or white women." Sharpton is widely regarded by white people as a racist, and it is true that he used to make references to "crackers" in his speeches. ("I ain't never worked for a cracker in my life," he once boasted.) He doesn't talk like that anymore. Sharpton still rails against the White Power Structure, but these days he reserves his harshest rhetoric for black people.
During a speech at the W. E. B. DuBois center in Accra, Sharpton came off as something approaching conservative. He described black gang members as "savages" engaged in "crass, despicable, irresponsible behavior." He all but denounced hip-hop culture and the "irrelevant Negroes" it produces. "DuBois didn't come here to teach Ghanaians how to break-dance or call their grandmother 'bitch,' " Sharpton said. Decency, hard work, academic excellence--that, said Sharpton, is the path to dignity and self-improvement.
Al Sampson, meanwhile, continued to do a spot-on impression of the early Malcolm X. I made it to breakfast one morning just in time to catch him in mid-rant. If you're looking for a single cause of all the world's problems, Sampson was saying, look no further than the white race. He glanced up and saw me, the physical embodiment of eons of injustice and oppression. "When are you going to stop trashing the universe?" he said.
I should have laughed it off, but it was just too early. What a vicious, ignorant thing to say, I replied.
Ignorant? he said. Are you saying I have a low IQ?
Before I could answer, Sampson began to tick off a list of white crimes against humanity, beginning with the slave trade. As it happened, Sharpton was planning to visit a slavery museum that very day. I'll be watching you when we get there, Sampson said. "I want to see if you even cry."
I was close to the snapping point. After days of needling from Sampson, I was being poisoned by a toxic buildup of dislike. I longed for the cathartic release that would come from leaping across the table and smashing his nose. I must have telegraphed it, because both James Muhammads immediately tried to calm me down. "Come on back, now," said James L. "Come on back." Archbishop King didn't say anything, but walked over and gave me a hug.
Sampson was trying to make me feel guilty. It wasn't obvious to me at the time. The idea that I'd be responsible for the sins (or, for that matter, share in the glory of the accomplishments) of dead people who happened to share my skin tone has always confused me. Racial solidarity wasn't a working concept in my southern-California hometown. Most people barely had last names, much less ethnic identities. I grew up feeling about as much connection to nineteenth-century slave owners as I did to bus drivers in Helsinki or astronomers in Tirana. We're all capable of getting sunburned. That's it.
I tried a couple of times to explain this to Rev. Sampson. But "your people," he'd say, did this or that appalling thing. I don't have any "people," I'd reply. Beyond my immediate family, I don't speak for anybody. The deceased bad guys you're talking about, we just look alike.
Either he didn't get it, or he didn't believe me. Day after day, Sampson kept it up, trying his best to make me feel bad about myself for being a universe trasher. I never did. Ultimately, I'm just not a guilty white person.
Maybe that's why Sharpton and I got along so well. We talked for hours over the course of the week, about everything from marriage to the Iowa caucuses. By the end, I'd settled at least one question: Sharpton doesn't hate whites after all. He just hates white liberals.
"You've dealt with inoffensive Negroes," Sharpton roared, imagining that he was talking to Terry McAuliffe or some other Democratic-party official. "Now you've got to deal with Al Sharpton." Sharpton knows that many white Democrats are embarrassed that he exists. The street-hustler wardrobe, Tawana Brawley, the hair--he is a public-relations disaster for the Democratic party, a living explanation of why suburbanites vote Republican. The thought fills him with pleasure, because it means that he has the power to make white Democrats uncomfortable every time he speaks.
Which is why he can hardly wait for the Democratic National Convention next summer in Boston. "Let me put it this way: I can speak inside or outside. They can choose the venue. But either way, I'm speaking in prime time." Either speech, he points out, will almost certainly be carried live on the networks.
"The only people who don't respect me are white liberals," he said one night at dinner. Some have dismissed him outright as a buffoon (he became furious just thinking about it); others have merely patted him on the head and tried to send him on his way. That's how it felt, anyway. He saw it happen to Jesse Jackson, who started out as an independent man of the Left and wound up a party hack, summoned to the Clinton White House periodically like a servant to perform.
They got Jackson little by little, Sharpton believes, mostly by giving him things: money, jobs for his friends, the use of private airplanes. Within a year or two, Jackson was an employee. Sharpton considers it a profound political lesson. "I saw what happened to Jesse. I was there. They're assuming I want what Jesse wanted."
If so, they're wrong. Sharpton has never taken federal grants. He doesn't want patronage. He's happy to fly commercial. "What can they give me? A couple hundred grand in voter-registration money? Please. I don't need that. I don't need anything from them. They can't control me. That's why they hate me."
What does Al Sharpton want? He didn't even pause when I asked. "What we want is them." By them Sharpton means every white liberal in the leadership of the Democratic party who has ever assumed a high-handed tone with him, put him off for a meeting, or in any way acted supercilious or superior in his presence. That's a lot of people. Sharpton says he'll start by demanding control over the chairmanship of the party. From there, he'd like a hand in picking next year's vice-presidential nominee. After that, we'll see.
Sharpton understands he may not get everything he wants. They might continue to patronize him. That's fine, too. He could always pull a Nader and go third party. "That's up to them," he said between bites of chicken. "If I buy a suit and the pants split, I need to get it fixed or get a new suit. My butt is out. My behind is getting cold in the wind." The question you have to ask at that point, he said, is: "Do I need to get a new suit? Or do you have a needle and thread?"
Sharpton has thought all of this through in some detail. He's fairly certain Democratic leaders consider him incapable of formulating a serious strategy. "I've got a plan. They never thought of that. They're used to--at best--a shakedown."
And that's only Sharpton's plan for the next year. He said he intends to come up with new demands by 2006, when Senator Hillary Clinton comes up for reelection. New York is one place Sharpton has uncontested influence. He could cause Senator Clinton a significant headache if he ran against her in the primary or withheld his endorsement in the general election. Like his convention speech, that thought pleases him.
None of this has escaped Bill Clinton's notice. Clinton called Sharpton in July to set up a meeting. Sharpton assumes the former president wanted to get a sense of what the demands might be. When the meeting takes place, Sharpton said, "I won't give up anything. It's not to my advantage for him to figure me out."
In the end, of course, Sharpton isn't really running for president of the United States. He's running for president of black America. In some ways, with the rest of the traditional civil-rights leadership aging or retired, he has already won.
We left for the slavery museum later that morning. It was about a hundred miles up the coast by bus. Akbar Muhammad sat in the front with a microphone, acting as our tour guide. As we rolled through an outdoor market, he ruminated on the tragedy of the modern African diet. Until colonization, he explained, Africans did not eat pork. "It was the white man who brought the pig."
The travelogue/history lesson went on for about an hour. Finally Akbar paused. He rooted around in his bag and produced a cassette. "I hope you don't mind," he said, popping it into the dash. "This is one of my favorite tapes."
I don't know what I expected. A speech by Minister Farrakhan, maybe, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as read by Amiri Baraka. And then it started. Strumming my pain with his fingers. Akbar cranked it up. Sharpton picked up the tune. Singing my life with his words. Cornel West started to dance in his seat. Killing me softly with his song, killing me softly. With his song. The whole bus was singing with Roberta Flack now, the James Muhammads taking the lead. Akbar rewound the song and played it again. After that we listened to Lou Rawls.
The slavery museum was at Cape Coast Castle, a massive former British customs house, which for more than a hundred years was used as a holding pen for slaves bound for the Americas. Single file and in silence, we walked down stone steps into the slave dungeon. Inside, it was as dark as a cave but hotter, with a single barred window fifteen feet up the wall. Akbar explained that the shallow channel carved into the floor had been the slaves' only latrine. He asked us to observe a moment of silence in their memory. We stood in a circle holding hands with our heads down. Someone began to sing a Negro spiritual, a cappella. Then the sobbing started.
It began, I think, with Cornel West. Soon it had spread to Sharpton and Akbar, and even to the notably white Sandy Rubenstein, who told me later that he was overcome by the thought of his own forebears enslaved by Pharaoh. Within a minute, the stone walls echoed with the sounds of a dozen people weeping, wailing, and gasping for breath. Al Sampson sounded as if he was about to die.
I felt like a voyeur. I closed my eyes while crying men shouted out the names of deceased ancestors. Someone passed out candles, and the group sang "We Shall Overcome." Sharpton, Cornel West, Sampson, and Akbar closed the ceremony with prayers. West thanked God for Sharpton, whom he described as a leader "in the tradition of John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield, and Gladys Knight." I was sweating profusely.
Cornel West, I noticed, was not. I looked at him closely as he prayed. Though it was at least 100 degrees in the dungeon, he had not taken off his coat or loosened his tie. (I never once saw him do either.) He had on the same clothes he'd been wearing when we boarded the plane in New York six days before. They looked perfect. There was not a speck of lint or dandruff or dust on his suit. His shoes were shined, the creases in his trousers crisp. His shirt was so white it looked luminescent. The next day I broke down and asked him how, with no change of clothes, he managed to stay so clean. He laughed cryptically but didn't answer. I began to suspect that I was witnessing some sort of supernatural event, a low-grade miracle. I still can't think of a better explanation.
Finally we emerged from the dungeon and stood around squinting in the sunlight. Al Sampson walked over to where I was standing. His face was puffy from crying. He put his hands on my shoulders. For a moment I was certain he was going to bite me. Instead, he looked into my eyes and smiled. "I love you, man," he said.
From that moment until we parted at the baggage claim at JFK, Sampson treated me like an old friend.
We left Ghana the next day, or tried to. True to its reputation, Ghana Airways was thirteen hours late leaving Accra. No sooner had we reached altitude than the pilot announced we'd be making an unscheduled stop in Banjul, Gambia, for more fuel. On the ground in Gambia, Marjorie Harris, Sharpton's closest aide, called New York from her satellite phone to check in. There were a lot of messages. The most pressing was from the family of James Davis, a New York City councilman who had been shot to death the day before at City Hall. Davis's family wanted Sharpton's support--not just his moral support, but money to pay for the funeral, as well as related "expenses." Harris opposed the idea. The office was already in debt. Not two months before, one of Sharpton's cars had been repossessed for late payments.
Sharpton said he had no choice but to send the Davis family money. "I can't believe he didn't have insurance, but I guess he didn't." Harris appeared to be completely unconvinced. "We've got to help," Sharpton said. And so he agreed to. He looked tired, but also resigned. The president, he knows, is never off duty.