Editor’s note: This piece by Richard Brookhiser was published in the August 20, 2001, issue of National Review.
Earlier this year, Al Sharpton led an abortive putsch against Jesse Jackson, though its significance was greater than he, or Jackson, suspected, for it involved someone more important than either man. Both Sharpton and Jackson know this person well. So do you; so does everybody. He is the Numinous Negro.
#ad#Jackson had been embarrassed by the disclosure of his mistress and their illegitimate child. Suddenly, the Reverend stood revealed as a hypocrite, and his political effectiveness was hampered.
Sharpton made his opening move in April, on a trip to buy the freedom of black Christian slaves in Sudan. “I think it’s outrageous,” Sharpton said, “that no nationally known civil-rights group has gone over to Africa to criticize what is happening there.” A perfectly good point- but also a barbed one to Jackson, who had been jetting about Africa as President Clinton’s special envoy without taking note of the modern slave trade.
Over the following months, Sharpton kept a high profile, as if to say, Look at what I do-and what Jesse no longer does. He demonstrated against the Navy in Vieques, got sentenced to ninety days in jail, and began a hunger strike-a hat trick. When was the last time the VIP Jackson had done any time? Sharpton let it be known that he was thinking of running for president.
But in the flush of success, he overreached. In a jailhouse interview on his presidential prospects in June, Sharpton dismissed the Tawana Brawley case as a factor. “Did I take the blood of the guy I loved and put it on my shirt?” Sharpton asked. “I think the Brawley case pales in comparison.”
Wrong comparison. Sharpton was alluding to the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, when a young Jesse Jackson went on television wearing a shirt that he said was soaked in King’s very blood. At the time, Jackson’s performance provoked angry questions in the civil-rights movement: Had he cradled the dying King in his arms? Had he only dipped his shirt in King’s blood? Was it King’s blood at all? Blood or not, was Jackson as close to King as his story implied? Though whites rarely noticed it, the controversy dogged Jackson in black political circles for 25 years. Only after decades of activism and politics, and two runs for the Democratic presidential nomination, did Jackson’s critics concede that, whatever the truth of the story, he had retroactively earned the right to have told it. By raising the matter now, Sharpton was airing dirty linen.
Black leaders were not happy. “Certain things we choose not to dignify with a comment,” said Jackson’s press secretary. Sharpton “needs to eat,” said one congressional staffer. “[He] sounds like he’s delirious.” Sharpton had used King to strike at the king, but he had not struck home. His apologies were abject, copious, perhaps even sincere. He asked Jackson to come to prison and pray with him.
Sharpton’s three-month putsch attempt was an event in intra-black politics, and hence an event in Democratic-party politics. But it was also something more. At the end of this maneuvering, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton, three nationally known minister- politicians, came together like a conjunction of planets. In astrology, such alignments sometimes predict death, and so it did here. The doomed figure was the Numinous Negro.
Who is the Numinous Negro? He is everywhere, especially in our hearts, and if we are lucky he is our friend. The dictionary defines “numinous” as “of or pertaining to a numen,” which was a Roman term for “the presiding divinity . . . of a place.” “Numinous” also means “spiritually elevated.” Jungians and literary critics love the word, but normal theologians use it too. The Numinous Negro is a presiding divinity. The place he presides over is America, and contact with him elevates us spiritually.
You see him in the gooey prose of white liberals whenever a Negro appears (“Negro” was the accepted word when blacks first became Numinous). Dozens of examples could be culled from the work of the late Murray Kempton, though his humor operated as a brake on his piety. The work of Garry Wills, who has no humor at all, would yield thousands of examples. The Numinous Negro need not be a man. Toni Morrison and Oprah are Numinous Negroes (Ms. Morrison is a seer; Oprah is a sage). Marian Anderson was also Numinous.
Art and entertainment, always eager for shortcuts to characterization, make frequent use of the Numinous Negro. When we see a Negro in movies or television, we not only know he is Numinous (unless he is Thuggish- see below), we can judge the other (white) characters by how they treat him. The saintly Death Row hero of The Green Mile was so Numinous that even movie reviewers noticed the technique. Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption was more complex, though it had elements of numinosity. Some years ago, Freeman played Petruchio in a Central Park production of The Taming of the Shrew. There he was not Numinous at all, simply a figure of farce (and an excellent one). But so ingrained are our expectations that it took this spectator a moment to adjust.
The most Numinous Negro of recent history is, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. The real Martin Luther King was a man of many talents-patient, shrewd, eloquent, and brave. He knew what he wanted, and he had faith in God and (ultimately) in his white fellow Americans that his program of civil disobedience would secure it. The real Martin Luther King, like other real heroes, also had flaws and limitations-he plagiarized part of his doctoral dissertation, he strayed from his wife. With the passage of time, we can see that some of the rhetorical flourishes of even the “I have a dream” speech are cornball: “curvaceous peaks of California,” indeed.
But all that is lost in the glow of his holiness. The debunkers, and the intelligent admirers who follow them, have not yet done their work. Martin Luther King Jr. is still the divinity who shoved Washington and Lincoln into one holiday, and who is the only non-medical degree- holder, besides Samuel Johnson, who is always referred to as “Dr.”
Conservatives have their own version of the Numinous Negro. Remember the joke: Who is the black man at a Heritage/AEI/Manhattan Institute pow-wow? Answer: The speaker. By touching our Numinous Negroes, we show the world, and ourselves, that there is no racism in us. Jack Kemp finally lost himself in the quest for the Numinous Negro. Sometimes it seemed as if he wished to become one.
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS
A word on who the Numinous Negro is not. There are four actors in the repertory theater of the American mind. One is a guest star, who represents the minority that has managed to capture the nation’s attention: Irish Catholics and Jews have filled this slot; now gays do. The other three actors are permanent members of the company: WASPs, Indians, and Negroes; white, red, and black, the colors of our psychic flag. As in all small companies, the actors assume multiple roles. The WASP may be stern Cotton Mather, or goofy Steve Martin. The Indian can be Crazy Horse, or a casino owner. Similarly, the Negro plays various parts, which slowly shift over time.
The Loyal Negro has been both a figure of racist sentiment and a bridge across the racial divide: Old Black Joe, or the sidekick. The Erotic Negro has held the stage for a long time. Blacks “are more ardent after their female,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. Whites who came up to Harlem in the Thirties “were just mad for . . . what you might call Negro soul,” wrote Malcolm X. The Thuggish Negro is alternately feared (Willie Horton) and admired (Puffy Combs, a.k.a. P. Diddy). “[I]n the worst of . . . rape, razor-slash, bottle-break, what-have-you, the Negro discovered and elaborated a morality of the bottom,” as Norman Mailer put it. Most compelling, perhaps, is the Performer, artistic or athletic, from Scott Joplin to James Baldwin to Michael Jordan.
With what degree of accuracy do these stereotypical characters reflect reality? More than zero, less than 100 percent. But accuracy is not the point: The function of these characters is to minister to our needs. All the many Negroes are invoked by both whites and blacks; depending on how they are played, or who the immediate audience is, these characters can flip from laudatory to hateful, or self-hating.
The Numinous Negro is a post-World War II phenomenon. He appeared at a particular time in the history of mainstream American Protestantism, and its decay. He drew his stereotypical power both from the religion and its evanescence. The key to both sources of power was suffering. Christianity is the religion based on the Man of Sorrows; liberalism is a secular faith concerned to remedy what political scientist Kenneth Minogue called “suffering situations.” The Numinous Negro symbolized and expressed the travails of American blacks; the blacks who best incarnated the role were ministers who ventured beyond their pulpits.
This is why Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, though they were certainly famous, and both clergymen, never spoke as Numinous Negroes. Islam, where Malcolm X ended up, is too remote from the American religious experience; the Nation of Islam, where he began and where Farrakhan remains, is, with its myths and space ships, more alien still.
The minister-politicians offered political victories to their black flocks. To their white admirers, they offered the possibility of redemption. They could criticize and condemn, but they could also exhort and save. They offered to resolve America’s blundering over a race brought here as subjects. Nothing else white America had done, from the evil to the heroic, had settled the race problem: not slavery; not keeping blacks in their neighborhoods; not settling them in Liberia; not the Civil War. Maybe by touching the Numinous Negro America could finally put this problem behind it.
Why at the beginning of the 21st century is the Numinous Negro dying? The 2000 Census showed Hispanics pulling equal with black Americans, but numbers have little to do with the American psyche. There have long been more German-Americans than black Americans, but the former have made no impression on the national mind greater than the Katzenjammer Kids.
The Numinous Negro is dying because the source of his divinity has dried up. America’s white elite, having cut its ties to its historic Protestant roots, no longer seeks the comfort or counsel of ministers. As far as an outsider can judge, black Protestantism is withering too. Large swaths of it seem to be little more than a community self-esteem racket. Witness the speed with which so many crooked preachers are forgiven. I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay together.
The suffering the Numinous Negro offered to repair has also changed. It has been a long time since anyone stopped a black person from voting. There were complaints that this happened in Florida last year, but such problems as arose were caused by incompetence, not by Bull Connor; the only reason the Florida race was closer than the margin of error was that blacks voted in such large numbers. Many blacks suffer great problems, but the federal government has spent trillions of dollars on them over the last thirty years. Conservatives say that it has all been misspent, but only the demented say that the government’s motives were malicious.
The context in which the Numinous Negro flourished changed during the career of Jesse Jackson, and Jackson himself changed accordingly. Along with his many flaws, he once had flashes of real eloquence. One appeared as late as the 1992 Democratic convention, when, in the midst of his rant, he told an anecdote about a black woman with a repetitive- motion injury, who worked in a chicken-processing factory, and whose supervisor had called her a bitch. “You ain’t no bitch!” Jackson snarled, and good for him. But that was very late in the game. The corporate shakedowns, which were taking place back in the Seventies, now take all the time that can be spared from hobnobbing with West African dictators like Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh. Jackson’s appearance has degenerated along with his character. The man who once carried himself at the podium like a bullfighter is now a fleshy, gravelly-voiced shouter. He looks like a comic villain on Amos ‘n’ Andy.
Al Sharpton began below where Jackson ended up. Wit and charm must be granted him, but he has no principles and no honesty. He is a tabloid cartoon figure, moving in a penumbra of slander and murder, from Tawana Brawley to Freddie’s Fashion Mart-a grotesque and odious little man. If these are the two contenders for the religious and political incarnation of the Numinous Negro, then it’s time to retire the role.
Will the future bring some new role? John Jay Chapman’s biography of William Lloyd Garrison describes an electric moment in the life of Frederick Douglass, when an abolitionist takes a walk with Douglass down a Boston street and introduces him to a friend, just as he would introduce any (white) man. The moment is even more fraught than Douglass and Chapman realize. Was the abolitionist trying to epater the Yankee bourgeoisie? Was he displaying his virtue? How was he using Douglass? How was Douglass using him?
But maybe the moment was also really what it seemed to be — one man introducing another to a third. Maybe when the Numinous Negro has gone away, more black and white Americans will meet each other. We should neither hold our breaths, nor despair.