The following post was published in April of 2015 on Free Black Space just two months before the publication of Between the World and Me. Part of the Free Black Space approach is to regulate some of the occurrences in the black to phenomena. A black intellectual take down of a another black contemporary is not a people specific happening. Check Alas, Poor Richard by Baldwin or Everybody's Protest Novel. The things for those in the black to consider in such moments is who is publishing it.
It's been a rough week for Black intellectualism. Reading Michael Eric Dyson's "Cornell West's Rise and Fall" in The New Republic suggest African American intellectual ability is being regulated to tabloid status via powerful publishing channels. While his article is beautifully written one could liken the spectacle to Mayweather beating someone's ass in the ring. Albeit, we love the beauty of the fight because the fighter's craft somehow subverts the brutality. Yes, I watch World Star sometimes. I'm ashamed. However, Dyson's attack is helping me process my own discomfort. For what difference is there in watching someone get put to schleep by a knock out punch and watching someone attack a former mentor and friend in a national publication? For what really matters is the sense of "craft" employed.
Let me also say, my true sense of envy is the desire to publish a similar article, which in spite of its flaws will grant publicity and cash flow to the publication in the short term. In other words, when the smoke clears The New Republic would have sold countless copies of its magazine off of a manufactured "negro debate". It may even be, the next time they publish an article there will be residuals and prominence which will serve the magazine in the future. After all, that is what publishing is all about. One of the beauties of Dyson's article is the admiration for his intellectual prowess combined with the suggestion that someone of similar intellectual ability is a farce of sorts and full of contradictions. In that way, the negro and race are decoded as fabrication with the implication that negro intellectuals must be properly investigated on all levels and regulated when necessary.
Dyson's essay is "well crafted", as the intellectuals would say, and still without reason for admiration. The pitiful nature of the attack gets in my gut. It is news not news. One leaves the article realizing that those who suggest the world is post-racial may be correct. For while race has everything to do with the article, one is also certain it has little to with the conflict. Perhaps post-racial is really about being able to air our dirty laundry in public. I can really buy the idea that part of Black freedom is being able to talk about anybody, anyway you want in public. I'm just not sure you need to be as smart as Dyson or West to do it.
It brings to mind the Coates' article on reparations published in The Atlantic. Again, my envy is to have hired him or published him and dramatically increased the platform of my magazine. If a negro wants to be on stage, perhaps we should also think about stage construction. No doubt we have done that in other industries. Too much of our approach to literature is regulated by the notion of the literary star. The reparations article is another "finely crafted" piece of work that somehow leaves me dazed in the glow of such a fine performance. After reading it, I am certain that Coates is at the top of his game, brilliant, and possesses intellectual ability that serves as a bridge between what many radical blacks think and what radical whites are willing to accept. In this regard he has fulfilled the conditions of both sides of the fence. No doubt, some of the credit for his article has to be given to his father Paul Coates, who is an activist and owner of a radical Black Press. Reparations is one of those beautiful black ideas that seems almost intangible within the academic world; because implicit in the talk of reparations is the question of power. Ask any Negro about the concept and we will say, "They ain't never gonna give us no money." Ask any white and they will say, "Good point, your argument is compelling."; while in the back of their mind they think, "We ain't never gonna give you no money." The beauty of reparations is that argument and intellectualism neuter the idea as compared to promote it. In reality reparations is a demand and should be packaged with an "or else". If one recognizes how ridiculous that position is, then why talk about it.
My position as a member of the community concerned with thoughts, ideas, books, and the commerce of concepts poses me as a constant witness to the packaging and repackaging of ideas I seem to be already familiar with. A colleague of mine likens Dyson's and West's interchange to bitter exchanges between Dubois and Garvey or the back and forth between Houston Baker, Henry Louis Gates, and Joyce Ann-Joyce. There something exciting about the idea of intellectual battle. Within the humanities it functions like yellow journalism. It sells papers. Honestly, I had to read that joint. I kept knowing it was bullshit but read every sentence. Dyson did not disappoint. Again, finely crafted. At the least it should be a sample essay in literature classes on "the craft of attack". Yet, I also imagine, I prefer Congress to African American intellectual debates. At least there, at the end of the debate, one signs a bill or takes some form of political action, which at least for a moment, no matter how brief, shapes the budget, laws and policies of the nation.
In the world of African American intellectualism we miss the significance of the ideas simply because they are not connected to institutions who have the capacity to make decisions that really affect our lives. The idea that an set of concepts put forth by African Americans via the academic community will actually affect or shape our lives is much like the concept of trickle down economics. Metaphorically, Dubois' concept of The Talented Tenth operates in the same fashion. Our ideas are juxtaposed to our lives as machines that function much like a colonial apparatus, which is to say, they do not really serve us in our intimate circles; but rather, like a ship that sails off to a distant land and somehow brings wealth to the motherland. That foreign land is the empire of language regulated and ruled by whites. We are different because we do not conquer the apparatus or use the raw materials to construct our own empire, but instead, receive favor and esteem along with the capacity to send our wealth home. Dyson captures this perfectly in his article especially when he analyzes West's name dropping. Both West and Dyson know almost everybody and serve as symbolic representations of the black intellect in the larger society. This position grants them a series of personal relationships many of us will never have.
Again, my envy is not really for the relationships, as much as it is for the infrastructure that has the capacity to publish, promote, and profit from the ideas. This of course requires boatloads of capital, infrastructure, and the running start many of these institutions got when they were established many years ago. Those guardians of the institutions who made the publishing decisions to "bring these truths to light" are much more anonymous in my mind than the superstars. This thing is starting to look like the NBA. One knows the stars, but the owners are not stars.
Here at Free Black Space we dealt with a similar incident that seemed to be less publicized, when we discussed Bell Hooks calling Beyoncé a terrorist. It was all rather strange considering Beyoncé's move towards "feminism". It seems Beyonce had found or is developing a popular feminism that rises up out of some ground not regulated by those intellectuals who have been given dominion over the concept in the popular imagination. Hooks' reference to Beyonce as terrorist might as well have been her calling her a bitch. It was one of those tricky things intellectuals do. Terrorist was a smart way of getting at Beyoncé; the comment was the dozens as much as it was intellectual.
After all, knowledge is a powerful thing. I am thinking of Ani Defranco, the dynamic feminist lyricist and musician, who ends one of her songs, "Cuz every tool is a weapon if you hold it right."
We can make a choice to use our intellect as weapon or tool everyday. West, Dyson, and others have spent considerable time "speaking truth to power" only to find themselves disoriented in the Obama age. For Obama represents the dismantling of the "us against them" rhetorical stance so often employed by the disempowered. Too often we use the binary, black vs white of power relationships as navigational compass to orientate us towards our direction up out of the abyss. Obama's blackness has posed a challenge for African American intellectuals in this regard. For he is black with power inside of the American system. Power is of course limited; however, too many of our intellectual arguments posed out of a black and white dichotomy suggest that power exist in incarnations it does not. We indict leadership with cliché driven phrases like, "You know they could do that if they want too." There are general discourses that we use as indictments of those in power, which operate like our ships and decrees headed towards some foreign land. We imagine this is how power was obtained, simply by degree and the trading of the ideas, when the reality is a society of people ravaged by plagues, fear, insecurity, and lack of resources sailed forth into the unknown in droves simply because the known seemed unbearable and oppressive. The empire declares the ideas and then a nation of men commit the brutal acts. Body bags, horror stories, and PTSD accompany the mandates. This is how the West was won.
The distance created by abstract ideas used to further oppression is the true answer to the riddle posed by the parable of the slave ship. Negroes are a distraction. When the white laborers arrived home, they were still the center of their lives. It was not the blacks who had endured-they felt they had endured an almost similar fate. Perhaps they felt their tragedy was greater because they had to witness their own brutality. No doubt the degradation of blacks is simply a way someone escapes the trauma of witnessing their own brutality. Perhaps the more one is cognizant of it, the more distance one creates through abstraction.
Both King and Martin represent two pinnacles of African American intellectualism. Both of them died. Their ideas were not simple dangerous because they were smart, but perhaps because their lives were so connected to them. I understand we have to make a living and each of us have our own path, but perhaps we should let those ideas and positions remain sacred. We may even want to come up with a priest like designation for those who are intellectual and dedicated to the "struggle of our people." In our current situation, the African American intellectual is half priest, half intellectual, and half activist. We often appear to be more than we are. We have no oaths towards African American struggle except those we seek to create for ourselves. Too often these are ego-driven responses to a trauma, ordeal, or predicament from the fabric of our life. We are human; and there's nothing wrong with that. However, blackness as culture represents a particular ideal about the human spirit that transcends even what America calls the quest for "freedom, justice, and democracy." The regulation of our relationships with these ideals requires at the least a spiritual system we have yet to create.
If you want to be popular and rich from "speaking truth to power", so be it. Simply refrain from doing it in the name of an African American culture whose essence is the cultivation of knowledge and intelligence from the least valuable position. What many of our intellectuals are learning, as a result of our ancestor's actions, which gained them entrance into the prestigious world of the academic, is that position transforms knowledge. A point that clarifies the spiritual practices for many members of spiritual traditions. The African American intellectuals quest for authenticity is the acknowledgement of this with craft and intellectual prowess replacing the a systematic spiritual approach, which links them to the concepts they are said to be working for. Intellectuals and writers of today have received acclaim through their public assertion that African American protest and activism is responsible for the denigration of craft. Those assertions suggested what was done for the many as justification for the refinement of knowledge. Currently, the role of mostly White Academic institutions in the cultivation of African American knowledge has disrupted this sense of connection with the community. While working for an abstract black protest is negated, working for a white institution is practical reality. It is where you work and who you work with, in many regards the opposite of our ancestral past. The navigation of this practical reality in the lives of many our intellectuals demands oaths and allegiance to notions of academic integrity, and the stock piling of qualifications for promotion, which in spite of their existence for years did not lead white academics to dismantle slavery or our oppression.
Of course, the secret conversation in America and for those who run institutions can be evidenced in what emerged in Henry Louis Gates' discussion of the question of omitting Ben Affleck's slave owning ancestors from one of his Finding Your Roots specials. Gates here is carefully managing the accessibility of a powerful African American metaphor for the larger society. To let the larger society participate in the ritual of finding their own roots is both revolutionary and powerful. Excerpts of the communication reveal the use of terms like brand management, brand integrity, and corporate management. The removal of Affleck's interview simply reveal ways in which race has to answer to success. The instance highlights why Gates' should be studied for his ability to craft success out of black history and intellectualism, in addition to studying the content and ideas of his professional work.
One imagines many of the public black intellectuals are far more certain about their own bank accounts, homes, finances, and the like, than they are about some abstract freedom of progress for African American people. In reality, they are warriors in a fight they know they will never win. It seems this is the real point of Dyson's attack on West. In some regards it may serve as an all time low for African American intellectual activism, precisely because it is personal to the degree that it suggests that there is little else besides the personal in operation even in matters of race. (no pun intended)
Again, here at Free Black Space, we have coined the term, the Ghetto of Ideas to identify that place in the intellectual tradition proscribed to African Americans, much like certain parts of the city, where there are more potholes, fewer grocery stores, less development, and more police protection. In those section of the city one is far more likely to be pulled over to the side of the road, interrogated, and physically abused. This is where one who enters the African American intellectual tradition must make their money and do their work. Again, Dyson's attack is a form of black on black intellectual violence. One must understand that the personal trials of negotiating ones success within the realm of media and publishing gives countless opportunities for battles and wars; and our intellectuals are business people as much as they are guardians of our public intellectual tradition. Sun Tzu makes clear all attacks are tactical and should be considered before hand.
One can only imagine how empowering it is to deal with a black intellectuals in the publishing industry knowing how little black infrastructure exist in the industry. I imagine the press operates like owners in the realm of professional sports; and we as intellectuals are now expected "to perfect our craft" in hopes that we will be picked in the next draft.
In these scenarios one understands that it is simply all a game in a highly corporatized, capitalistic, consumer based society. The spoils of war, or the prizes granted to the victor in these games are all the things we don't normally talk about in the world of intellectualism: it is the plush neighborhood, a fancy car, closets full of clothes, the prestigious school, the Aspen retreats.
African American intellectuals know better than everyone else, wealth and power don't simply want to listen to your ideas; in fact, they want your ideas to serve as trophies in their display case. Their proximity to you, in some regards, is their acknowledgement of their danger. It is like a yin move, stepping into the opponent's space in order to neutralize the distance they have to throw a punch.
And all of that is really alright. African Americans understand intimately the difficulties of making a living. Again, we have written on Free Black Space about the range of intimate psychological brutality countless African American intellectuals have suffered as they have operated in often lily white fields of operation. Claudia Rankine's Citizen captures some of the details of this predicament. Unlike, those protesters in Ferguson, she has succeeded in coming up with "a finely rendered" account of the complexities of being treating like shit with a fair amount of critical acclaim. What else can we do; but struggle to publicly let loose some of the rage that seems to seep into us each time we talk about race and understand you can say whatever you want, but how they hell you gonna make a living doing that. The absence of black institutions of power operating in the invisible empire of literary content makes it clear getting a job or measuring your success demands that you answer to the market forces that say you will work for, be published by, and at the least, need whites to understand the significance of your contribution.
The true post-racial is the land beyond segregated black institutions. One must now, fend for themselves in the abyss with little or no infrastructure. Dyson's article cuts hard too, because it acknowledges that without the institutions it is really every man and woman for himself. As substitute for communal goal, we have the fight for who will be the leader? and Who will be deemed authentic representative? While we witness these battles as extremely personal, they are more than that. Their true importance lies in their ability to increase or decrease the market value of individuals in the eyes of those who publish, those who hire, those who manage the invisible realm of ideas within the empire of language.
Our solution is simple in the world of literature-a larger portion of the empire regulated by us than the ghetto of ideas; or, if we are to operate within that ghetto, that we reorganize it, form coalitions and work in conjunction with rappers, street life authors, and those who are not so "educated" or "finely crafted" as us. This of course, would make some of us extremely uncomfortable; it may in fact be revolutionary. The transformation would produce a democracy of intellectualism within the African American community where street knowledge would have weight force and operate in conjunction with academic knowledge.