TITLE: Driving Down Dixie
By RENEE GREENE
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“How do you tell if a gangbanger is well hung?” She paused. Timing was everything. “When you can’t get more than two fingers between the rope and its neck.”
No one budged to so much as crack a smile. Where was she going with this opening? “Why did they count only 500,000 blacks at the Million Man March?” She paused again. “Because they forgot to look in the trees.”
She was losing the audience, which was beginning to show the telltale signs of an oncoming riot any second. The silence made her start to lose confidence in her own speech as she second guessed her choice of a topic-starter though she knew where she was going with it and wanted them to hold tight and give her a moment. She would not say, “Give me a moment,” she wanted to trust the process and what should have been a room full of intelligent and well-educated people, a few of whom knew her very well. Since passing the bar exam, combining her social and civil rights activism with her belief in a gracious merciful God had been a balancing act that even The Gemini Brothers would find hard to follow.
She shuffled nervously, then decided she had to hold on to them long enough to get to the point of this seemingly racist diatribe coming from a black woman’s mouth. Her education in public speaking had told her that the number three was the charm. The magic third, itself a piecé de la resistance, was aimed at getting attention. She had to trudge on, in spite of the fact that she expected half the audience to rise and leave at any moment, or pick up the tomatoes from their freshly wilted garden salads and aim them at her face. It was a tidal wave of impolite faces in a sea of men and women who had been about as tolerant as they were going to be for the evening. The social elite on the dais stared down at their dinners, visibly embarrassed and looking as if they were about to puke in their Riedels filled with the best bordeaux and cognacs their money could buy.
Attorney Barbara Land decided against the third joke. It was something about a black Barbie, 12 kids, AIDS and a welfare check. The point had been made. She turned up her palms in true lawyer fashion, a non-verbal gesture taught to losers of cases that would often come off on ice cold jurors who could think of better places to be, as humble; pleading for their mercy, or at least their attention and affection.
“You mean you don’t think those jokes are funny?," she asked the non-question. "Ladies and gentlemen,” the attorney-speaker admonished, “It is the year 2007, not 1857, 1957, or even 1967, and those kinds of jokes are not only still being told, but are published across the internet by organizations such as tightrope.cc, nukeisrael.com, and funfreepages.com.” She stopped, then pressed forward.
“I understand that some people may think the best thing to do with such ignorance is to ignore it, but ladies and gentlemen, ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away. Some of you may even be inclined to think that there is no way to stop people from having their right to free speech, so it’s best not to think of such things, and to move on with your own life.”
Another deliberate pause, then, “That may or may not be true. Why expend good energy on such trivial matters, why throw good after bad, why even bother to address that kind of mental depravity nowaways? Concentrate on the good stuff, for the bad will take care of its own. I submit, ladies and gentlemen, that if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the advocates, both black and white, of the Civil Rights Movement, had thought that way, how would we answer the question, ‘Where would we be right now?’” But, they did think that way, and they acted upon it in one of the most heroic acts of faith ever known to humankind. So now, the question instead is, ‘Where do we go from here?’”
Her waning audience had suddenly bolted forward in their seats, spocked-up ears pointed front and in her direction. Those with outstretched feet ready to walk, sat up instead and paid attention. The speakers to her left and right no longer stared at their food, but looked as if they had lost all appetite for it. It was her moment; a moment that would live in infamy.
“Most recently, we listened in as an American comedian’s career got the axe for the use of a word, a statement, in public that he, by law, should have had every right to use. But America made the right move when it chose to stone, not him, but his career in comedy. It went a long way as far as how far we should be allowed to take First Amendment rights. Since then, the news has told us of a college party in Texas held on the King holiday that consisted of gold-teethed gangbangers wearing do-rags, drinking malt liquor from paper bags, eating fried chicken, and dressing up like Aunt Jemima. Yet another example of a right to free speech and freedom of expression gone awry.”
“Today, I am here to address the First Amendment, and to set a stage for answering the question of whether or not having the right to do or say something means it’s okay to do it; and just exactly what should be done in situations like this? Is ignoring it, or letting anyone get away with it without proper measures being taken to insure it doesn’t happen again the answer? In a democracy, just what are the limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and how do we know when, or how, to pull the reins on it when it becomes not only necessary, but expedient, to do so?”
From the intent looks on the once-stormy blue-gray sea of faces, it appeared she had induced the proper turmoil for what would soon become a long and emotion-charged debate. She knew that evoking emotion was the only way to get people talking. If they didn’t care about the subject, the length of time it would take them to go from thinking and talking to drinking and forgetting could be clocked with an egg timer.
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