Talk about a loaded image. The Column One feature in yesterday's Los Angeles Times focuses on how the World Wide Web has raised up some new African-American voices, some new points of view on politics, culture and, of course, religion. But I got stuck on a dueling pair of images. Here's the key passage near the top of Richard Fausset's story about activist attorney Wayne Bennett of Philly:
When Bennett gets home and starts blogging, however, an alter ego emerges: The Field Negro. On his website called field-negro.blogspot.com, he lashes out at commentator Bill O'Reilly as an "ignorant racist self-delusional buffoon." President Bush is "the frat boy," and "the man 'who doesn't care about black people'" -- a nod to rapper Kanye West's comments of 2005. Black activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are "pimping the 'man' in the name of civil rights."
The blog, Bennett admits with a chuckle, is an expression of raw anger, and it has earned him a modest following: He says he gets about 1,200 hits per day, and this year, he won readers' choice for "Best Political/News Blog" in the Black Weblog Awards.
To white people, Bennett's musings are like kitchen-table talk from a kitchen they may otherwise never set foot in. To African Americans, he is part of a growing army of black Internet amateurs who have taken up the work once reserved for ministers and professional activists: the work of setting a black agenda, shaping black opinion and calling attention to the state of the nation's racial affairs.
There's no question that religion is part of the equation here, for Bennett and for his audience. More on that in a minute.
What troubled me was whether this one online blogger's reach and clout are important enough to merit such a sweeping statement -- that the Web is starting to replace the social role of the black church.
Think about that for a moment. How would a reporter gather enough facts and supporting testimony to prove that point? Do you think the Times story pulls that off? I mean, look at the stats for this man's blog. Is it that powerful? Don't get me wrong. This is an interesting and timely story. It can stand on its own. I'm asking if it is truly the national story that the editors seem to think it is. Have they made their case?
Which takes us back to Bennett himself and his personal story and, of course, it turns out that this is very personal.
His father was an influential Seventh-day Adventist preacher in Jamaica who was also closely aligned with the leftist government of the late Michael Manley. As an adult, Bennett strayed from the church; today, he considers himself an agnostic.
He is less than enthusiastic about some of the black spokesmen with church roots -- such as the Revs. Jackson and Sharpton -- and he thinks that the next black leaders might emerge on the Web.
"Traditionally, the church building or the church square was the only place we could organize," he says. "Now, to me, the church, or the physical space where we organize, is the Internet." If that is the case, Bennett began his career in punditry screaming from the back pews. In 2005, he says, he was commenting frequently on a blog written by La Shawn Barber, a black conservative evangelical. After he criticized certain black preachers for taking advantage of their flocks, Barber kicked Bennett off her site by blocking his IP address. (Barber, who runs one of the more popular right-wing black blogs, doesn't recall the episode, but doesn't doubt it happened.)
Interesting. I have one more question. If he is the "field negro," is the implication here that the black church is officially a "house negro" sanctuary? Is that sanctuary on the cultural left or the right, or does that matter?