Blogger goes into ‘the fields’
Attorney Wayne Bennett doesn’t make waves at his job; he makes peace. As a special master in this city’s family court system, he has used his deep, measured voice -- touched with the lilt of his native Jamaica -- to quell hundreds of arguments over contested child support payments.
Take the ex-con arguing with his ex-wife on a recent Tuesday afternoon in Bennett’s office. “I understand both of your frustrations,” Bennett interjects delicately. “But we’re trying to focus on the support at hand right now. Obviously you’re re-living some bad memories.”
When Bennett gets home and starts blogging, however, an alter ego emerges: The Field Negro. On his website called field-negro.blogspot.com, he lashes out at commentator Bill O’Reilly as an “ignorant racist self-delusional buffoon.” President Bush is “the frat boy,” and “the man ‘who doesn’t care about black people’ ” -- a nod to rapper Kanye West’s comments of 2005. Black activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are “pimping the ‘man’ in the name of civil rights.”
The blog, Bennett admits with a chuckle, is an expression of raw anger, and it has earned him a modest following: He says he gets about 1,200 hits per day, and this year, he won readers’ choice for “Best Political/News Blog” in the Black Weblog Awards.
To white people, Bennett’s musings are like kitchen-table talk from a kitchen they may otherwise never set foot in. To African Americans, he is part of a growing army of black Internet amateurs who have taken up the work once reserved for ministers and professional activists: the work of setting a black agenda, shaping black opinion and calling attention to the state of the nation’s racial affairs.
“I am black, and what affects my race affects me,” says Bennett, who also works part-time in criminal defense. “I feel that I am exposing things that people, black and white, try to hide. In my own way I am trying to force an honest debate and open dialogue.”
His signature feature, a riff on a famous Malcolm X speech, categorizes the public figures of the day as either “field negroes” or “house negroes” -- the former being those who consistently fight on behalf of their race; the latter those who are self-serving, inauthentic, or out of touch with their people.
Sometimes he explains the distinctions in detail; other times, not so much. Mr. Clean once earned “honorary field negro” status, Bennett says, smiling, “just because he looks like a field negro to me.”
More often, they are the stuff barroom arguments are made of: While Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is labeled a “field negro” for his civil rights record, Jesse Jackson is tagged a “house negro.” Maya Angelou, Bill Cosby and Denzel Washington are “in the fields,” while Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and George Foreman are in the “massa’s house.”
Bennett has even invented a third category, the “patio negro.” This is someone who is, he writes, “Wisely moving between both worlds and doing what it takes to fit in when they have to.”
He cites Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as a prime example. Tiger Woods, too. “You will be cheering like hell for him to beat all those old white men this weekend at Augusta,” Bennett wrote in April, “but. . . there is the white wife, the passionate obsession for being viewed as a color neutral icon, and all that white love.”
The last few months have been heady ones for black bloggers. Their numbers, while impossible to count accurately, appear to be growing as African Americans catch up with the general population in terms of Internet usage. This year, the Black Weblog Awards -- a 3-year-old, independent contest run by an Atlanta-based blogger -- received more than 7,000 entries, up from 3,000 in 2005. In that same time, the percentage of black adults with a home broadband connection nearly tripled to 40%, according to a July report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Today, the black blogs offer a nearly infinite range of voices. Civic-minded blogs have proliferated on the left and right, a welcome advance for those who have long complained that black opinion can seem monolithic when boiled down in mainstream media.
Bloggers also have become more organized, and in recent months their impact has become undeniable. Their sustained focus on the controversial prosecution of six black teenagers in Jena, La., was one of the reasons thousands of protesters descended on the small city in September. This spring, they helped derail the Congressional Black Caucus’ plan to hold a Democratic presidential candidates’ debate with Fox News. Some bloggers, such as Gina McCauley of Austin, Texas, have pressured Black Entertainment Television to alter programming that they deem degrading to blacks. “We’ve started to flex our muscle,” says McCauley, a lawyer whose blog, What About Our Daughters, challenges what she sees as destructive portrayals of black women in pop culture.
“The black blogosphere is maturing, and coming into its own,” she says.
For Bennett, there was never a question that he would blog about anything other than race. His adopted hometown, Philadelphia, is 43% black, and he marvels that race can come into play even when he, a black man, presides over cases involving black couples.
He mentions a case he handled this month in which a black woman was asking her black ex-lover to pay his share of child support. With Bennett in front of them, the man looked at the woman and said, “Why did you have to bring me to the white man’s court?”
Until recently, Bennett has mostly kept his private life and his alter ego separate. For a while, he was worried that his more pointed opinions would violate the Hatch Act, which limits political activity by some public employees. He has since consulted with other lawyers and believes he is in the clear. The Field Negro’s identity has been leaking slowly around the office.
In person, Bennett, 49, is an affable man, compact and powerfully built. The photo on his website shows his bare shoulders and bald head turned away from the viewer, a la Miles Davis. His online bio begins: “field negro/Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Raised in the house, but field certified. Jamaica is the land of my birth, but I consider myself a citizen of the world.”
He acknowledges he is a son of privilege. His father was an influential Seventh-day Adventist preacher in Jamaica who was also closely aligned with the leftist government of the late Michael Manley. As an adult, Bennett strayed from the church; today, he considers himself an agnostic.
He is less than enthusiastic about some of the black spokesmen with church roots -- such as the Revs. Jackson and Sharpton -- and he thinks that the next black leaders might emerge on the Web.
“Traditionally, the church building or the church square was the only place we could organize,” he says. “Now, to me, the church, or the physical space where we organize, is the Internet.” If that is the case, Bennett began his career in punditry screaming from the back pews. In 2005, he says, he was commenting frequently on a blog written by La Shawn Barber, a black conservative evangelical. After he criticized certain black preachers for taking advantage of their flocks, Barber kicked Bennett off her site by blocking his IP address. (Barber, who runs one of the more popular right-wing black blogs, doesn’t recall the episode, but doesn’t doubt it happened.)
A few weeks later Bennett, a self-described news junkie, was watching Glenn Reynolds, founder of the conservative site Instapundit, on C-SPAN. Reynolds was talking about how easy and cheap it was for anyone to set up a blog.
“I dropped my coffee,” Bennett recalls, “like -- ‘What? It’s that easy?’ ”
When he sat down to build his blog in March 2006, he wanted to synthesize the disparate black voices that had influenced him. There were the thinkers his radical older sister had introduced him to when he was a child: the anticolonialist Frantz Fanon and the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. Like Malcolm X, Bennett would be honest about race, no matter how painful. Following the lead of his fellow countryman Marcus Garvey -- and the conservative black thinker Shelby Steele -- he would borrow the message of black pride and self-sufficiency.
His daily experiences would also factor in -- from family court, where he saw “all these pathologies and all of these messed up black families.” And from his other job as a defense attorney, where he saw lives ruined by a broken system and bad personal choices: “You go down to the holding cells,” he says, “it’s like the old slave ships, with row after row of young black males locked away.”
The voice that emerged was a thing of its own -- angry, chatty, scatological and street -- about as inside-the-beltway as a Richard Pryor monologue, and as polite as a punch in the throat.
“Black people can we talk?” he wrote in May. “Why the. . . do you all talk so loud during movies? Seriously! If I drop 30$ to see a movie (I am adding the concessions in the mix) I want to watch that. . . in peace. I really don’t want to hear your kids crying, your cellphones ringing, and exactly what you will be cooking for dinner when you get home.”
In another post, he turned the sardonic wit on whites, but to make a more serious point:
“I swear, white people love their pets more than they love people. Seriously, they have clothes for their pets, gourmet food for their pets, exercise schools for their pets, they take their pets in their cars with them, they have pet hotels. . . . Ten people were shot to death this past weekend in Philadelphia, but that was still page two news here. Now I guarantee you, that if there were ten dogs shot all across the city, white people would be losing their. . . minds.”
Over time, he got to know other black bloggers in different states and nations, and they began coordinating some of the issues they were covering. In March, Bennett was among those bloggers who argued that the Congressional Black Caucus Institute should cancel its presidential debate with Fox News. (The debate, originally scheduled for September, has been postponed, according to the network.)
Fox, he wrote in one post, has “consistently marginalized black people, and use us to play on the fears of their red state watchers to increase viewership.”
In April, he and his far-flung Internet colleagues founded another black issues blog, AfroSpear (afrospear.wordpress.com), as a place to collect a diverse group of black voices. A month later, the blog was one of many that linked to a petition calling on the Justice Department to look into possible civil rights violations in Jena. The site directed readers to other bloggers who had been following the issue closely, as well as dozens of articles from local and national media.
On Sept. 20, the day thousands of protesters filled the streets, Bennett seemed both proud and surprised. “Sometimes you are a part of something big and you don’t even realize it,” he wrote.
“I wish I could be in Jena, but sadly, I guess I am not such a field Negro after all. The plantation work needs to be done, and massa is calling.”
It is early October, and Bennett is on his way home from downtown Philly. He is headed to Northeast -- formerly a white, working-class neighborhood, now mixed with people of color pursuing the dream.
At home in his two-bedroom town house, he introduces his wife, Delores Bellard-Bennett.
She is the more conservative of the pair -- she once worked for the wife of Charles E. “Buddy” Roemer III, the Louisiana governor who switched his party membership from Democratic to Republican.
Today, she is an engineering technician for a consulting firm. She doesn’t read the blog much, and teases her husband about the “chump change” ad revenue it generates.
“But I don’t do it for the money!” Bennett protests.
He shows the little room where he blogs. The computer is in a corner next to a huge TV tuned to the news.
A few days later, he wrote that he would be retiring the “Coonies,” the tongue-in-cheek awards that he occasionally gives out.
He figures that he has enough weapons to use against black people he disagrees with.
As a last hurrah, he posted his “Lifetime Achievement Awards.” The list included rapper 50 Cent (his music is “not hip hop, and it’s not gangsta rap”); Sammy Davis Jr. (the Rat Pack thing “was kind of cool and all that, but you were always the happy black guy”), and Bobby McFerrin (“ ‘Don’t worry be happy?’ Negro please!”).
Also listed was Niger Innis, spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights group that has moved to the right in recent years.
Innis had never heard of the website until he was contacted by phone. When he pulled it up on the computer, he laughed.
“Well, look -- I am for a free market of ideas, and for different points of view to be exchanged on the net,” Innis says. “This guy’s obviously being offensive on purpose.”
He added: “If there are 100 knuckleheads out there putting out garbage, but there is one true black intellectual whose ideas are allowed to be heard and expressed for the first time -- then God bless the Internet.”
Innis didn’t say whether he thought Bennett was an intellectual or knucklehead. When asked to choose, Bennett instead offers up: “truth-teller,” “smart ass,” “mirror.”