Large segments of the black blogger sphere, in particular Twitter, have been churning overtime in response to the lengthy essay written by professor Michael Eric Dyson that heavily criticizes his fellow black intellectual academic brother, professor Cornel West. In all frankness, criticizing is too mild a word. Dyson's article is a searing takedown of West and of what he sees as the "irrational, immature, petty" and otherwise less than positive attitude that West has exhibited toward him, President Obama, other leading black intellectuals and aspects of black intellectual culture in general.
A number of observers have characterized the feud between Dyson and West as a boxing match, battle of the narcissists, opportunism at its worst and other derisive terms. This sort of animated speculation and voyeurism is problematic. It assumes a certain degree of clairvoyant ability that none of us possess. The fact is that only Dyson and West know what motives and emotions lie in their hearts and agendas. For all of those who have been captivated by this recent feud between two prominent members of the contemporary black intelligentsia, the fact is that such behavior is nothing new. As a historian, I can attest to the fact that dissent among the black intellectual elite is nothing new. Indeed, writers, politicians, community activists, entertainers, professors, ministers and others have publicly sparred with one another for centuries. Examples of this are:
* Booker T. Washington and WEB DuBois ·
* WEB DuBois and Marcus Garvey
* Marcus Garvey and The Black Leadership Class of the Early 20th Century
* Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston
* Richard Wright and James Baldwin
* Malcolm X and The Black Leadership Class of the Mid 20th Century
* Martin Luther King and Whitney Young ·
* SCLC and CORE
Black folks hurling verbal grenades in public is a past-time as old as the republic itself. Charges of opportunism, narcissism, confusion and self-promotion were routinely attributed to one another. Many of these public activists, entertainers and intellectuals (then as well as now) made the case that their often critical and frequently acerbic commentary was due to their love and concern for the people (larger black community). Indeed, many of these individuals would further make the case that they were criticizing one another from a place of constructive, yet needed criticism. West has made this point in his brutal criticism of President Obama. Dyson has taken this position in his very public verbal dress down of West.
There are those who argue that black folk publicly disagreeing with one another is problematic, unproductive, only serves as an amusing spectacle to white bigots and does a great disservice to the larger community. I would take the position that those who dislike and outright despise black people are going to keep on reveling in their hate regardless of whether we decide to take on one another. They have never had our best interests at heart, nor any of our interests for that matter, and it would be an exercise in gross futility to be concerned about their largely indifferent opinions.
The point is that disagreements and acute public attacks between black folks are legendary. While it is important to remember that we are all human and none of us are above criticism, it is also crucial that we make an effort to criticize one another in a manner that is constructive in nature as opposed to engaging in mean-spirited, petty, paranoid diatribes that primarily only serve to soothe bruised and tortured egos. We should keep this perspective in mind as we move further into the 21st century.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D. Is a professor of History, African Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee Sate University. He is the co-author of Beginning A Career in Academia :A Guide For Graduate Students of Color. (Routledge Press, 2014)
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