Nat Hentoff’s Best and Worst, All in One Month


Best pre-vacation reminder of a great American cultural icon: Nat Hentoff, on NPR two weeks ago, hailing Abbey Lincoln after her death at 80. Here was Hentoff, in that stoic-staccato voice that once rattled down the hallways here, telling about his 1960 production for his Candid record label of the angry, jazz-civil rights album, “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” with Lincoln and her soon-to-be husband, Max Roach. Up until then, Lincoln was known as the gorgeous and sultry singer of standards. With Hentoff’s help, she became the passionate belter of jazz poetry. Lincoln, Hentoff said in the interview, told him later that the album represented “who I really am.” Now there’s an accomplishment worth forever celebrating: Helping the great Abbey Lincoln find her true voice.

Worst post-vacation reminder of an iconoclast who has lost his way: Hentoff’s column last week for the Jewish World Review — now being celebrated on right-wing, Tea Party websites everywhere — condemning the location of the downtown mosque. Here’s Hentoff, author of four books on the First Amendment, an expert on the Bill of Rights whose defense of tolerance and freedom of speech is so unrelenting that he’s never balked at defending every societal outcast, from Nazis to flag-burners to anti-abortion zealots to on-air anti-semites. Here’s Hentoff, who has now found a little corner of the world where his prized Bill of Rights does not apply, a No-Muslim Zone in lower Manhattan. He only fails to tell us how many blocks it should extend.

This sort of nonsense kind of breaks your heart, or, as Abbey Lincoln once sang it, “I’ll Drown in My Own Tears.”

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