Black Chatter, Not Leadership
Jill Nelson has had enough of the irrelevant, privileged-class debate about Cornel West's criticism of Barack Obama.
Surely Barack Obama isn't above criticism, and constructive criticism is one way to define priorities and hold him accountable. But it's hard to take seriously West's assertion that Obama has become "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats" when the accusation is interspersed with whining about inauguration tickets, unreturned calls and psychobabble about Obama harboring "a certain fear of free black men" because his mother and grandparents were Caucasian.
Would that there were an equal amount of verbiage, name-calling and righteous indignation via tweet, text and TV in response to the devastation of black communities by the fabricated "war on drugs" and ensuing mass incarceration that Michelle Alexander illuminates in The New Jim Crow. Instead, it seems that once again, the conversation is limited to the concerns of the privileged class. It's reminiscent of 2009, when another black academic, Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root, became the much discussed poster boy of police-brutality victims instead of the dead bodies of Oscar Grant III, Sean Bell, Alberta Spruill and Aiyana Jones, among an ever growing list.
All of this chatter points out the absence of serious, feet-on-the-ground organizing or leadership. In its place we have corporate-media-approved black intelligentsia and pseudo leaders, while community organizers, local activists and serious reporters are all members of a disappeared or disappearing class. Academics and professional "leaders of the people" make convenient talking heads and give good in-group hostility, but neither group has much, if any, impact on everyday people or on the policies and policy makers that affect real lives.
Does anyone actually believe that Obama is concerned with what West thinks? Or that he needs anyone to defend him? Sorry, but it's easy to talk when you're educated and have a tenured gig in academia. In Harlem, where I live, a young black man takes his liberty and life in his hands just by walking down the street -- with his mouth shut.
It's hard to imagine Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr. or Shirley Chisholm -- each of them activists with constituencies to hold them accountable -- engaging in this sort of elite populism. Or declaring themselves representatives or leaders of a black mass conjured by the appropriately overworked Negro names and equally tired anecdotes. Sorry, West, but ask most of the masses about a black man named West and they'll assume you're talking about Kanye.
As a black feminist, I see the whole debacle as illustrative of the limits and failures of traditional black male leadership, a gender-based end of the road reached some time ago but still largely unacknowledged in black communities and unchallenged by black women. Enough of the dickpolitik! Surely now is the time to identify new priorities and institute specific conversations about how to positively transform communities.
Activists, organizers and others -- particularly women -- working at the grass roots should lead that conversation. And it should include all who are committed to working for change and social justice. Enough talking loud and saying nothin': Time for sisters to step up and jump to it once again.
Jill Nelson lives and writes in Harlem, N.Y.