Honest and earnest criticism from those whose
interests are most nearly touched, — criticism
of writers by readers, of government by those
governed, of leaders by those led,– this is the soul
of democracy and the safeguard of modern society.
— W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folks, 1903
At first blush, the recent imbroglio between Professors Cornel West (Princeton) and Melissa Harris-Perry (Tulane) appears to have burst upon the political landscape sui generis, unexpected and unprecedented. Au contraire, however. There is deep history here of divisive, rancorous debate among Black leaders, including scholars, artists , writers, business types, and within the masses of Black people themselves. I’ll lightly plumb that history shortly. First, though, how did we come to this present juncture (impasse?) where two prominent Black professors seem to revel in calling each other everything but a child of God and in full public view?
The first salvo came when author Chris Hedges penned a Truthdig column and quoted West as saying that this First Black President is a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats.” West came thisclose to accusing President Obama of being an Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom or not, mascot or not, in West’s eyes Obama has shown himself to be a 21st Century version of an ever-present nemesis in the Black community – the common, ordinary sell-out. West offered as Exhibit A the President’s refusal to directly address record-levels of Black and poor peoples’ poverty, unemployment, and the sharply downward spiral of all Black socio-economic indicators except one: the unconscionable, blatantly racist, explosive rise in the mass incarceration of Black men. West allowed that both on paper and in the hard reality that is Black life today, these conditions have only been exacerbated since Obama took office.
Harris-Perry practically tripped over her outrage as she ran to her keyboard to defend the President. West, she wrote breathlessly in the Nation magazine, labored under obvious misconceptions about the President, the presidency itself, and most especially his (West’s) own (mis)understanding of his role in Obama’s 2008 election. The then President-Elect had failed to personally invite him to his history-making inauguration. Indeed, West, she said, felt personally aggrieved, personally slighted, personally snubbed, but even worse, publicly ignored and dissed. Well, in the Hedges piece West did admit that he totaled up the score of his 65 campaign events against his Dee Cee limo driver’s zero events. Yet, he lamented, the chauffeur, had received an inaugural invitation while he, the well heeled, well spoken, well traveled, socially conscious, and world renowned professor, had not.
West’s critique of the President broadened to include all “liberals” and “progressives”, black, white or otherwise, who continue to support the President’s silence and inaction on the poverty issue. West appeared on Ed Shultz’s MSNBC talk fest in April of ’11, and confronted the Right Reverend Al Sharpton about his role as the new H.N.I.C. (Head Negro In Charge) of the National Black or African American Nation-State (N.B.A.A.N.S.) and his coziness with the Obama Administration. West again hurled the “black mascot” sobriquet – this time squarely at Rev. Al. Actual sparks flew during that little tete-a-tete. Then West and best-bud talk show host Tavis Smiley promptly embarked upon a highly publicized “Poverty Tour” through several urban and rural areas, highlighting the deteriorating state of America’s poor and near-poor at each stop.
Both Rev. Al and Dr. Harris-Perry have since been awarded (rewarded?) by MSNBC with talk shows of their own. Unimpressed, West’s most recent indictment against Harris-Perry appeared in Diverse Issues In Higher Education magazine and conflated criticism of Rev. Al’s fledgling TV presence with Harris-Perry’s newborn show. In a sort of pre-review of her debut, he described the good doctor and her new media perch thusly: “She’s become the momentary darling of liberals, but I pray for her because she’s in over her head….She’s a fake and a fraud. I was so surprised how treacherous the sister was.”
This is getting deep. But it is not new.
During slavery there were Black people content to remain slaves, who supported their white masters and mistresses in every way imaginable, including most especially “snitching” on those who sought to escape slavery altogether. Indeed, a major reason why there were never any successful slave revolutions in America is that the plans were betrayed by the masters’ most trusted Black slaves every time. And, complicating matters even further, there were a few Black slaveholders whose twisted logic and supremely cognitive dissonance allowed them to oppress their own people.
The separation-versus-assimilationist argument garnered its widest audience during an ongoing debate between the two most ardent Black abolitionists of the 19th Century: Frederick Douglass and Martin R. Delany. Douglass’ efforts for the abolition of slavery and full integration into the body politic are well celebrated and documented. Less well known is that Martin R. Delany, a free-born Harvard trained medical doctor and the highest ranking Black officer during the Civil War, was the major proponent, personification and putative father of what today is called Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism. He, along with African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Henry McNeil Turner and a handful of other “race men,” were unapologetic in their call for total independence from white America; for the establishment of an independent African nation-state; and/or for joining the already established “private” American colony on Africa’s west coast – Liberia.
Early in both men’s careers, Delany and Douglass had collaborated in publishing Douglass’ first newspaper, The North Star, later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper. But they soon fell out over whether to separate from this white American nightmare by emigrating en masse back to Africa or remaining here to fight the good fight, and keep the faith that the American white man and woman would someday come to their senses. Their disagreement descended into an ongoing, vociferous, personal fracas, every bit as loud and public as that of our own professors of today.
The epigraph which opens this essay is drawn from Dr. W.E.B. Dubois’ 1903 signature work, The Souls Of Black Folks. There his “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” answered virulent criticisms of his less than flattering comments about the then reigning H.N.I.C. – Booker T. Washington, creator and driving force behind what Dubois dubbed the “Tuskegee Machine.” The Washington/Dubois divide picked up where the Douglass/Delany schism had ended and indeed revolved around many of the same issues, particularly
assimilation/integration versus separation/emigration, and vocational/technical education versus “liberal arts” and the social sciences. Dubois promulgated that only the top “Talented Tenth” percentile of Blacks must be identified and groomed for leadership roles throughout the Black community, and thereby raise the intellectual consciousness and abilities of the whole race. (In today’s terms, think of this as a sort of a “trickle-down” of intelligence theory). But Dubois went further, much further. He demanded immediate political, economic and social equality with the white majority.
Washington was having none of it. He argued that the way forward was via agricultural and “industrial” education for the masses of Black folks in pursuit of more acceptable (by whites) occupations and vocations, which were, after all, more apropos of our needs – and abilities – at that time. “Equality,” most particularly political and social equality, were utterly anathema and had to wait until the Negro could support himself, his family and his whole people economically. And, yes, just like our own professors today, things got heated between Washington and Dubois… and very personal.
Washington died unexpectedly in 1915, but not before he had corresponded with a young Jamaican firebrand living in London named Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. Garvey arrived in New York in 1916, too late to meet his hero, but full of fury against all things white. He had been an editor, printer, writer and union leader in Jamaica and Costa Rica; and had long been an admirer of Martin Delany and Bishop Turner, as well as Washington. All three men were dead when he hit the street corners of Harlem.
The Supreme Court had declared in 1897 that Blacks had no rights which whites were bound to respect and established “separate but equal” as a matter of law. Plessy vs. Ferguson would reign supreme for the next 77 years. In 1916, the two best organized Black organizations – the church and the N.A.A.C.P. – had no real answer for Plessy or a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and its lynching pogrom throughout the South. America was on the verge of entering another “Great War,” this time in Europe, but still seriously pondered whether Black men were necessary, trustworthy enough or even intellectually and physically capable of taking up arms in her behalf. It was within this toxic climate that Garvey abandoned Washington’s gradualist-assimilationist-accomodationist approach and discerned a leadership vacuum among Black people. He began filling it by preaching a new twist on Delany’s old gospel: “Africa for the Africans!” Inexorably, ever larger crowds and eventually massive throngs of Black folks flocked to hear this black-as-coal foreigner alternately urge, admonish or shame them to rise “Up you mighty race! You can accomplish what you will!”
Beyond his oratorical skills, Garvey was the consummate “community organizer.” He had already established his Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) and African Communities (Imperial) League in Jamaica and London. And Harlem was more than ready for Garvey’s message. The U.N.I.A. quickly eclipsed all other Negro organizations, including even the Black church and the N.A.A.C.P. (whose Crisis magazine had as its editor none other than Dr. W.E.B. Dubois himself who had also played a large role in founding the organization). At its height the U.N.I.A. claimed a worldwide paying membership of 4.5 million souls, half of them in the U.S., making it the largest mass movement in American history. There were branches in Central and South America, the West Indies, Canada, and Europe.
Garvey led massive protest meeting and marches against lynching in the South, petitioned Congress and the President for anti-lynching legislation, set up businesses of all types, including the Negro Factories Corporation and the Black Star Line Steamship Company. One of its first ships, which actually did repatriate at least one shipload of Blacks to Liberia, was christened The Frederick Douglass.
Dubois was not impressed by Marcus Garvey, and in fact was resentful and jealous of his success. After waiting 25 years to step into Washington’s shoes after his death, Dubois felt upstaged by the young upstart Garvey. By virtue of his scholarly achievements and his prominence within the Black community, Dubois felt entitled to the premier role of leadership. The pattern of a single reigning Black “leader” had be set by Douglass’ triumph over Delany a generation earlier. Dubois felt it was his “turn.”
As petty as it sounds, he did not cotton to Garvey’s appearance. He just simply did not look like a Black leader was supposed to look. He did not have the regal bearing of a Frederick Douglass nor the steely-eyed military countenance and education of a Dr. Delany. Garvey was short, overweight, and much too dark to represent the likes of the cultured and sophisticated Dr. W.E.B. Dubois and his vaunted Talented Tenth. In street clothes, Marcus Garvey looked like a field slave. And when he donned his feathered, braided, and officious-looking “Provisional President of Africa” uniform, Dr. Dubois publicly called him a buffoon.
In the May, 1924 issue of The Crisis, Dubois had this to say about Marcus Garvey:
Marcus Garvey is, without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor…. The American Negroes have endured this wretch all too long with fine restraint and every effort at cooperation and understanding…. Every man who apologizes for or defends Marcus Garvey from this day forth writes himself down as unworthy of countenance of decent Americans.
Not to be outdone, Garvey called Dubois an over-educated, pompous mulatto, who was out of touch with Black people. He ridiculed Dubois’ Talented Tenth idea as elitist, and scoffed at the notion that white people would ever accept Blacks on equal terms no matter how educated or “cultured” they might someday become. In the February 13, 1923 issue of The Negro World, Garvey made his objections to Dubois clear:
It is no wonder that Du Bois seeks the company of white people, because he hates Black as being ugly…Yet this professor, who sees ugliness in being Black, essays to be a leader of the Negro people and has been trying for over fourteen years to deceive them in connection with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Now what does he mean by advancing Colored people if he hates Black so much?… [I]t is in the direction of losing our Black identity and becoming, as nearly as possible, the lowest Whites by assimilation and miscegenation.
I’ll leave the historical comparisons here. But surely my point is made.
Drs. Cornel West and Melissa Harris-Perry’s disagreement is actually a healthy development in this so-called post-racial or “colorblind” era. These are not, as some suggest, petty differences. And, their approaches are not mutually exclusive nor to be viewed as an on/off, binary dynamic. Rather, they complement each other in the sense that many Black people still question this First Black President’s “Blackness.” “Is he Black enough?” Obama’s presence, his “pedigree”, and our professors’ disagreement over just what it all means should cause us to re-think the meaning of Blackness, indeed, the very relevance of Blackness. As a group, and if we wish to remain a cohesive group, we must come to grips with Obama’s Blackness or lack thereof, and then move Blackness forward and into the 21st century, independent of him if necessary. Is it enough to simply have Black faces in high places? Didn’t we learn anything from the example of Clarence Thomas? Oh yes, we knew before Bush I nominated him that he was toxic, but no one imagined him to be as eager a destroyer of Black people as he has turned out to be. Look, we have suffered, struggled, survived and thrived under 43 presidents before Obama. We cannot… we must not allow his presence to accomplish what all those past presidents could not – complete destruction of “the Black Community.”
The question of his authenticity has been updated: “Will this First Black President reveal his “true” colors in a second term?” Entertainer and civil rights giant Harry Belafonte says it does not matter what he might do in a second term. This first term has been revealing enough.
Some appeal to Michelle Obama’s presence as evidence of Obama’s authenticity. Here in Chicago it is well known that Michelle and Jesse Jackson’s oldest daughter were best buds and schoolmates. So for a young ambitious Black lawyer-politician in Chicago during the ’80s, what better way to join Chicago’s Black political elite than to date and then marry the best friend of the daughter of the most famous Black man in America? We did hope that Michelle Obama would hold his feet to the Black fire through some strategic pillow talk. After more than three years as “First Lady,” what should we make of Michelle Obama? Has she visited any homeless shelters or soup kitchens in Dee Cee? Any jails or prisons? Any of Washington’s crumbling public schools? Chicago contains the second largest Black ghetto in the country. Yet, when either of them come “home,” they never seem to find time to get beyond their fund raisers in the big hotels downtown. Has either of these two shown any concern for their “own” people beyond lip service? Yes, of course we fully realize that he is President of the United States, and not President of Black America. But aren’t we Americans, too?
Finally, a word about the “lesser of two evils” argument. It’s true that any one of the current Republican Party presidential candidates would be worse than anything this First Black President might do. The Republicans are driving us all over a cliff at 100 miles an hour. President Obama, the Democrats and their Black and white enablers, sycophants and subalterns are doing so at “only” 60 miles an hour. The lesser of two evils is still evil.