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Saint Alice Among the Boogeymen

by ISHMAEL REED

A PBS Master’s portrait of Alice Walker was called “Beauty and Truth. ”The portrait, filmed by two Indian filmmakers, Pratibha Parmar and Shaheen Haq, was reviewed in The San Francisco Chronicle by Meredith May. The film was like the genre that Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” launched. A saintly black woman besieged by cruel black men. Black critic C. Leigh Innis has called this the “Black Boogeyman” genre, which has made a fortune for white male publishers, theatrical producers, filmmakers and scriptwriters. In The San Francisco Chronicle’s adoring review, Meredith May, who wrote more as a Walker groupie than a journalist, I was the Black Boogeyman. The author, Sapphire, quoted an unnamed book store owner as saying,”Alice had black intellectuals like Ishmael Reed putting her down, trying to stop her film from being seen. ”

Given Sapphire’s record, the bookstore owner might not exist. She told a Times reporter that Precious, the character in her book, Push, was a real person. Such a person has not been found. I made no such effort to block people from seeing “The Color Purple,”and sent an email to the May saying so. I asked both her and her editor for a retraction. I also asked why she hadn’t contacted me about the quote. After all, I had contributed to a Chronicle feature called “City Brights” for about a year.

Ms. May said that I could maybe get a letter published, but would have to limit the letter to 200 words. I reminded her that her story had been syndicated and that I would need more space to comment on an article that made me seem like some dope, standing outside of a movie theater, unkempt, sporting a long beard and wearing sandals, holding a sign that read, “Don’t See This Film. ”

I wasn’t surprised that the rumor was begun by Sapphire. Sapphire is still upset with me because I’m blamed for spoiling her Oscar’s party with my Op-ed printed in The New York Times, in which I blasted the movie based upon her novel. The film “Precious” depicted a black family of welfare cheats who spend their time watching television, eating bad food, and having sex with their children. I wasn’t surprised that Oprah signed on as a fake producer of the film because that’s her view of welfare recipients. Kitty Kelly, in her book, Oprah, writes:

“Oprah had no sympathy for welfare recipients and frequently berated them. ‘I was a welfare daughter, just like you…. How did you let yourselves become welfare mothers? Why did you choose this? I didn’t. ’The women looked ashamed that they were not good enough to be accepted by Oprah. ‘When Welfare Warriors, a Milwaukee of activist moms in poverty, were invited to appear [on one of her welfare shows], we accepted…despite our anger at Oprah’s betrayal of African American moms in poverty and her frequent attacks on all moms who receive welfare,’ wrote Pat Gowens, editor of Mother Warriors Voice. ‘Her contempt for impoverished mothers actually increased Welfare Warriors’ membership when African American moms joined specifically to picket Oprah. (A typical Oprah assault on welfare mom in her audience. ‘But you sit home with your feet up collecting that monthly check).”

Sapphire became so upset with me that she told The Saint Louis Post Dispatch that I was “mentally ill,” to which I responded that to call me “mentally ill” was an insult to the forty million or so Americans who suffer from mental disorders. She came to fame as a result of her poem about the rape of a stockbroker in Central Park. The poem put the Central Park Five at the crime scene, using their actual names, and showing them participating in vile acts against the stockbroker.

“The rock begs my hand
to hold it.
It says, “Come on man. “
T. W. , Pit Bull, J. D. & me
grab the bitch
ugly big nose white bitch
but she´s beautiful cause she´s white
she´s beautiful cause she´s skinny
she´s beautiful couse she´s gonna die
cause her daddy´s gonna cry
Bitch! 
I bring the rock down
on her head
sounds dull & flat”

This was a lie, but it made her a hero among the New York feminists who freak behind the Black Boogeyman monster. (Calling on CounterPunch psychologist Susan Block!). Turns out that the five were innocent, but the hysteria, which led to feminist demonstrations outside of the courthouse and a prosecutor and D. A., both feminists, who covered up the lies of the detectives in the case, led to their growing up in jail.

Demonstration

A very famous black author witnessed Sapphire in action. She said that Sapphire, when appearing before audiences of white women, accosts them with such intimidating rhetoric that she leaves them quaking in their seats. They love it! Mary Meredith was probably intimidated by the same act. That’s why she abandoned her responsibility as a journalist, which includes fact checking. The late June Jordan brought enthusiastic applause from the same types when she accused me of trying to ban The Color Purple from being taught in Oakland schools. Her comments were broadcast on radio station KPFA. When she found out that I was opposed to the ban, at least she apologized in Poetry Flash magazine. She said that a white feminist who worked at Cody’s bookstore at the time told her that I supported the ban.

My troubles with “The Color Purple” began during an appearance on,”The Today Show” in 1988. Bryant Gumbel wanted me on to discuss my novel, Reckless Eyeballing, a comic look at the gender wars and the conflict between Jews and blacks. The weekend before my appearance a sister connected with the show called and said that they wanted me to comment about,“The Color Purple,”the film. Bryant Gumbel was away on the day of my appearance. I was provided with a surprise-debating partner, Clarence Page, who was championing the film. I thought that the discussion of the film would only be part of a discussion about my book, instead it took up the whole segment. It was the day of the Oscars, and I said that the film was another example of Hollywood’s war on Ethnic America and mentioned the treatment of Italian Americans in film, but nowhere did I say that people shouldn’t see the film. The film didn’t win anything. And my book wasn’t mentioned and when I complained, one of the sisters said, “ We didn’t guarantee that we would mention your book,” which was the reason I was on the show in the first place.

Though Native American, black, Asian American, Hispanic feminists continue to praise me, even write musical tributes and give me awards, from that time on I have been subjected to one boycott (which collapsed when someone challenged the white feminists whether any of them had read my books) and steady censorship from white feminists most recently from those at a magazine called The Tablet, which invited me to comment about Alice Walker’s generalizations about Israel, which led to disturbances during her appearance at thee YMHA. Instead, I took the opportunity to encourage film makers like Steven Spielberg, David Simon, and David Mamet, who’ve refereed conflicts between black men and women for profit, to make films about the historic conflicts between Jewish men and women and to shed a light on the treatment of Jewish women in the United States and Israel, a problem that feminists, writing in the Jewish feminist magazine, Lilith, claim, has been covered up. Maybe the producer of “Precious,” Sarah Siegel would finance it. I even quoted a Tablet article that criticized Jewish producers for awarding roles that were meant for Jewish women to gentile actresses. Steven Spielberg has given us two Black Boogeymen, Mr. in “The Color Purple,”and Leroy in “The Help. ” After a month or so grinding out the piece they told me that they were enthusiastic about publishing it. Then I received the following note from the editor,

Sadly, I’m writing to say that we have decided not to go forward with the piece. We are deeply sorry about putting you and Emily [my agent’s assistant] through the wringer, but here at Tablet this turned into a girls versus boys thing — and as you know, girls have the power.

Those feminists who criticize me for challenging the portrait of black men in Black Boogeyman books and encouraging the men and women of other ethnic groups to examine the way that women of these groups are treated, don’t have the ambition to check my footnotes. It’s because, in the words of Sapphire, I’m upset because black women are winning all of the prizes. I’m jealous because the Pulitzers, handled by over fifty year old white men, the same types who judge the Nobel Prizes for literature, who don’t even get white fiction right, the men who awarded Janet Cooke a Pulitzer, won’t give me a prize. The late Robert Maynard was on that committee that Juice-by-Ishmael-Reedawarded Ms. Cooke the prize. He tried to tell them that her account of a black family so low down that they would give an eight-year-old heroin was fake. They overruled him. A scandal ensued. Sapphire says I’m upset because Steven Spielberg and Harold Weinstein won’t do one of my books. Well it just happens that I’ve published more books by black women then all of the members of the Color Purple Religion combined. Including Sapphire. Why don’t the Nigerian women, with whom I collaborated in the publishing of two anthologies feel that way about me? The book that I published Short Stories By Sixteen Nigerian Women was sold to the Egyptian Center of Translation to be translated into Arabic. Why don’t the two professors, both women, who arranged for me to come to China last October where my book, Japanese By Spring, is being studied, feel that I’m upset because black women writers have “eclipsed” black male writers, which is what a white media feminist said to me on the radio. Moreover, on the west coast we have our own institutions. Our authors aren’t judged by an all white jury that from time to time selects a token. And even if you win an award from The National Critics Circle and wear a tuxedo you might be shown to the servant’s entrance, which is what happened to one Latino award winner. We’re not hanging around New York auditioning to be the next token.

Alice Walker can’t be blamed for critics using an individual character in her book to represent all black men but when she blamed black men, collectively, for “evil,” during an interview with David Bradley in The New York Times, she invited criticism. Some of the commentators shown on the PBS documentary, “Beauty and Truth,”could be accused of hypocrisy and a disregard for the facts.

Those Black men and women who picketed the film “The Color Purple,” were described by the film makers as critics who were treating Ms. Walker, unfairly. The film makers didn’t check to see whether Ms. Walker criticized Spielberg’s treatment of Mr. She did. For feminist academics like these I guess the best way to hide information from them is to put it in a book. Judging from Ms. Walker’s comments about the film, published in Stepping Into The Same River Twice. She probably agrees with feminist scholar bell hooks about the depiction of Mr. She wrote in her book, Yearning race, gender, and cultural politics:

“Completely overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s cinematic interpretation of the novel, audiences seemed to forget Walker’s position. In the film version of the novel, Spielberg did not choose to graphically portray Mister’s transformation. Instead he highlighted images that readily resembled existing racist stereotypes depicting black masculinity as threatening and dangerous. ”

I guess Ms. hooks is also jealous of black women who are winning all of the prizes. Others complain that the shots that included their comments were taken out of context. Cheap shots all intended to make the critics of Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of black life look backward and dumb. One of those quoted out of context was Prof. Pierre Mvuyekure Damien. He wrote:

“I watched it and was disappointed that they misquoted my piece and out of context. Nowhere in ‘Alice Walker’s Colonial Mind’ do I tell her to ‘shut up. ’ She misses the political contexts in her piece on Rwanda and Congo, the former being at the origins of massacres and chaos in Congo.”

One commentator, a Color Purple zealot, said that Ms. Walker received the worst treatment ever accorded a black writer. That’s ignorant. David Walker and Richard Wright were probably murdered. W. E. B DuBois had his passport lifted. Philiss Wheatley and Zora Neale Hurston ended their lives in poverty. Amiri Baraka was tried for poem that a Newark judge considered seditious.

Ms. Walker read some lovely poems during the broadcast but the program was marred by the worshipful Indian filmmaker’s (I’ve suggested their next project; documentaries about 20% of India’s prostitutes being children, and India being the world’s leading slave holding state) making Ms. Walker into a martyr. I’m sure that the women in recovery, who are residents at Oakland’s Friendly Manor, where my friend, Sister Maureen, provides twenty-six beds for them, would like to have a nice house in the Berkeley Hills and a garden.

So even though the Chronicle said that they could only afford me 100-200 words to correct a misrepresentation of my views, I rejected the offer. I told them that I wasn’t exactly bereft of outlets. They still haven’t given me a retraction. I guess it’s like what Judge Taney said about Dred Scott applies to the media. A black man has no rights that the media are bound to respect.

Ishmael Reed is the publisher of Konch.  His information is at IshmaelReed.org.

Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

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