Those familiar with the sitcom "The Jefferson's" know that the theme for that show was "Movin On Up." it is the "strivers" anthem of getting a piece of the pie. The wish to be included in society. To show that we too can "play that game."
The Malcolm X/Kwame Ture faction has an ideology that in general that the pie is spoiled and needs to be tossed and a new pie created. We can all partake in both the disposal of the pie and the enjoyment of it's replacement. Moving up isn't a problem, it's how you move up and what you do when you're up there. It is the morality side of the climb rather than the climb itself.
Having generalized these two wings, let me get to the inspiration for this post. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, penned a piece that appeared in CNN entitled "Don't hold Obama to race agenda". Right from the title I had a problem. I've discussed this particular habit of certain black folk to willingly back burner their own issues as if they don't deserve to be addressed head on or that those issues are somehow not good for the rest of the country. I said:
Another example is the Civil Rights Act itself. Anyone who reads the document will clearly see that it is not directed only at Black people as it includes protections for ethnic groups, gender, etc. Again mostly black folk who took water hoses, dogs, lynchings, etc. got legislation through that now protects a large number of people many of whom lifted nary a finger to gain those protections.
So when I see black folk, particularly "intellectuals" who dismiss "black issues" as parochial all manner of red flags go up with me since it is a clear example of Carter G. Woodson's observation that black folk will find a way to see themselves out.
Now I understand there is clearly an ideological difference between Lacewell and Smiley. And to be clear, I'm not wholly in Smiley's camp, but in my opinion it's not exactly balanced to have a known "blank cheque" Obama supporter writing commentary against Smiley. I'll be looking forward to a rebut. It would be fair. Carrying on though.
One might suspect that Smiley would be enthusiastic about the opportunities presented by America's election of a black president.
Well I can't speak for Smiley but I think it's unfair to say that he's not enthusiastic about the opportunities that made an Obama possible as well as what an Obama represents for the future. I think the comment is a serious insult the man's intelligence. That said, there is a difference between enthusiasm, and outright blind following. How many times have I read about the dangers of blindly following this or that "black leader" only to watch people do this for Obama? Which is in fact alluded to in the very same piece. Shockingly two faced that is.
Despite writing about race in both of his books, addressing race in the historic Philadelphia speech during the Democratic primary and repeatedly acknowledging that racial inequality endures, Smiley's critique implies that Obama's approach to race is both inadequate and inauthentic.
I haven't read either of Obama's books and probably will not. However; I did watch and critique his philly speech and there was much to fault in that speech. For many people they were shocked and awed by the fact that a candidate had a speech on race. I won't go into it here but I have a detailed discussion on the speech here
Anyway, Lacewell gets to the meat of her ire, a "low production value" film produced in the "Get on the Bus" vein which I'm sure if it were a film made by Obama supporters, would not have warranted the "low production value" commentary, but you know...
I will grant her this, that she points out that the film features "prominent black male public figures" is a great point. These public figures are public figures who, as she also points out have corporate backing. How about a film witl Glen Ford and other non-corporate blessed thinkers and writers who can more than hold their own in the political arena? It's a valid point that she makes.
The film and its participants (two of them my senior colleagues at Princeton University) appropriated the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to implicitly claim that they, not Obama, are the authentic representatives of the political interests of African-Americans. They used King's images and speeches, gathered on the balcony where King was assassinated, and explicitly asserted their desire to play King to Obama's LBJ, and Frederick Douglass to Obama's Lincoln.
On its face, this is not a bad model. Presidents are deeply constrained by the structural and political limitations of their office. A robust administration needs an active and informed citizenry to engage, push, cajole, criticize and applaud its efforts.
But this appropriation misrepresents rather than preserves King's legacy. King was a powerful questioner and, at times, ally of President Johnson because he was at the helm of a massive social movement of men and women who were shut out of the ordinary political process. It was not King's intellectual capacity or verbal dexterity that made him an effective advocate for racial issues; it was his own accountability to that movement.
This particular part gets to my earlier point about the George Jeffersons vs. the Malcom X's. I used to despise Dr. King. I say this openly. Just as I despised Booker T. Washington. as a youth, unlearned, unread and under-experienced, I thought that Dr. King's whole Dream bullshit was just that. I could not stand what I saw as a begging black man preacher. What? I'm supposed to let people hit me? Forget that! It wasn't until I really studied Dr. King past the I have a Dream speech that is pushed on the public, that I came to respect the man. Dr. king, when he was killed, was moving much closer to Malcolm X, and Kwame Ture, then anything that the I have a Dream speech indicates. The Riverside church speech is highly indicative of that shift. The shift that made many people in and out of government to label him a communist and the like. But what struck me the most was a quote from Dr. King that said:
We have no desire to integrate into this society
It became clear to me that Dr. King understood that which Malcolm and Garvey understood: There needed to be a fundamental structural change in society, including government. That the aims of the movement he was involved in, was not to simply get access to power. So when I, and I suppose Tavis, et al. bring up the legacy of Dr. King. they are not necessarily reminiscing about the good old days, but rather they are stating their concerns about black America straying from the moral principles of the civl rights movement in their quest for power. And if it is indeed a wish to simply be in power (as Lacewell appears to state in so many words) then it is indeed a betrayal of not only Dr. King, but of the movement that has gotten African -Americans where they are today.
Since I brought up Booker T., let me discuss him for a minute. Most black people revile the Atlanta Compromise speech that Washington gave. The whole 5 fingers and we don't want political power thing. It wasn't until I got to Tuskegee and saw what Washington was up against that I understood why he could make such a statement. Do we not see in South Africa, how that blacks have political power but still live in shanty towns? Do blacks in Harlem have the vote, but still find themselves priced out of business opportunities and real estate? Booker T. Washington understood that a community that has no means to be self-sufficient will be at the mercy of those who have the ability to not only take care of themselves but also to enough to take on someone else as well. Furthermore; at that time Tuskegee was completely dependent on money from white folk. White folk who generally were not receptive to the idea that black folk had the capacity to play on the big field. in the book 48 Laws of Power we learn that one means of getting that which you need from a patron is to play upon his or her weaknesses. White folk, particularly at that time, but not too much less so today, eat up talk that makes them comfortable in their supposed privilege. Therefore it would be best to play to that in order to get what one wants. Booker T. apparently succeeded at doing that. Since he built something for black folk, I'm not going to kick the man over that.
OK, going back to Lacewell. when she points out that King was accountable to "that movement." She highlights an issue that is important when dealing with Obama. Obama came out of nowhere. Really outside of Chicago, who the heck knew who he was in the black community? This has been an issue highlighted in publications like Black Agenda Report. Obama hit the stage in 2004 and boom 4 years later president. Shocking but true. No other black candidate with high name recognition among black people, who have political experience has been able to do such a thing. That fact should make people ask a lot of questions. So relatively speaking, Tavis, et al. have far more accountability than is suggested. But accountability does not mean one stays quiet.
Further, Smiley and his "soul patrol" seemed to have missed the intervening 40 years between the era of King and the election of Obama. African-Americans are no longer fully disfranchised subjects of an oppressive state.
African-Americans are now citizens capable of running for office, holding officials accountable through democratic elections, publicly expressing divergent political preferences and, most importantly, engaging the full spectrum of American political issues, not only narrowly racial ones. The era of racial brokerage politics, when the voices of a few men stood in for the entire race, is now over. And thank goodness it is over. Black politics is growing up.
I think it disingenuous to say the the "soul patrol" missed the last 40 years. As discussed earlier I believe the issue is what has occurred in the past 40 years. The question they are posing, well let me not speak for them, The question I am posing and have been for some time now, is what are these "enfranchised subjects" doing and thinking? Going back to the Harlem example; if you have all these black political leaders and Harlem still gets gentrified, then what's the use? If the black president is as imperial as the white one, then the whole moral issues raised by the Civil Rights movement gets dropped. Is that a good thing? While it may be a good thing that voices of a "few men stood for the entire race." Is it a good thing when new sanitized voices are the replacements? I still have not seen any other than the George Jefferson left regularly on TV so I'd like to know how this multi-voiced new black polity is representing black folk in an effective manner. And let us be clear, Lacewell. Tavis, West and Dyson represent cases of "respectable" black voices but by no means represent the "entirety" of black thought to the public.
I wont go into Lacewell's analysis of the Obama campaign. it was, contrary to her words, slick and media generated. Heck I wrote about one of the very impressive campaign adverts that the Obama camp came out with as well as very well structured YouTube videos and the like all of which sent very emotionally charged messages out to people. Very little of that campaign was directed at black folk. The message to black folk was clear: Black, Democrat, who whites will vote for. There are long time activists who are on record stating they could care less what the man was doing, they just wanted a black person in the white house. At least she was honest.
To close I want to point out that in my opinion Obama was not and is not the turning point for black politics and political thought. I think the travails of Cynthia McKinney are much more indicative of what has gone terribly wrong in Black America. It seems that the new cohort of black leadership has been cowered into a position where they cannot advocate openly for black people. They are almost embarrassed to do so unless some really obviously racial stuff happens. They have bought into the notion that in seeking wider office, they cannot be seen as too "black" even when their white counterparts have no such burden of expected "less-whiteness." That clear double standard does not bother them in the least bit. Like Obama's Philly speech, they need to explain away the "antics" of black folks, rather than challenge the racism of others. And why do they do this? It is clear: It pays