Sunday, March 11, 2007

Farrakhan's Final Scenes

The last well-known actor in the last century’s media drama of Race in America is fading out. Like his life, Louis Farrakhan’s dying is a skillfully staged public event that tells us much about where we were, are and may be going.

A week ago, he emerged from cancer treatment, preaching to 50,000 followers a sermon of brotherhood and unity for all faiths. Since then, he has been telling CNN, ABC and other media outlets he has “evolved” from his earlier days of hate-filled invective, insisting his epithets were “misunderstood.”

“We’re in a time of enlightenment now,” he says and expresses admiration for Barack Obama, a child of interracial marriage, which Farrakhan always opposed and still calls “unnatural.”

But change and contradiction have been constant in his life, reflecting the social turmoil for which he became a symbol and which he helped stir up.

At 22, he gave up his birth name and promising career as a musician to join the Nation of Islam, rose quickly in its ranks and was caught up in the conflict between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad that ended with Malcolm X’s murder in 1965. Thirty years later, Farrakhan apologized to the victim’s daughter for his rhetoric that led to it. “I may have been complicit in words,” he admitted.

That was on 60 Minutes. The media was Farrakhan’s stage, and TV cameras found him irresistible. Words can hurt, and Farrakhan knew how to use them, back then with a recklessness many will never forgive. He got America’s attention with the impact of a poleax by excoriating Jews, praising Hitler and saying “White people are potential humans—they haven’t evolved yet.”

But late in life, he took a different tone, going back to his musical roots and playing Mendelssohn in a concert, organizing the Million Man March in Washington with a theme of black pride and responsibility, and now calling for reconciliation of Islam, Christianity and Judaism,

Those he wounded may never believe all this isn’t a gallows conversion, but for African Americans, the new Farrakhan is an inspiring figure. In 2005, BET’s online audience voted him Person of the Year for “the most positive impact on the Black community.”

At the same time, the old Farrakhan was claiming that the New Orleans dikes were deliberately subverted to wipe out Black neighborhoods.

No human being can read the depths of another’s heart, but Farrakhan wore his on his sleeve in a style that may be disappearing with him.

The world is changing. His grandson will soon be playing basketball for the University of Virginia. Barack Obama is running for President, every American kid with a baseball glove wants to be Derek Jeter, and other interracial role models are growing up to walk a different walk and talk a different talk.

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