What, exactly, is a house slave?
Depends on who you ask. For example, if you were to ask entertainer-civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, then Secretary of State Colin Powell fits the description perfectly. Belafonte referred to Powell — and also National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice — last month as a “house slave” who must do the master’s bidding to keep from getting booted out into the fields to pick dat cotton.
But the verbal barrage merits attention again because of the pivotal role Powell has been playing in the whole Iraqi war games debate.
I’ve never been much of a Powell fan, but how many house slaves have you heard of who had the power to influence and change the course of national events in the most powerful nation on earth? That’s one hell of a house slave, massa boss.
(For the record, the “house slave” said, “If Harry had wanted to attack my politics, that was fine,” and that the slave reference was an “unfortunate … throwback to another time and another place.” That’s diplomat-talk for “Belafonte’s making this shit personal.” Belafonte, meanwhile, said it “wasn’t personal” but just about the politics of someone standing with the Bush administration while it “is wrecking the economy, making people unemployed and leading us into war.”)
Those of you following President Bush’s determined strategizing to find a way to wage war against Iraq and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might recall that not long ago Powell’s entreaties to work through the United Nations — and world opinion — were all but ignored up on the Hill. The military hard-liners had the president’s ear. There was even whispering that Powell might be secretly considering a way to excuse himself from the president’s cabinet. It would have been understandable. Why waste your time being a figurehead with no input? Might as well pose as a lawn jockey.
But then things began to change. Gradually, despite all those woof tickets Bush had been selling early on about how he was willing to go it alone if necessary to get rid of Hussein, he slowly began woofing in a different key. The cowboy warrior diatribe began giving way to slightly more moderate phrases that sounded suspiciously as if they had been handcrafted by … Powell. Within a few short months, as the New York Times reported, Bush went from virtually having his finger on the button and turning a deaf ear to Powell’s advice to publicly acknowledging Powell’s “good work.” Powell essentially convinced the president to press his case for war from the front of the world stage rather than the front porch of his ranch. He also convinced Bush that, in addition to the importance and necessity of global diplomacy, it was worth it to try once more to force Hussein to allow the weapons inspectors back in his country before charging into war.
It’s no secret at this point that Powell made up his mind to fight like hell for what he believed was the best approach to the Iraqi dilemma rather than bow and scrape for the hard-liners. He won. On Monday, the weapons inspectors arrived in Baghdad. If Bush had decided to go with the hard-liners, we would most likely already be at war.
In some ways Powell was the one who decided to go it alone, paddling upstream all the way, and in the end it was he who emerged on top — reportedly after making 150 telephone calls around the world to finesse his resolution through the UN Security Council. Granted, there are still those who grumble that the Powell resolution is too wimpy, won’t work against the wily Hussein, and will merely delay an inevitable attack on Iraq; Powell’s UN success could prove ephemeral, the critics emphasize. But that kind of griping could pretty much be expected. The point here is that it was the “house slave” in this instance who set the course of the ship.
Yassuh, thass one helluva slave, massa boss.
Let me make it clear that I disagree with most of Powell’s politics, and there’s no way I would have voted for him had he decided to run for president. The fact that he’s black doesn’t mean a thing to me if I feel he’s on the wrong side of the issues. I also want to make it clear that I disagree wholeheartedly with the decision to wage war against Iraq. Period. I think it would have been far worse to have made the decision to approach the issue unilaterally, but paving the way for military action against Iraq without any hard evidence that Iraq was definitely tied in with the terrorists of 9-11 and/or was planning an attack against the United States is all wrong. Personally I believe this whole thing is part of the Bush strategy to deflect any and all scrutiny of domestic issues at all costs.
But my disagreement with the Bush administration on the Iraqi situation — and just about everything else — does not change the fact that Powell’s view prevailed. Bush followed his direction, not the other way around. Belafonte’s “house slave” accusation was made too easily with too little thought attached.
I have always respected Belafonte, and his politics are much closer to mine than Powell’s, but it should never be that easy to label someone with such an ugly title just because that someone isn’t working your side of the fence. Like it or not, all black Republicans are not mindless followers of the orthodoxy, nor are they all self-hating Uncle Toms. For Belafonte to say that Powell and Rice are house slaves following massa’s orders is to imply that every black person in a position of power in America who works for a white boss — which would include just about every African-American in a position of power — is a house slave. Matter of fact, using Belafonte’s own implied definition, it would be fair to say that Belafonte achieved his level of recognition in the entertainment world doing the house slave bit better than just about anyone else.
Unless, of course, the poor man thinks black people run the entertainment industry.Keith A Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org