I'm about as disgusted with Cornel West's political and personal attacks on President Obama and the ensuing back and forth among the academic punditocracy as I am with hearing about Arnold Schwarzenegger's fornication, everything to do with any Kardashian and Oprah's never-ending farewell. Frankly, it's both boring and appalling that this verbal battle has taken center stage, now joined by various supporters on either side and by media that love a Negro brawl just as much as the sponsors of the battle royal did in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The protagonist thought he was there for intellectual reasons, too, until he was pushed into the ring and heard voices shouting, "Get going in there!" and "Let me at that big nigger!"
Given the dismal economy, the political and cultural landscape, the rise of the New Confederacy, and the general air of depression and malaise pervading the country, there are many more important issues to discuss and things to do than listen to West, his supporters or his detractors.
If anything, the conversation over who's right and who's wrong in his or her assessment of President Obama merely serves as a heartbreaking reminder of how lacking in serious leadership black communities (as opposed to the nonexistent monolithic "black community" that hucksters pretend they represent) are when we so desperately need it. Where there are effective local organizers, they're too busy doing the work to become talking heads, or are drowned out by the voices of the professional commentariat.
This spectacle also shows how out of touch those academics are — and how easily distracted they are from the issues of unemployment, poverty, mass incarceration and a failed education system when offered the opportunity to attack another member of the self-anointed class of public intellectuals.
Too bad West didn't get tickets to the inauguration for his family, but neither did most of us. And what about the millions who wouldn't have had the means to go even if they had been invited? West exposes his privileged-class roots when he sneers that "the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration." This from the man who proclaims himself the great defender of the Ray Rays and Jamals of the world — both iconic and suspect names to be trotted out as needed to evoke the downtrodden and conveniently speechless black masses.
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.