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US Politics

State of the Black Union: Disappointing
Silence on queers, AIDS, and the role of Black churches.
By Jasmyne A. Cannick

Tavis Smiley

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APRIL 3, 2006. The absence of any substantive conversation about the tactics and issues used to divide and distract black Americans turned this year's State of the Black Union symposium into a deeply disappointing and frustrating event.

Hosted by TV and radio commentator Tavis Smiley and broadcast on C-SPAN, the seventh annual daylong "self-empowerment conference" was held on February 25th at St. Agnes Church in Houston, Texas. Some 8000 people attended.

Going into the 2008 presidential election, black Americans are more divided than ever on issues of political ideology and moral values. Black pulpits continue to be for sale to the highest bidder and black votes are being sold to the Republican Party under the guise of protecting America's moral values.

It is crystal clear that gay marriage is problematic for many black Americans and a definite hindrance to having a united political voice on the issues that matter the most to us.

I've been told that the average black American is not concerned with my civil rights as a lesbian. Well, maybe they should be. In fact, any black that is concerned about the future of blacks in America should be.

We already know that there are huge disparities for blacks in matters of health, education, housing, and income. We will never be able to make any systemic changes in those areas if we've already made up our minds before we get to the polls based on who is or isn't supporting gay civil rights.

So any meaningful exchange about blacks and political power must include the divisive wedges that keep us from attaining that power, starting with the role of today's black church.

The black church directly and indirectly continues to be a powerful influence.

When asked by a radio interviewer whether or not he encouraged political tithing, Reverend Floyd Flake, former U.S. Representative, now pastor of the 10,000 member Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica, Queens, replied yes, but not before your church tithes. That is a very telling sign of the state of the black union.

How can Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan and the Reverend Al Sharpton be on the same panel as the Hi-Impact Coalition's Bishop Harry Jackson and there be no conversation of wedge issues used to divide blacks?

After pledging last year to fight homophobia in the black community, Sharpton participated in a "faith-based" conference of black churches to address lesbian and gay issues, while Farrakhan at least nominally extended his hand to gays last year during preparations for the Millions More Movement March.

Bishop Harry Jackson is an ardent supporter of banning marriage for gays and along with white Christian evangelical Lou Sheldon, was instrumental in organizing black pastors around the country to fight to protect the institution of marriage.

Thank God or whomever you believe in for economist Julianne Malveaux and Harvard professor and author Cornel West.

Malveaux was the sole voice of reason as she clearly articulated the frustration that many people have with today's black church and "pimp daddy pastors," even to the disapproval of the audience. West was the only person I heard mention "sexual orientation" in describing some of the disparities that blacks face.

Gays weren't the only ones excluded from this year's Union. There was relatively no mention of the impact of HIV/AIDS on blacks either. A shocking surprise considering that all the wealth and economic justice in the world won't do us any good if we're not alive to enjoy it.

I think it's wonderful that we can get the corporate sponsorship to put on these lavish events. But if we're really trying to make change, we're going to have to be unafraid to have those conversations that ruffle collars.

The courting of black pastors by Republicans using moral values as common ground is problematic if we're trying to build a unified voice and vote for the best policies for blacks. Dancing around this issue doesn't do us any good. It's happening, we know it, and we know who's doing it.

During the multitude of speechifying made during the Black Union, there was a huge emphasis placed on holding both the black and the majority leadership accountable.

However, accountability doesn't begin and end with whoever is in the White House. We are also accountable to each other. As long as we think that the issues of our lesbian sisters and gay brothers aren't our issues, we'll continue to allow ourselves to be divided and conquered.

Not talking about it is bad. Not wanting to talk about it is worse.

Jasmyne Cannick is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, a founding board member of the National Black Justice Coalition - the black gay civil rights group - and the co- chair of the National Stonewall Democrats Black Caucus.

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