Rev. Al Sharpton came to Baltimore yesterday to lend support to an effort that would create an African-American Cultural District near M&T Bank Stadium. Still in its infancy, the idea for such a district was floated by the Arts, Cultural and Entertainment Consortium, a local group led by Eric Stewart. Speaking to a few hundred enthusiastic supporters at the War Memorial Building, Stewart and others said they hoped that by giving tax breaks and incentives to developers and entrepreneurs—like in the city's two existing arts and entertainment districts—the new district would create more cultural infrastructure and diverse business opportunities.
The 90-minute rally was short on specifics and full of big picture rhetoric—which you'd expect at this early stage—and much of the talk, at least from Sharpton, challenged the African-American community to step up and do what it takes to make the project happen.
During his 20-minute speech, Sharpton talked about the district's potentially transformative effect on youngsters...
Can you imagine the impact it would have on the minds of our youth, if there were an area of the city that showed them the excellence and brilliance of the cultural and business legacy that they inherit? The best way to break the gang mentality is to give young people a different image of who they are. They need to know that right here in the city of Baltimore people came out of dire straits—they came out of situations where they felt they were socially disadvantaged—and were able to change the culture and social structure of the world. If they could do it then, these young people can do it now, if we change their minds.
Obstacles to a positive self-image...
They are inundated with being taught that a thug or a gangster is what they want to grow up to be. That's why we should develop and invest in situations like this consortium that will reinterpret for them what they are. They are not the heirs of Scarface. [loud applause]
Why would we expect them to do more if we aren't demonstrating and showing it to them? You want them to imagine something you haven’t shown them?
On one hand, we could ask, `What’s wrong with the kids?' On the other hand, they could ask, `What’s wrong with [the adults]?'
The debilitating effect of hate speech and how it's sometimes masked as free speech...
They tell our children if they speak in an articulate manner, if they act polished or refined, if they talk as if they’re well read, that they’re acting white. So does that mean if you’re talking ignorant, you’re talking black? Blackness has never been about how bad you could be. Blackness has always been about no matter how low they have us down we found a way to get up anyhow. [loud applause]
A few years ago, the National Action Network, the NAACP, and a few other groups came out and said, `We need to change the use of the n- word.' A lot of our gangster rappers and some in the hip-hop community got angry. They said, `We’re going to call ourselves what we want.' One of them told me, `Reverend, we use that word because we have freedom of speech.'
I told him, `No, you don’t. If you went in the studio and cut a CD against the Irish, they wouldn’t put it out. And they shouldn’t. If you cut it against gays, they wouldn’t put it out, and they shouldn’t. If you cut it against Jews, they wouldn’t put it out, and they shouldn’t. So if you cut a CD against the Irish, it’s hate speech. Gays? Hate speech. Jews? Hate speech. But you call blacks, `n***ers,' and that’s free speech.' [applause] We all didn’t fight for the right to denigrate and degrade ourselves.
I was on a show and one of them was on there defending the use of the n-word to me. All night long, the n-word. N***er, n***er, n***er, all night, telling me how he had that right. About five or six weeks later, I picked up the paper and found out he had been arrested. About three days after that, he called me and said, `Yeah, man. I got a problem. I ain’t doin’ too good.'
I said, `What’s wrong?'
`They busted me.'
`Well, what did you call me for? You need something?'
`I need your help. I need you to support me. They violated my civil rights.' [laughter from audience]
I told him, `N***ers ain’t got no civil rights.' [howls of laughter and applause]
The district as a showcase for the best of African-American culture...
This consortium will give not only give business opportunity to African-American Baltimore, it will also change the mentality of young people. Think back to the glory years when there were blacks with style like Duke Ellington and how they would deal with nightlife in Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance. That is what we need in Baltimore. A place where young women can see how ladies are taken out at night in an environment that’s grounded and rooted in respect. Where young men can say, `I can’t wait until I’m old enough to bring my lady to an area like this.' Not some hole in the wall club, but an area that’s committed to black style and elegance and shows the best of our people.
Sharpton finished by issuing the following challenge...
You realize that Martin Luther King changed the country and never had a fax machine. Thurgood Marshall rewrote the Constitution and never had email. You sittin’ up here with fax machines, laptops, a computer in every room, email, online, Twitter, Facebook, two cell phones in your pocket, and you can’t get five negroes together to do nothing. [loud applause] You should be able to do more because you have more to work with. We have more resources and mobility than any generation of blacks before us. You need to get up, get online, get mobilized [cheers drowned out his words]. Thank you and god bless.