Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; Nat King Cole; James Baldwin
Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons; Ralph Gatti/Getty Images

It's reassuring to see high-profile black people engage in debates about compelling and complicated issues. In a way, it shows that their money hasn't made them complacent or detached from the realities of ordinary life.

Jay Z and Harry Belafonte don’t see eye to eye on how wealthy blacks ought to empower the communities they come from; Bill Cosby has an ongoing problem with the images and narratives put forth by rap music; and even Nas and Jay Z went bar for bar in their highly publicized rap battle, in which each made a case for how black public figures ought to conduct themselves, which social issues they should be addressing in their work and how success ought to be defined for black Americans.  

Advertisement

“You traded your soul for riches” and “you seem to be only concerned with dissing women,” Nas said of Jay Z in his 2001 song “Ether.” The song contained a boatload of witty one-liners about superficial things, but lost in all of that bravado was a genuine disappointment about how materialism and misogyny had come to inspire many of Jay Z’s lyrics throughout the years.

‘You traded your soul for riches’ and ‘you seem to be only concerned with dissing women,’ Nas said of Jay Z in his 2001 song ‘Ether.’

In his rebuttal, Jay Z took Nas to task for touting this “social activist” persona and yet continuing to be incredibly stingy on the philanthropy front: “[Nas] is all politics/depositing checks/he puts it in his pocket/and all you get in return is a lot of lip.”

Advertisement

Black writers, poets and entertainers have been quarreling since the dawn of the republic, long before the 24-hour news cycle and forms of social media like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook could document and perpetuate the back-and-forth.

The Root took a trip down memory lane to assess the opposing sides of some of the most memorable quarrels between influential black people. Some of the modern-day spats, like the aforementioned rap battle, are mere regurgitations of these old-school beefs. It’s interesting to see how some of these discussions have evolved over time, if at all.

1. W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington

W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were prominent thinkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who disagreed about how black Americans should go about achieving equality and parity with whites.

Du Bois felt that a well-thought-out civil rights agenda, coupled with a political strategy that would balloon the number of black politicians, would help reduce discrimination and racism. Du Bois encouraged blacks to get an education in order to create a black intelligentsia, dubbed “the Talented Tenth,” who would write books, make speeches, and consciously and directly wed themselves to the civil rights movement. (Du Bois co-founded the NAACP.) He wanted to mobilize blacks to think critically about social issues and to use those thoughts to influence the black American experience.

Booker T. Washington saw the almighty dollar as a way out. 

Booker T. Washington saw the almighty dollar as a way out. An agreement between black and white leaders in the South that he co-authored stated that blacks would submit to white political rule in exchange for access to a good education and due process. Washington wanted blacks to ignore the temporary discrimination they faced and instead encouraged them to focus their efforts on getting skilled jobs that would allow them to move up the salary ladder. Respect and equality would come if blacks could create a strong middle and upper class.

Advertisement

These perspectives are still relevant today. Black students often wrestle with whether they should use their careers to engage social issues more directly or commit themselves to high-paying jobs in fields that may leave them feeling unfulfilled in terms of their social responsibilities.  

2. Thurgood Marshall vs. Nat King Cole

In 1956, when Nat King Cole was performing in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., three white supremacists with ties to the Ku Klux Klan assaulted him in front of a crowd of approximately 4,000 people. Cole’s reaction as to why he was attacked caused a stir:  

Advertisement

“I can’t understand it. I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?”

‘I can’t understand it. I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?’

Yes, you’re reading that right. Cole thought that because he wasn’t involved in the civil rights movement, somehow that made him immune to the vitriol that black activists received. Cole’s words angered one of the leading black attorneys in the country, the NAACP Legal and Educational Fund’s chief legal counsel, Thurgood Marshall. Marshall said that Cole was the proverbial “Uncle Tom.” Ouch. The NAACP denounced Cole’s comments and scolded him for continuing to perform in segregated shows.

Advertisement

Cole eventually had a change of heart and participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963.

3. James Baldwin vs. Langston Hughes

James Baldwin and Richard Wright’s beef, like those of many of these pairings, brings to mind the caution that singer Erykah Badu dished out to a live audience before launching into a new song: “Keep in mind that I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my s—t.”

‘Keep in mind that I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my s—t.’

Baldwin could have benefited from that advice. He didn’t hold back when he critiqued fellow poet Hughes’ work, complaining that his writings didn’t depict the current state of black America. Baldwin wrote that Hughes failed “to transform his private experience as a Negro into art.”

Advertisement

Baldwin felt that since Hughes was a black poet, he shouldn’t divorce himself from that identity when he put pen to paper. It seems, though, that Baldwin did empathize with black poets who struggled over whether to write about the experiences of black America or write about topics that might be unrelated to race: “He is not the first American Negro to find the war between his social and artistic responsibilities all but irreconcilable,” Baldwin wrote.

4. Muhammad Ali vs. Malcolm X

Muhammad Ali came to believe that his friend and fellow Nation of Islam member Malcolm X was trying to usurp the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s standing in the organization. In Ali’s 2001 biopic, there is the scene where Ali (played by Will Smith) is unable to continue a conversation with Malcolm, saying, “You should not have quarreled with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.”

‘You should not have quarreled with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.’

In his autobiography, Malcolm X maintained that those rumors about him defying the NOI were a part of a smear campaign levied against him by the organization after he discovered some of Elijah Muhammad’s infidelities.

Advertisement

Ali took Malcolm’s assassination hard and later said that turning his back on Malcolm was “one of the mistakes that I regret most in my  life.”

5. Langston Hughes vs. Zora Neale Hurston

The falling-out between Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston is complicated. At the surface, there was a dispute about Hughes receiving credit for co-authoring the play Mule Bone with Hurston. Some say that Hurston was reluctant to give him credit because she was in love with Hughes and that sentiment was not reciprocated by Hughes, who was reportedly gay. Another school of thought dismisses that idea entirely and says it was purely a literary dispute.

Advertisement

There’s also the idea that Hughes felt Hurston’s work was setting black people back a couple hundred years because she wrote about rural black America. It’s similar to the argument that Spike Lee has made about Tyler Perry’s Madea films. Perry recently referenced Hurston and Hughes’ feud as a way to denounce Lee’s criticism of his own work.

“Langston Hughes said that Zora Neale Hurston, the woman who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, was a new version of the ‘darkie’ because she spoke in a Southern dialect and a Southern tone,” Perry complained, going on to say that it wasn’t beneficial for black artists to tear one another down.

6. James Baldwin vs. Richard Wright

In his second appearance in this roundup, Baldwin fell out with yet another literary giant over the issue of “protest novels”—fictional novels in which the main characters experience social problems like race and gender prejudices. Baldwin wasn’t particularly fond of the genre because he felt that they were often over the top, sentimental and dishonest.

Advertisement

Well, it turns out that Richard Wright took that opinion personally, since Wright routinely published protest novels. The story goes that these two brothers bumped into each other in Paris and Wright gave Baldwin a piece of his mind.

7. Martin Luther King Jr. vs. a Prehajj Malcolm X

When, in a 1963 interview, Malcolm X denounced the “ignorant Negro preachers” who were encouraging black Americans to turn the other cheek when faced with racial violence and discrimination, everyone knew that he was talking about Martin Luther King Jr.

Advertisement

Indeed, Malcolm confirmed that hunch minutes later during the same interview, when he boldly stated, “Martin Luther King is just a 20th-century … modern Uncle Tom.” Malcolm believed that King’s nonviolent strategy during the civil rights movement was making black people complacent and docile.

Malcolm X stressed self-determination and argued that it was important for black people to go about achieving equality alone, in order to rebuild their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. He was critical of King’s strategy of accepting help from anyone who wanted to join the movement.

Advertisement

When Malcolm X went on his hajj—the religious pilgrimage to Mecca required of Muslims—a year later, he described how he prayed, ate and slept alongside white Muslims. He had a change of heart about allowing like-minded white people to participate in the civil rights movement, and came to embrace any person, regardless of race, who sought justice and equality for black Americans. 

Read more at The Root about prominent debates between black public figures:

The Original Sellout Reconsidered

Who Really Invented the ‘Talented Tenth’?

What Young Activists Could Teach Jay Z

Does Jay Z Want to Be This Generation’s Harry Belafonte?

Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and films most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.