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Third Eye

True Nobility

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 2/26/2003

Housebound and catching up on some reading last week, I flipped through the December/January issue of Savoy Magazine and spied an article titled "Blue-Blood Brothers," by BBC Radio reporter Leslie Goffe. "Welcome inside the Boulé, the secret seat of black power in America," states a subheading, followed by a description of the Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, which was established in 1904. According to the article, the "exclusive and clandestine" group of 4,600 men in 110 chapters nationwide personify W.E.B. DuBois' venerable theory about extraordinary men who would save the Negro race, aka the "Talented Tenth."

A brief roster of high-profile members includes political powerhouses like Vernon Jordan and Andrew Young, and business tycoons such as Earl Graves, founder of Black Enterprise magazine, and Kenneth Chenault, American Express' head honcho. "We're an assembly of noble men who lead society," former Alabama State University president William Harris explains in the article. Author Goffe goes on to tell us that the Boulé considers pro athletes, rappers, and anybody "acting the fool in Hollywood," nothing more than sludge whose elbows aren't worth rubbing.

Giving in to the sudden urge to add cognac to my coffee, I pondered the Boulé (a Greek term that means a council of leaders), wondering if it was possible for such an elitist group to hold the reins of black power in this still-dawning 21st century.

Take someone like Jordan, for instance, a man whose political influence, mostly as Bill Clinton's running buddy, dimmed when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Then, there's Graves. The publishing magnate proclaimed the power of black wealth in his magazine, then demonstrated it by living in the wealthy suburb Scarsdale, N.Y., decades ago, when the sheer improbability of such a move provoked gasps by blacks and whites alike. But Graves' personal triumphs never seemed connected to, or done on behalf of, the masses.

Without being privy to their private lives or unpublicized social efforts, the image portrayed by the Boulé seems too distant for them to be true leaders tuned into the pulse of black folk. That, Goffe suggests, is one reason why new, younger members of the snobbish enclave are demanding reforms, calling for more visibility and involvement in public-policy and social issues. "The blue bloods, the snobs who have made this into a little social organization, they don't want to be around the new bloods," Astrid Mack, an associate dean at the University of Miami Medical School, told Goffe, adding that change, despite any internal resistance, will come.

So, I'm thinking: How can intelligent, successful, wannabe-down brothers like the new-school Boulé meet their goals? Perhaps by taking a lesson or two from some successful brothers they normally don't hang with. For starters, I'd recommend the following:

First, I'd suggest the fraternal order meet with the Rev. Al Sharpton, aka Mr. Amp It Up. Love or hate him, Sharpton has heart and a certain machismo that helps boost a consistent, if too unilateral, political career. There's an art to being strategically visible, and telling people what they already know--like how America the Beautiful has some ugly warts. If members of the Boulé want to tap the masses with a message of how their wealth and prestige can benefit all, I'd suggest they consult Sharpton and, maybe with platters of succulent fried chicken and warm peach cobbler handy to keep everyone culturally grounded, see what develops.

Next, meet with Spike Lee, aka Mr. Do the Right Thing. True, Lee is one of those Hollywood types who has acted the fool a time or two in films. But there's a method to Lee's foolishness that usually involves truth-telling and confrontation, two things that reality demands of anyone presuming to make progress, be it individual or collective. What's more, Lee could help teach the uppity fellas how to see ordinary people--from whom they seem purposefully removed--through a healthier lens.

Finally, I'd encourage the bourgeois crew to confer with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, aka Mr. Mo' Money. Not that Russell could make a dent in the Boulé's distaste for an industry that enshrines former crack dealers and their counterpart hoochie-coos. But Simmons--a visionary entrepreneur who, for years now, has gotten paid and used his paper to leverage more economic and (more recently) political clout--could definitely talk dollars and sense with the fraternity's more open-minded members. Hip-hop artists, Russell could tell them, exert enormous influence over young people from all ethnic and economic backgrounds--advancing not only a billion-dollar industry but also helping to usher in a more global, less sectarian society.

The timing of such meetings would be crucial, as the Boulé, at a crossroads, plans for its centennial celebration next year. As the Savoy article points out, the brothers have two choices: either to continue as a rich guys' social club, or to respond, finally, to a statement DuBois made in 1948 at the fraternity's annual convention. "I assumed that with knowledge, sacrifice [for the greater good] would follow," he said. "I did not realize that selfishness is even more natural than sacrifice."

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