- "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson returns in new episodes after controversial comments
- Yolanda Young disagrees with him but says there are pockets of support for show among African Americans
- She says some believe homosexuality is a sin; hunters feel an affinity for show
- Young: Some of my relatives understand, but object to, Robertson's comments on race
As "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson returns from his brief "hiatus," he'll do so to the cheers of some surprising supporters — southern blacks. Robertson was suspended from the A&E hit show for calling homosexuality a sin and equating it to bestiality in a GQ profile.
Receiving less attention were his comments that black people were happier before the civil rights movement.
Media have focused on two camps in the controversy. On one side are Robertson's predictable supporters, who include white evangelicals, southern Republican politicians and Fox News. On the opposing team are LBGT activists and progressives.
But while Robertson's comments have roiled members of MSNBC's black media elite such as Al Sharpton, Melissa Perry and Joy Reid, Robertson has found pockets of support among church-going, middle-class African Americans.
Though I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, a city a little over an hour's drive from the Robertson's empire in West Monroe, I've spent my adult life in Washington. So when a high school Facebook friend posted a 10-paragraph open letter of support to A&E for Robertson, which was signed "Everyone who isn't a left wing extremist (AKA your former customer base)," I was a bit surprised.
In my view, Robertson's comments regarding both homosexuals and African Americans suggest he lacks empathy and the ability to think critically. To be preoccupied with the "sin" of 3 percent to 6 percent of the population seems as off-base as the idea that a people could be happy with second-class citizenship.
My Facebook friend never confirmed penning the letter he posted, which received nearly 50 "Likes" from other college-educated black professionals and blue-collar types. The comments ranged from analogies, "Where would we be if Rosa Parks had went to the back of the bus. She had rights, he has rights," to concern, "Have you noticed that anything and everything can be said about Christians now. Our beliefs are now wrong and we are outdated."
When two commenters pointed out Robertson's misguided remarks about black people "singing" while working the fields, they were quickly rebuffed with, "From what I heard him say What HE SAW. Are you saying that there aren't blacks who weren't like he said."
Because support for Robertson seemed to be fueled by religious beliefs, I sought some insight from Bishop Larry L. Brandon, pastor of Praise Temple Full Gospel Baptist Church in Shreveport. The bishop explained that though he was "deeply concerned" with how Robertson expressed his spiritual views on homosexuality, he added, "I can't twist scripture to suit a lifestyle ... I speak the truth in love."
Indeed, Brandon's position is held most strongly by the black church. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that while the percentage of white evangelicals, mainliners and Catholics who believe homosexual behavior is a sin has dropped 4, 5, and 14 percentage points, respectively, since a similar poll was conducted in 2003, the percentage of black Protestants who regard homosexual behavior as a sin has actually increased 5 points to 79%.
Many disagree with Robertson's portrayal of Jim Crow-era African Americans. Brandon said: "While I believe Robertson has freedom of speech, I respectfully disagree with his remarks regarding black people. In my humble opinion, while our community has a history of overcoming adversity, making lemons out of lemonade regardless of the difficulty of the situation, one should not mistake our ability to endure with our actually enjoying abuse."
Not all of Robertson's black support is due to religious convictions. Black hunters share a pastime with the Robertson clan.
While home for Christmas, an uncle who loves "Duck Dynasty" shared his perspective with me on camera. Uncle Michael Smith is 53 and has been a hunter all of his adult life. He owns a home, attends church and votes in every election. He honed his hunting skills watching TV outdoorsmen like Roland Martin and Jimmy Houston. For him, "Duck Dynasty" is an extension of the hunting show genre he loves.
Uncle Michael explained Robertson's comments this way: "The way (Robertson) talks, it's old talk ...The new generation is a whole lot different. Everything is out in the open ...The comment (Robertson) made (about homosexuality) probably was taught to him at a young age, but I do believe he just made a mistake. He apologized, so I'm gonna continue to watch the show if it keeps coming on."
While my uncle was unfazed by Robertson's comments about black people, some family members were put off. As a child in the late '70s, I had occasion to scale perch, pick bushels of purple-hull peas and use an outhouse. I've heard kin describe what it's like to pick cotton (hot and painful), and they never sounded happy about it, but another story told in my family might explain the "happy" put-on.
Annually, my grandmother recounts my Uncle James' Christmas Day birth, explaining that because the hospital was understaffed and didn't execute his birth certificate until the next day, his birth date is listed as December 26.
As in past years, someone asked my grandmother why she didn't point out the mistake. Her eyes grew wide, and she shook her head violently. "No! You don't understand," she tells us. "I was at Charity Hospital! Those white doctors didn't talk to us, and we didn't question them."
While my grandmother was in labor, her mother and aunt would wait in a closet-size room reserved for Negroes. Once a black child was born, a nurse would enter the room with her back to its occupants and write on a chalkboard the mother's name, the baby's sex and weight, and whether the baby was dead or alive. With a frown, my grandmother added, "The only thing they ever said to me was, 'Guurl, what you gon' name this baby?'"
That my grandmother would not point out such a mistake is unfathomable to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We only know of her strength. To us she is the lifelong domestic who birthed nine healthy babies, buried two grown sons and slept in the bed her husband had died in hours earlier. But in her eyes, when she tells this story, I can see her vulnerability, her fear that "they'd send me home and not let me come back."
Shannan Hicks, a researcher and storyteller who focuses on the Northern Louisiana post-Jim Crow era, is not surprised that black workers shielded their true feelings from Robertson.
"This was the age of black lynchings. A black person would never have reveled their true self to a white person who looked and talked like Robertson," Hicks said before referencing the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem that opens with this stanza:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Since my visit home, I've thought a lot about Brandon's last comments regarding what he believed to be Robertson's greatest offense — saying that homosexuals "won't inherit the kingdom of God." The bishop emphasized: "Only the Lord has the right to condemn one to hell or lift them to heaven. God is our judge."
Clearly, the big guy has his work cut out for him.
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