Effective political activists have always tended to be flamboyant performers, particularly in the black community, where the most charismatic leaders have roots in the pulpit. As Al Sharpton writes in his new memoir, "Go and Tell the Pharaoh," the black preacher is traditionally "part reformer, part social worker, part entertainer."
That's apt history and, though not necessarily modest, on the evidence of this book, apt self-description. "Go and Tell the Pharaoh" is a spirited and not entirely unsuccessful attempt by Sharpton to situate himself in this lineage. To be sure, it lacks the philosophical erudition, literary agility and visionary sweep of the classic black preacherly political autobiographies. Those looking for a new "Autobiography of Malcolm X" or Martin Luther King's "Why We Can't Wait" will have to keep waiting. What the book does evince, though, is a surprising gift for critical introspection and a true craftsman's passion for the nuts and bolts of on-the-ground hardball community organizing.
Beginning with lyrical reminiscences of boyhood preaching in Brooklyn, and vivid sketches of his early heroes Adam Clayton Powell and singer James Brown, the book revisits Sharpton's pivotal role in numerous confrontational and controversial 1980s campaigns, most notably those protesting the killing of black teenagers at Howard Beach and in Bensonhurst in New York City. Sharpton also defends (ambivalently) his role in the highly politicized case of Tawana Brawley, the black teenager who claimed she had been abducted and raped by a gang of white men.
The book's overall focus, however, is on the changes in Sharpton's perspective provoked by a 1991 assassination attempt in Crown Heights, which nearly killed him. Sharpton memorably explores his move away from the politics of racial polarization and experiments in new efforts in coalition building, most notably his surprisingly competitive runs for the U.S. Senate in 1992 and '94. Much of the book, indeed, seems a conscious response to the pointed critiques of progressive black intellectuals like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates and Playthel Benjamin who've chided Sharpton for playing to "xenophobic" sentiments and urged him away from the cul de sac of nationalist "isolationism."
In contrast to his public image (which, in the iconography of television news, is a combination menacing Mau-Mau and comic buffoon), Sharpton comes across as a more complex figure than many might have suspected, actively rethinking earlier ideas, strategies and prejudices with a candor not very often characteristic of politicians of any race, creed or color.