Harlem, U.S.A., March 12—Jayson Blair has come to Harlem on this Friday evening for one reason: He thinks we can keep them away. The disgraced and highly former New York Times reporter spent the past week hawking his falling-down memoir—sparring with Katie Couric, jousting with Larry King, crying the blues to Chris Matthews. But for his first public book signing—and his only one in New York—he’s come to Hue-Man Bookstore, the self-proclaimed nation’s largest black literature vendor, to avoid “a circus.”
A media circus, that is. Who knows what angry journalist would be camped out in the midtown Barnes & Noble, coiled somewhere between Military History and Self-Help, waiting to strike? But here, on the sacred ground of 125th and Frederick Douglass, where the Magic Johnson Theater serves up fried chicken, where Old Navy planted the flag of “the New Harlem,” Jayson Blair has home field advantage, and he knows it.
You aren’t allowed to speak.
He is joking—halfway at least—with a reporter from The Globe and Mail. Seated at a table covered with African-print cloth, he is way more comfortable than he should be. An older black woman stands up to laud his prose. A well-dressed gentleman asks him to speak on the influence of religion in his life. Blair taps a pen to his head as he ponders each question, puffs out his cheeks, and laughs while he recasts himself as anything that isn’t a liar—press critic, mental health advocate, soldier for 12 steps, and most importantly for us, the guy who’s now willing to stick it to the Man.
As if titling his tell-all Burning Down My Masters’ House were not enough, he flashes his hood pass on the first anecdote of the night. This would not be the one where he realizes his editors have found him out, or the one where he beds the Gray Lady and takes her for all she’s worth. No, this would be the one where he claims to have realized that the Times is a bastion of liberal racism. It happened while he was covering a woman’s murder in Central Park. He sat back and watched, horrified, as the story got bumped from page one to the Times‘ nether regions, once editors found out she was black. In the audience, a young woman with braids, adorned with red, black, and green beads, shakes her head and sucks her teeth, and this is the signal. Jayson Blair has been brought back home.
Granted, there’s a litany of reasons for barring him at the gates. Of all the Negroes who’ve left us shaking our heads with that old refrain—had to be a brother—Jayson might be king. We should castigate him for not heeding the lesson of Janet Cooke, for embarrassing us in front of white folks again, for adding the weight of his tired black ass to the cross we bear. Tell Jayson I want to kick his ass, a journalism professor hisses when she hears about his Harlem appearance. But we are still black, and thus are bound to miss no opportunity to offer a middle finger to the Man. Everyone thinks O.J. did it, but we’re vindictive. Washington mayor Marion Barry was re-elected specifically to furrow George Will’s brow. Spite, not forensic evidence, makes us take Tawana Brawley at her word. What would we be if we did not back the dude who laid the Times low?
The book has an interesting title, someone says. I’d like to know, were you the house slave or the field slave?
The house slave. Can I tell you why? I just got sick of having this conversation about how racist the Times was.
Blair laughs out loud again—I can’t believe I just called myself a house slave.
But we can. This is what we came for—dispatches from the Big House, confirmation that it was neither coke nor crazy that brought him down, that it was the lord of our sorry world, the scourge of our days, the one who rages against us as sure as storms and unites us in enmity—the White Man.
For sure, there are many beautiful things that bring black people together—words like “dig” and “dap,” Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” an affinity for serious feminine curves, mac and cheese baked hard, chicken fried harder. Then there are good hair/bad hair, gaudy suits, ugly jewels, and, of course, a hatred of white people. A man can’t come into the world with a decade shaved off his life and not hold someone accountable. Show me your favorite Negro, corporate in a three-piece suit, killer golf game, mastery of every angle of the queen’s English, his wife’s blond hair shaking down to her shoulders, and I will show you a man who in his most private moments curses and sucks his teeth over a lost promotion and utters the phrase that puts us all on the one—Goddamn, I can’t stand these white muthafuckas.
Jayson is too smart to play his race card that overtly. Even his book mitigates fairly mild racial critiques with a host of other factors. But he knows that Fuck Whitey is our primordial note. And so, tonight, he sings:
I was told by my parents that I would have to work double as hard, triple as hard.
Some of the worst e-mails I got were from white guys telling me I had no right to date a white woman.
I do think there is a white backlash and it’s primarily from people in the old boys network. Look, there are people who don’t have credentials to work on a daily in my parents’ home town working at The New York Times.
On the verge of amen now.
I’ll be like Moses, if you let me.
Later that evening, he walks up Frederick Douglass Boulevard and steps into Revival, an upscale black joint sitting in the shadow of the projects.
A young woman at the restaurant bar stops him. You look familiar, she says. Did you go to Howard too?
No, I’m Jayson Blair.
Ooooohhhhhh . . .
Our hero is halfway through dinner now, weighing an appearance at this year’s National Association of Black Journalists convention, which tonight’s reading has somehow made him come to believe will not end in tar and feathers. There’s no Fuck Whitey talk now. He’s explaining why he hasn’t called former Times managing editor Gerald Boyd, an African American who lost his job in part over the Blair affair. He admits he’s scared, but otherwise demurs—You have to be ready. Then the older lady from Hue-Man appears. She wants to say how much she enjoyed his reading. She glances at the tape recorder on the table, and even though it’s no longer running, she knows what this is.
I like him, she says, meaning Blair, and for the record.
Of course she does. It’s elderly black women who most need the new Jayson’s appeal. It is they who’ve carried so much, who’ve worked the third job, who’ve raised other people’s kids, who’ve watched their men come up lame, shaky, and short. Now, more than any of us, they’re desperate for champions. Now they pledge fealty to anyone who seems ready to stick it to the Man, instead of his kids. But Jayson knows those two things are never mutually exclusive. He managed to stick it to us all.