The Rejected Stone, the title of Reverend Al Sharpton’s third book, to be released on October 8, 2013, is also a biblical allusion to verse 22 of Psalm 118.
In the verse, the stone that was initially rejected by builders eventually becomes the cornerstone of the structure, an allusion to the ways in which Israelites were rejected but eventually realized their destiny as God’s chosen people.
This is an epic analogy for the life and times of a boy-preacher-turned-ubiquitous-presence in the American political and public spheres, but it is also an apt figuration for a better understanding of Reverend Al’s narrative of redemption; a frame through which we might best understand how his life’s travails inform one of the most visible and influential black voices in this nation’s history.
Rev. Al’s beginnings are anything but humble. Ordained as a young boy, he began preaching in elementary school and by the age of nine he was the opening act for Mahalia Jackson, arguably one of the greatest gospel singers in history. By the time he was a late teen he had stints as both James Brown’s personal assistant/manager and as the youth director for Shirley Chisholm’s historic 1972 presidential campaign.
You could argue that Rev. Al’s access to the cultural, artistic, religious, and political epicenters of (black) America suggest the antithesis of rejection. But in The Rejected Stone he speaks candidly about the unfortunate isolation that accompanied his early rise to prominence; the challenges he faced in terms of the allure of superstar access; and his ultimate realization that he was committed to causes greater than himself.
“It would have been easy for me to stick around and live large, but it didn’t feed my spirit,” he says as he recalls his decision to leave behind the world of The Godfather of Soul.
Rev. Sharpton’s pathway as a civil rights activist and political leader has been more than a little bit complicated. Anyone old enough to remember the Tawana Brawley scandal can appreciate the transformation from that Sharpton to the one who hosts three hours of syndicated radio and one of the most popular hours of cable news television every weekday and night. Rev’s explanation for the Brawley situation is that he allowed his emotions to control his actions in the situation. His tone is remorseful and ultimately – especially in the context of all that he has done up to this point – the Brawley episode is but another stone in the socio-political structure that Rev. Sharpton has become.
The sense that emerges from The Rejected Stone is less about redemption or America’s embrace of an occasionally ostracized black leader, and more about how all of these various episodes, great and small, good and awful, come together to form the life of a man whose critics are many, but whose supporters are legion.
These supporters are ride or die — not because they’re ignorant of the mistakes that the Rev has made; not because they are oblivious to the ways in which his proximity to power has informed and some might say, transformed his political strategies, but because Reverend Al Sharpton has worked indefatigably on behalf of civil rights for black folks. His work ethic, the early start and the longevity of his career have built the infrastructure of his relationship with generations of black Americans.
Some of his critics on the left and on the right despise this moment. Those on the right see him as a race-baiter, a mouthpiece for the administration, and a crude but powerful political opponent. Those on the far left see him as a race-baiter, a mouthpiece for the administration, and a crude but powerful political opponent.
But after all of the name-calling and naysaying, we are left to wonder how many of Rev. Al’s detractors have provided as many opportunities as he has provided for black folks (artists, entrepreneurs, preachers, and politicians); how many of them have survived murder threats and attempts while engaged in nonviolent direct action marches; how many of his detractors work 15-16 hour days on behalf of their own causes or in ways that they see as being central to progressive change.
This is not a defense; it’s an observation. Some of our social media tough talkers, who were teenagers when Rev. Al was stabbed in his chest during a march that he lead on behalf of Yusef Hawkins, should take a closer look at the life of a man who has, because of his longevity, success and access, become too easy to hate.
The Rejected Stone is the perfect opportunity to do so.