Friday, April 24, 2015

Blacker than thou

Last update: Friday 4/24/15
When I joined the faculty of Howard University in Washington, DC way back in the 1972 Fall semester, I was not just coming to Howard; I was also fleeing from Harvard. I was in flight because I knew that if I stayed in Cambridge for another year, I might have some kind of a breakdown.

Back then (and probably now), Cambridge was an intense hothouse of bright minds of all colors bouncing off each other in a very tiny space. But for Black graduate students, the pressures were especially intense. White faculty who prided themselves on the individuality of their own thinking were visibly disappointed if a Black student's opinions did not conform to the latest outbursts from the latest militant "Black Leader" to grace the covers of Time magazine. If they asked you, "Do you think two plus two equals four" and you said yes, they decided you weren't "Black enough" and shifted their attentions to other Black graduate students because "everybody" knows that everything is different for Black people than for White. Wow.

So I left Harvard before I started my dissertation, determined to write it in absentia after I joined Howard's faculty, which I did.

At Howard I quickly discovered and cherished a fundamental academic freedom that I could not have imagined at Harvard. Members of the predominantly Black Howard community were free to be any shade of Black they wanted to be. Nobody spoke for everybody about anything. Indeed, nobody spoke for anyone except themselves and colleagues who honestly agreed with them. So Black Muslim speakers were regularly welcomed onto our campus, and Black conservatives, and Black Militants, as well as spokesmen for every other position along the political spectrum, and they all received respectful hearings.

Eventually I also recognized a corollary:  counterproductive "Blacker than thou" competitions flourish in predominantly White contexts.

Which brings me to the point of this essay: Michael Dyson's recent attack on Cornell West in the latest issue of The New Republic magazine. As I read his long essay, the same questions kept rumbling in my mind, over and over again, "Why did he write this piece? And why did he publish it in The New Republic?"

If Dr. West were a high level Black elected official, e.g., the president of the United States, then a public assessment of his current intellectual competence would be appropriate, especially if Dr. Dyson thought that the president's mental faculties were declining. After all, presidents really do make life and death decisions that can affect a few, a lot, or all of us.

But I can't recall Dr. Dyson publishing comparably critical ad hominem assessments of the president's mental condition. What I do recall is Dr. West and his colleague Tavis Smiley publishing and televising scathing critiques of President Obama's policies because of their assessment that the President's policies failed to address the needs of poor people. Dr. Dyson would have his readers believe that there was not only no merit to the West/Smiley critiques, but that their critiques were largely motivated by Dr. West's desire for petty personal revenge because President Obama failed to invite him to one of the inaugural balls back in 2008, by Mr. Smiley's desire for petty personal revenge because President Obama declined to announce his candidacy at a conference organized by Mr. Smiley, and because of Dr. West's declining cognitive competence ... Wow.

So far, Dr. West has only issued a brief reply to Dr. Dyson's piece that did not mention Dr. Dyson by name. I hope he leaves it at that because blacker than thou competitions are inherently counterproductive. Like the computer said at the end of "War Games" -- the 1980's sci-fi classic --"The only way to win is not to play."