Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 2001 / 29 Kislev 5762

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

The "White Negro" Taliban? -- AS a parent, I can sympathize with what John Walker's mom and dad are going through now.

I mean, just think: You work, you slave, you scrimp, you save, you do everything you can for your kid and then, what happens? Your little guy grows up and joins the Taliban.

Where, I can hear them saying, did we go wrong?

If he is not executed for treason first, Walker may yet have a chance to tell us his own story of where he went wrong. As near as I can tell from news accounts, danger signs appeared with a dream he had in his early adolescence:

He wanted to be black.

Not, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, that there's anything wrong with that. Lots of people want to be black these days. Look at Eminem.

But Walker didn't do it in a way that was profitable. He just did it in a way that was weird. At age 14, for example, he posted messages on hip-hop music Web sites that made him sound as if he really was black, according to Newsweek, which broke the story on Walker.

"Our blackness does not make white people hate us," he wrote in one message, "it is THEIR racism that causes the hate."

Of the word "nigger," Walker wrote in another message, "It has, for hundreds of years been a label put on us by Caucasians… and because of the weight it carries with it, I never use it myself."

Hip-hop proved to be a phase on Walker's way to all-out black militancy. By age 16, his parents say, he drifted over to Islamic Web sites and discovered "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," a chronicle of the famous black leader's journey from a jailhouse to Islam.

Soon Walker was wearing long white robes, studying at a local Islamic center and calling himself Suleyman. This apparently was viewed as unusual even on the streets of Marin County, Calif., the wealthy enclave where Walker grew up.

Marin long has epitomized the stereotypical California world of hot tubs, aroma therapy, tree hugging and cultural liberalism. Walker's parents, who named John after Beatle John Lennon, did not want to be judgmental, they say, even when he dropped out of high school and took up serious Islamic studies that led him to the Middle East and, under the nom de guerre Abdul Hamid, an al Qaida training camp.

Just imagine: Had Walker shown, say, some talent for rap music, he could have been the next star on "MTV Raps." Instead, at 20, he's a prisoner of war, captured in Afghanistan and facing possible treason charges.

Whiteness somehow lost its appeal for young John and, somewhere along the line, so did patriotism for America and allegiance to western culture.

I've seen Walker's type before. Black street culture, a byproduct of historical exclusion and oppression, has long offered an attractive alternative for rebels against mainstream society. Walker's earliest explorations of the hip-hop world by Web sound like a modern version of Norman Mailer's 1957 essay "The White Negro."

"So there was a new breed of adventurers," Mailer wrote, "… who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro."

In Walker's '90s version of the same journey, he went from cultural shopaholic to spiritual pilgrim when hip-hop failed to offer the sort of spiritual discipline he said he needed.

Perhaps, when Walker told a reporter that he "supported" the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he was "brainwashed" or "in shock," as his parents say.

Or maybe, long before he dedicated himself to rebelling against mainstream American culture, he never really gained enough of an appreciation for the values of America that are worth fighting for.

"Americans are very superficial people," Walker wrote back at age 18 in an Internet posting that explained why he was abandoning western clothes, "and they identify each other by their dress and grooming."

It's too bad that Walker's anger at America's superficial side clouded his view of its better, more rewarding side.

If there is a lesson here for us parents, it's a warning: We need to do more than warn our children about evils they should stay away from. We also need to help them find something to believe in.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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