At the risk of persecution in this age of political correctness, I ask: What's wrong with entertainer Gladys Knight singing the praises of Aunt Jemima products? What's wrong with Vernon Jordan driving a golf cart during a round of golf with President Clinton?
Most of us would sing our hearts out to receive the generous fees Ms. Knight will undoubtedly earn for her Aunt Jemima commercials. And you can bet most Americans would, regardless of political affiliation, line up for a seat beside the president.
As a product of the segregated South, I see Ms. Knight's sweet endorsement deal and Mr. Jordan's golf outing with the president as signs of African-American progress. Nevertheless, some blacks likened Mr. Jordan to the chauffeur in the film "Driving Miss Daisy." And Ms. Knight reports that she has had to defend her endorsement to friends who've asked why she would lend her name to what some perceive as a racist icon.
Those crying racism over Ms. Knight's endorsement and Mr. Jordan's drive are, I believe, being hypersensitive to a fault. Mr. Jordan's detractors have superimposed an archetype of subservience on a relationship of mutual respect.
How can anyone compare a power broker such as Jordan to a chauffeur? A presidential adviser, corporate board member, ex-civil rights leader and rainmaker at one of Washington's leading law firms, Jordan has reached the pinnacle, as evidenced by this golf outing. Instead of applauding his success, however, some blacks would rather bring him down a notch or two.
And Ms. Knight's critics suggest that domestic service is a less than honorable occupation. Aunt Jemima's critics insult the hardworking women after whom its famous icon was modeled.
I remember vividly the women in my community who put food on their tables by working long hours in other people's kitchens. My grandmother, who raised me, was one of them. I can still see her tying on an apron and wrapping her head with a scarf as she prepared to cook. She was strong and wise, a magnificent woman who commanded respect. And I revered her.
As a special assistant to the president, I escorted her to the White House and proudly introduced her to President Nixon.
We have no reason to be ashamed of black cooks, housekeepers, chauffeurs or gardeners. Such occupations once provided a vital source of blacks' livelihood. The folks who held those jobs had aspirations for their families, and their modest incomes fueled those dreams, propelling their offspring to succeed against the odds.
When we scorn the black servants of the past, we send a message to youth to shun opportunities in service industries of the future. Instead, we should be telling our youth there's no shame in an honest day's work.
I discovered long ago there's an art to providing service. As a shoeshine boy, I met the businessmen whom I eventually emulated. Today, I have realized a modicum of success, serving Fortune 500 companies through my public relations and management consulting firm and through membership on corporate boards. I never look down, however, on workers who shine shoes, wait tables, drive limousines or scrub floors. For one learns from every encounter.
African-Americans have much to gain by removing the stigma attached to black servants and menial laborers. Let's just rejoice that after having had a black icon all these years, Aunt Jemima products now have an African-American pitchwoman. And let's hope Vernon Jordan was bending the president's ear in that golf cart.
Mr. Brown is founder, chairman and president of B&C Associates, a corporate communications and management consulting firm based in High Point, N.C.