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.