It all started with The Root. The staff constructed a somewhat comical list of black folks they'd like to erase from black history. (Think Flavor Flav, Marion Barry, and The Apprentice's Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth.) Okay, I thought, we can toast to that.
Then came John McWhorter, the conservative scholar and author, who created his own, more serious list of people he would erase from black history. In his article, "Taking out My Eraser," published on The New Republic's website, McWhorter writes, "My interest is not in people it's just fun to dump on, but in people who have had a decisive impact on black lives and thought in general - and so no Dennis Rodman or Wesley Snipes."
Fine, no problem, John. Put R. Kelly and Soulja Boy Tell 'Em to the side for a moment and engage us thoughtful analysis - maybe about how we oversimplify our civil rights heroes, how we remember them as caricatures rather than humans. Tell us that Stokely Carmichael is more than a fist or help us to pull A. Philip Randolph from the shadows of the Movement. Just don't do what we expect you to do.
But he does.
In ten pages, McWhorter manages to pick a fight - with everyone. No one is safe - not Paulo Freire or his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, not books on the history of blackface, not even the idea that Daniel Moynihan's report on the "pathological" black family was inherently racist.
McWhorter blames two social workers who trumpeted welfare for the demise of the black family and -- get this -- Malcolm X for giving us a rage that leads us nowhere.
Malcolm X appears as number one on the list, and McWhorter shamelessly dangles him as bait in front of readers, possibly hoping to garner more page views. He makes the same argument and borrows the same dichotomy we were taught in elementary school: Martin good, Malcolm bad. Martin nice, Malcolm angry.
He writes, "Yes, I understand that in Malcolm's time, rage among back people was deeply rooted for fully understandable reasons." Does this mean black people should not experience rage now? Maybe our babies aren't dying twice as often, maybe we do have good healthcare, maybe our homes aren't the ones in foreclosure, and maybe our bodies don't fill prison cells.
My own hope was that McWhorter would use his background in American Studies to make a worthwhile point. He starts to write in that direction but then pulls back, as though he's afraid to go there: "The Malcolm T-shirts and the sense of reading his autobiography as a smart black persons' rite of passage are distractions from the actions, as opposed to the moods and gestures, that really help black people."
If McWhorter would have gone on to engage in an analysis of the commercialization of Malcolm X, I would have been delighted to read it. It's true that some folks wear the civil rights leader's t-shirt with little idea about his principles or how he risked his life to stand for a cause. We do often marvel at the black power fists and 'fros without fully understanding the hegemony the Panthers were fighting.
Alas, McWhorter does nothing of the sort. He misses an opportunity to dig deeper and reveal a poignant tension in our racial history. An entire study could focus on what it means to rock an X t-shirt today.
Instead, we are left with a call to "real" action, and what is that appropriate action?
(Cricket, cricket.) He doesn't say.
Once again, we are left with that bitter, metallic taste in our mouths. McWhorter is always right, and we have always been wrong.
Cross-posted from Race-Talk.