When the good Lord was passing out reason and logic, Newsday columnist Les Payne was loading up on thirds and fourths and fifths of self-righteousness.
In the latest newsletter of the National Association of Black Journalists, Payne ripped the Baltimore Sun's recent series on slavery in the Sudan, which described how my colleague Gil Lewthwaite and I bought and freed two slaves. To Payne, Lewthwaite and I are "so-called journalists." Our writing stinks. We're silly saps duped by a wily Arab trader who was probably a scam artist. (Anybody detect a stereotype of Arabs there?) We never went north, but were "tour-guided" through the south. Our interviews with the two boys we bought, their father and three escaped slaves are, in Payne's view, "murky."
We're somewhere on the moral scale noticeably below murderers, rapists, robbers, maimers and kidnappers. Participating in the slave trade, even if it's to buy freedom, is, in Payne's lopsided moral universe, worse than all these evils.
"Slavery," he snarls pompously, "is a crime against humanity."
No kidding, Les. Who would have thunk?
Did Payne, who no doubt fancies himself a journalist (although I suspect Gil Lewthwaite has forgotten more journalism than Payne will ever know) call either of us before casting us into the pit with murderers and rapists? Noooo. If he had, he might have learned that we did travel north, to the region known as the Nuba Mountains. He would have learned that the three southern provinces are Bahr el-Ghazal, Equatoria and Upper Nile. The Nuba Mountains are in the province of Kordofan, which is considered part of northern Sudan.
Instead of reading a map, Payne must have gotten up on the wrong side of his bed _ which is probably located a stone's throw from the Pearly Gates _ one day. Then Pope Payne promptly popped a plethora of piety pills, read the series and immediately went reflexively, instinctively, impulsively and even gleefully into Offended Negro Mode _ ONM, for short.
ONM is a condition that afflicts primarily African-Americans on the liberal/left/nationalist side of the black body politic. One of its symptoms is a tendency to, when confronted with black immorality (in this case blacks enslaving blacks in the Sudan) shift the blame to our favorite whipping boy, the white man.
So rather than condemn the Sudanese government for allowing slavery to flourish, or Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan for cramming his foot down his throat on the matter by challenging anyone to prove slavery exists in Sudan, Payne creates a white villain where there is none. He attacks the Sun, its white editors, the white reporter who wrote the series and, for good measure, throws in the paper's horrible Negro columnist:
"Kane, a columnist, so-called, boasts . . . how as an African-American he could purchase two black slaves without "hesitation' or the slightest "moral revulsion.' It is just this callousness that greased the wheels of African slavery in the first instance."
Payne is ensconced so high on his moral perch that he confuses my knowledge of black history with callousness. So I'll repeat, as I did in my Sudan series, that buying slaves to free them is nothing new. Black and white abolitionists did it routinely during the antebellum period of American history, over the objections of self-righteous zealots who claimed that doing so only financed the slave system. That argument is as asinine now as it was then.
Frederick Douglass bought the freedom of an escaped slave named George Latimer, who later fathered a son called Lewis. The younger Latimer grew up and worked with inventor Thomas Edison. Lewis would patent the first light bulb with a carbon filament. If Les Payne is in Fred Douglass' position, his moral revulsion lets George Latimer be sold back into slavery, where he probably would have ended up chopping cotton down in Mississippi. There's no telling what would have happened to Lewis. Frederick Douglass was no Les Payne, a fact for which African-Americans should be forever grateful.
But is Payne's ONM sincere? I suspect it's not. A Nexus search revealed that until now, Payne has written not one word about the Sudan series. His tirade in the NABJ journal comes the same week the organization meets in Nashville for its annual convention. Louis Farrakhan has been invited to speak. When Farrakhan speaks at events, they have a habit of turning into grovelthons for him. I suspect NABJ leadership, in an attempt to slurp Farrakhan's slickly shined shoes, commissioned Payne as a hatchet man to write the column.
The convention started Wednesday. The grovelthon can now proceed uninhibited, courtesy of Les Payne.
Gregory Kane is a Baltimore Sun columnist.