He’s a veteran of the “confrontation business,” but you’d never know it talking to him. Reverend Al Sharpton, who stars in this month’s HBO documentary The Black List, puts down the cause for a few minutes to talk tracksuits and track records. Sharpton has long been a fixture in the world of racial politics. Conservative, flamboyant and bombastic—his description, and ours—the reigning father of American social justice reform takes the hot seat to discuss growing older and wiser, all the while pushing onward with his tireless, insatiable war against inequality.
What about The Black List: Volume One appealed to you? Well, I thought it was important, the whole concept of blacks talking from different vantage points about what brought us to be what we became. I think much of the world—including a large percentage of the African American community—doesn’t realize that there are different lanes within the black community, even though there may be only one highway. This film shows that commonality, regardless of whether or not you’re a leading artist, a leading CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a leading civil rights speaker. There is such an eclectic mix of personalities in the film; Sean Combs and Russell Simmons come from the world of hip-hop, which you’ve attacked for its embrace of various derogatory terms. Then there is Zane, who writes erotic fiction, which can’t help but seem anathema to your value system. Is there something inherently worthwhile about including not just different, but also conflicting perspectives into this dialogue on race and identity? Well, we can all disagree while still appreciating the artistry and the contribution of others. Maybe I’ll disagree with somebody in hip-hop, but I can still talk to them. I’ve had a lot of hip-hop artists adamantly disagree with me about my personal views on lyrics and religion. But I think it is important that people understand that we’re not monolithic. We can still come together with divergent opinions. Is there something in particular that this documentary adds to the ongoing dialogue on race and identity? I think it adds a lot. For the first time, people are talking about themselves and how they became what they’ve become—who they are, who we are in Black America. When I got a chance to see the DVD, I even said, “I didn’t know that about Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. I didn’t know that about… ” We were all born to a mama, raised as a child and grew up in America. We were given what the world was ready to hand to us. And I think it humanizes us, without trying to rationalize or testify something. Where does your drive to champion social justice emanate from? My energy came from the black church. I grew up there and started preaching there. And it gave me a sense of meaning, a sense that I was operating within causes bigger than me. I was never particularly distracted by or interested in political opinion. I’ve always been very secure. When I got out into the broader political arena, into the controversy, I was already so secure that I was energized to go forward. In my teens, my father-son relationship with James Brown had that same kind of self-identity, the same kind of energy. So, it’s a combination of the church and my mentorship with people like Brown, who’ve changed what they’ve found in the world, rather than have the world change them. How do you deal with criticism? You certainly haven’t been immune to personal attacks. No one in the history of social justice movements in this country, or any other country, has gone without receiving criticism. I am, for lack of a better term, in the confrontation business. I confront institutions and I confront people when somebody is being accosted. There is no way to do that without dealing with the downside of controversy. I was surprised when, two weeks ago, a major magazine had done a Gallup Poll on blacks and I was given a favorable rating of about 50. I remember a time when the numbers in my favor were one-tenth of that. What I do is meant to stir things up. Martin Luther King, Jr. did the very same thing. Who would you say has been your most formidable opponent to date? In my career? I would probably say the most formidable situation, wow, was the… I don’t know. I can’t single out just one. It’s unlikely to think that people can possibly win every battle they fight. How do you react to losing? I always try to extract gain from loss. Sometimes you win by fighting, period. How does it feel when you’re fighting specifically for social justice and then critics suggest you harbor your own prejudice? I’ve learned not to take it so seriously. The people who say stuff like that are just looking to get a rise out of me. Also, if anyone believed naysayers, the next victim of social injustice wouldn’t call me. And that’s one of the things I tell the rappers: These kids who call me are 17 and 22 years old, and while they may be entertained by you, they call me when they get in trouble. That ought to mean something. Do you ever worry that the way that public personalities dress overshadows what they are trying to say? I think you’ve got to be careful. I stopped wearing the big medallions and tracksuits because the whole look got in the way. People were so surprised when I stopped wearing the tracksuits and started wearing conservative suits. You have to be conscious of not letting your clothes get in the way of your message. But you also can’t let people force you to wear certain things, or else we’d all be sitting around in our underwear in the dark somewhere. Was the shift to more conventional clothing suggested to you by other people? No, I made the decision when I went national. Also, I’m 53, so I can’t be dressing the way I was when I was 33. People mature, as they grow older. I think it comes from a very privileged perspective to suggest that clothing acts as a pure reflection of someone’s personal style. In many cases, I believe, the things that people wear become socioeconomic markers that define where they come from, their lot in life. I think you need a certain amount of income to even be in a position to “define yourself.” Some people just dress in clothes they can afford. Only those who become very successful can decide how they are going to define themselves with clothing. Only a small percentage of the world can wake up every morning and say, “I’m going to wear this because it makes the statement that I want to make.” With everything you’ve accomplished, all the wars you’ve waged against social injustice, what is your ultimate goal? My ultimate goal is to have a national social justice movement that literally changes, from the bottom, equal protection under the law, which is considerably disproportionate. If I can go to my grave knowing that there is a continued national movement to make America equal then I will have done what I was born to do. I may be bombastic and flamboyant and conservative, but that’s just a means to an end. This is what I’m trying to do. As a nation, are we the closest that we’ve ever been to this goal? I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been, but it almost doesn’t matter, because we’ve been so far away for so long. We’re closer, it’s true, but to be closer does not mean to be close.
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