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COLUMN ONE

Blogger goes into 'the fields'

An attorney joins a growing blogosphere to take on the role once reserved for ministers: setting black agendas and shaping opinion.

October 18, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — 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.

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