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A Shape-Up On The "Barbershop" Flap by Mark Reynolds

I'm not sure that we were ever really heard, but I do know that my fellow interns and I ruffled more than a few feathers in the summer of '78.

Eleven of us were spending the summer in Atlanta, studying at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. We were learning about the triumphs of the civil rights movement, and how to apply those lessons and tactics to the issues we would face after college. During that summer, a teach-in on nonviolence was also scheduled, where we got to meet some of the soldiers from the '60s up close and personal.

But all they wanted to do was spin their well-worn war stories, and they expected us to sit there in numb, uncritical reverence. We didn't do that. We asked questions, we pushed back, we wanted to know what they were doing now, and how their gains could be extended into a new era (the Supreme Court had handed down its Bakke decision on affirmative action as our internship was getting underway).

The veterans didn't appreciate our exuberance, and we probably could have deflected a bit more to their experience, at least outwardly. As it happened, it took a round or two of shuttle diplomacy between us and them to keep things from getting really ugly. I took away from the experience a tinge of sadness, sadness for them. Why did they feel they had to dig their heels so deeply into the past that they couldnąt appreciate the world they helped create? Why couldn't they accept us as their children, not their clones?

That's one of the first things that went through my mind after hearing about the flap over "Barbershop," the Ice Cube movie that has been one of the year's commercial and critical hits. Instead of being praised as an entertaining slice of African-American life in all its twists, turns, humor and humanity, the elders of the civil rights movement are in a snit because of, essentially, one of the movie's jokes.

Cedric the Entertainer's character, a barber named Eddie, engages in exactly the form of amateur poli sci hyperbole on display at any given moment in any barbershop (or beauty parlor) across urban America. He's on a roll, badmouthing Dr. King, Jesse Jackson, and Rosa Parks before turning his sights on less beloved figures like O.J. and Rodney King. Everyone else on hand shouts him down, and no one thinks anything of it ten seconds after it's done.

Except for Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and the guardians of Parks' image. They want the filmmakers to apologize, and the studio, MGM, to remove such apparent blasphemy from the home video version. Jackson told the Los Angeles Times, "You would not make Golda Meir the butt of a joke - it's sacred territory." Elaine Eason Steele, who co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in Detroit, made a similar analogy in the Washington Post.

While I certainly understand their concerns for the preservation of our history, they're blowing this way, way out of proportion. Worse, they're exhibiting the very mindset that is driving the next generation of political activists and thinkers further and further from the civil rights paradigm in which the elders have over-invested their identity and philosophy.

First, their timing is awful. Hollywood is gearing up for a fight with distributors of home videos and DVDs who are editing out objectionable scenes on their own, without asking anyone's permission or making any demands. They're just doing it, and that's a clear-cut case of tampering with the creative process in Hollywood's mind. The creative community wraps itself in the First Amendment regularly, but the suits will back down if there's any evidence that it will be in their monetary benefit. Seeing as how the movie's making a nice piece of change as it is, that isnąt likely to happen. If anything, the protestations will likely goose the box office even further, especially helpful as the film nears its second month in theaters.

Ms. Parks and her supporters, apparently, haven't learned from their tussle with OutKast. They sued the popular rappers for, basically, naming a rap song "Rosa Parks" without explicitly singing her praises - or asking her permission. The Parks camp had issues with rap in general, and admitted as much, without bothering to distinguish between OutKast's clever wordplay and the gangsta vulgarisms they shunned (a similar reference was recorded a decade earlier by Das EFX, by the way, but no Parks supporter niggity-noticed). Thankfully, their attempt to throw out the baby with the bathwater was rejected in court.

But two aspects of this argument are most disturbing, and they both parallel my experience in the King Center internship. Disrespect from the 'hood is that last thing any veteran of the movement has to worry about. If there's an African American who, in the light of day, would make any serious attempt to defame any pillar of our history - not disagree with philosophy or tactics, but brazenly belittle - there's, oh, one or two million more ready to take up the cause. Rosa Parks' place in history and in our hearts is beyond secure. She need never feel threatened by a line in a movie or a title of a song. And as for Jesse being blown off by a barber, after the way he's been treated by the Democratic Party all these years, he ought to be used to that by now.

But still they cling to those images, entombing themselves on their pedestals. African America has traveled miles and miles beyond December 1955, advanced beyond any dream of August 1963. We are stronger, more confident, politically and culturally astute enough to distinguish between a benign caricature and a savage attack without taking every stray comment as a blow to our collective psyche. And while we respect our elders' wishes to protect their reputations, we can only ask, like interns in the seat of knowledge and experience, how best to honor our freedom fighters: by looking backward at the fight, or forward to the freedom?

Mark Reynolds is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, OH, and can be contacted at

Mark Reynolds

Monday, September 30, 2002

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