Updated: July 7, 2011 2:12PM
Is it the pot calling the kettle black? Or not black enough?
Those are the questions swirling in the recent dust-up among some of America’s most prominent black intellectuals and talking heads.
African-American names in the news have been exchanging harsh words over the state of black America in the Obama era. President Barack Obama is the piñata at the center of the controversy, but it’s not really about him.
It’s about a clash of massive egos and a longstanding worry that as America lurches toward a post-racial age, the racial grandstanders and panderers will tumble into the tar pits of irrelevance. The race careerists are becoming an endangered species.
One specimen is a classic. Dr.-Professor-Rapper-Signifier Cornel West should be propped up in a glass exhibit case at the Smithsonian. The famous Princeton University scholar is bitterly teed off at the president. West charges that Obama has neglected the unemployed, the poor, those in prison, and — worst of all — the president is not taking his calls.
In a recent interview with progressive web site Truthdig, West railed that Obama is “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.”
West, whose high-wattage speechifying is a staple of the lecture circuit, claims he made 65 appearances on behalf of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. And now the president won’t even call him back.
“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West concluded. “It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. . . . When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening.”
And I thought the birthers were bad.
Of course, this is nothing new. West’s close pal, PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, has been hammering away at Obama for years. Smiley bleats that America’s first black president has turned his back on his peeps.
The Obama debate has opened the floodgates to the rich diversity of opinion among black thinkers and doers. Obama critiques have inspired a needed debate among hundreds of black voices, from Democratic Party maven Donna Brazile, to cable talker Roland Martin, to West’s former Princeton colleague, Melissa Harris-Perry, to New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch.
On May 23, Crouch penned a searing retort to West’s diatribe. The professor, he wrote, is a fake revolutionary and “a six-figure entertainer.”
Crouch added, “Publicity, not scholarship, is his true tradition. West often gives his listeners no more than sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
That pot is blacker than black.
Let’s not kid ourselves. They’re all word warriors, angling for the controversial edge that will deliver lucrative speaking fees, TV gigs and book deals.
Most African Americans cringe at the contretemps over Obama and his obligation to black America. They understand that the dilemma of being black in America extends into the Oval Office. They just want him to succeed on the best terms he can negotiate with a hostile and unforgiving opposition.
They fear that airing our dirty laundry only gives comfort and ammunition to his — and our — enemies. I have no fear on this front, and welcome the intellectual street fighting. We are not a monolithic tribe.
These debates demonstrate that we have an intellectual heft and diversity that should be heard.
Trust me — Obama is listening.