Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man opens with a battle royal. The novel’s nameless black male protagonist is asked to recite his high school commencement speech touting submission and racial humility for the white citizens of his segregated town. When he arrives at the venue, he finds that the white men have arranged for him and other young black men to don boxing gloves and blindfolds and viciously fight one another for the entertainment of the white hosts. They even require the boys to scramble on an electrified mat for gold coins—which later turn out to be brass. Bruised and bloodied, the narrator is then required to deliver his speech to the men, who mockingly ignore his elocution. At the end of the night the same men award him a scholarship to the state college for Negroes.
This scene has been playing in a mental loop for me since I participated in the mini-tempest that exploded in the academic teapot in the aftermath of Chris Hedges’s Truthdig interview with Professor Cornel West, who stingingly criticized President Obama’s economic and social policies and painted the president as cowardly and out of touch with black culture. In my response to West on my blog at TheNation.com, I observed how West’s sense of betrayal is clearly more personal than ideological and as such “gave insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership that has been largely supplanted in recent years.” All of this prompted more discussion, criticism and attacks—from those organized in defense of West and from those supportive of the president.
The debate about President Obama is not uncomfortable. If anything, arguments about the qualities of Obama’s leadership, his commitment to issues with a disproportionate impact on black people and the psychic and social effect of his presidency on black communities constitute a robust, potentially fruitful, sometimes personal, always interesting discussion that has been going on among African-American academics for years. We’ve written critical articles, gathered conflicting data, argued unflaggingly on e-mail and rolled our eyes at one another at conferences. Sometimes we’ve even changed our opinions, moderated our viewpoints and thanked one another for new information. But, as is often the case with the work of academics, no one really noticed.
Until last week—that’s when the sudden attention of major media outlets exposed this ongoing debate to a penetrating white gaze that still finds the idea of black political disagreement a noteworthy and entertaining curiosity. In the middle of the ensuing furor, it felt like I had joined Ellison’s narrator on the electrified mat, scrambling for fake gold coins.
I felt it when MSNBC’s Ed Schultz invited Professor West and me to appear on his show and then asked if West’s critique and my response were evidence of “trouble” in black communities. I sensed it when I read Hedges’s rebuttal screed about “liberal sellouts.” I detected it in the tone of many white reporters, radio hosts and bloggers who seemed more than a little gleeful to watch as the black professors bloodied themselves and the black president in what must appear to be a blindfolded, boxing-gloved free-for-all.
I vigorously object to the oft-repeated sentiment that African-Americans should avoid public disagreements and settle matters internally to present a united front. It’s clear from the history of black organizing that this strategy is particularly disempowering for black women, black youth, black gay men and lesbians, and others who have fewer internal community resources to ensure that their concerns are represented in a broader racial agenda. Failing to air the dirty laundry has historically meant that these groups are left washing it with their own hands.
Citizenship in a democratic system rests on the ability to freely and openly choose, criticize and depose one’s leaders. This must obtain whether those leaders are elected or self-appointed. It cannot be contingent on whether the critiques are accurate or false, empirical or ideological, well or poorly made. Citizenship is voice. West exercised his voice, and I mine. But the history and persistence of racial inequality and white privilege in America means that the exercise of voice for black citizens is fraught with the dangers of surveillance. It’s yet another challenge of being black and exercising citizenship in the United States. Even as we articulate our grievances, black citizens are haunted by that “peculiar sensation” that W.E.B. Du Bois described as “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Whatever the accuracy or erroneousness of West’s remarks, there was little new in them. Arguments about the corporate control of American politics, the ascendance of Wall Street over Main Street and the imperial impulse of American foreign policy have been the standard talking points of the left for more than a decade. What fascinated the press were the salacious tidbits offered by West that suggested black-on-black infighting. My response and those that followed added to the impression that black intellectuals were engaged in a battle royal. As in Ellison’s opening scene, it is the fight, not the speech, that is the main attraction. That African-Americans strenuously disagree among ourselves about goals and strategies is an ancient historical truth that is masked by our nominal partisan similarities. But the intense media attention over West’s critique of President Obama can be understood only by the repeated refusal by mainstream media and broader American political culture to adequately grasp the heterogeneity of black thought.