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.
These epithets point to a deep-seated animosity towards 'race betrayers' who the host community regards as a traitor and an ungrateful free rider. In studying the fear of the sellout among black Americans, Randall Kennedy notes in his book Sellout that a sellout is "a person who betrays something to which she is said to owe allegiance" and can refer to individuals whose actions "retard African-American advancement."
As Kennedy notes, some of the earliest members of the black community labeled as sellouts were those individuals who recaptured runaway slaves or forewarned white authorities of impending slave revolts. Many black authors who wrote treatises against the community were also roundly hated. One example is William Hannibal Thomas, who throughout his early life championed the African-American cause. Later in life, however, he underwent a radical about-face and published The American Negro in 1901. The black individual, he wrote, "has a mind that never thinks in complex terms; Negro intelligence is both superficial and delusive... [and] represents an illiterate race, in which ignorance, cowardice, folly, and idleness are rife." The African-American response was swift and seething. Some threatened him with physical assault and told him to "go off and hang thyself," while others, like Booker T. Washington, remarked that, "It is sad to think of a man without a country. It is sadder to think of a man without a race."
Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke with derision against racial betrayal. Malcolm X called sellouts "house Negros" and King stated that there are many blacks in America "who will seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle." Others branded as sellouts were those individuals who, working as spies for the American government, infiltrated civil rights organizations and kept an eye on groups like the Black Panther Party.
It seems that almost without exception, every successful African-American public figure in the United States -- Oprah, Sean 'Puffy' Combs, Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell -- has, at one time or another, faced the question of whether they were selling out. As journalist Peter Beinart pointed out, it seems that "the more whites love you, the more you must reassure your own community that you are still one of them."
In a recent interview with journalist and author Chris Hedges, Princeton professor Cornel West launches a full frontal assault on President Obama. Parts of the interview provide a sound critique of Obama's failures as a populist president. Other parts are deeply unfair, and at times disturbing. West stops just short of branding Obama a "race traitor" or accusing him of selling out African-Americans. While I admire Dr. West, read some of his writings, and briefly met him at the 2009 American Academy of Religion conference in Montreal, I found his comments on Obama problematic to the say the least.
Some of West's critiques arise out of a perceived personal affront by Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. For example, he tells Hedges that he did 65 campaign events for Obama, used to speak with him regularly on the phone, and offer prayers for his success. However, West "never got a call back" from Obama. Additionally, West could not get tickets to the inauguration with his mother and brother. "We had to watch the thing in the hotel," he says.
The relationship continued to deteriorate after Obama became President. West, who had always stated that Obama should not think he is safe from critique simply because he is African-American, received a phone call from Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the president. According to West, Jarrett was particularly upset by West's statement in an interview that "he saw a lot of Malcolm X and Ella Baker" in Michelle Obama. "I said in the world that I live in, in that which authorizes my reality, Ella Baker is a towering figure," he tells Hedges. "If I say there is a lot of Ella Baker in Michelle Obama, that's a compliment." He goes on to say that while the first lady's initiatives on child obesity and military families are commendable, "why doesn't she visit a prison? Why not spend some time in the hood?"