05/23/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Black Catfight Over Obama's Blackness

If there's a silver lining in the ongoing public debate among African Americans about whether President Obama is doing enough to address the economic and social tidal wave that's drowning the black community, it's that America is getting an unforgettable lesson about the diversity in thought that has always been a hallmark of black America.

To be sure, there are those who are embarrassed that this dirty laundry is being aired. They would rather the rest of the world believe African Americans are near universal in their support of the first president who looks like Obama. And if recent poll numbers are any indication, that's still true; a recent Gallup poll indicates that Obama enjoys an 89 percent approval rating among African Americans.

However, the way to clean dirty laundry is to wash it and expose it to clean, fresh air. Let the debate see the light of day. And since we must wash the baby's ass, less the clean diaper not stay clean for very long, the idea of not openly addressing what Obama is doing (or not) to address the ills that disproportionately plague the black community means the stink will stay on that smelly kid's rump forever.

And the ills that have undermined black America have lasted long enough as it is.

Contrary to what remains an anachronistic and popular belief in parts of America (think of the back hills of Alabama, for example), African Americans aren't monolithic in their positions about any number of matters of importance. Even overseas, the conventional wisdom in certain places still has it that virtually all black people play basketball (thanks Michael Jordan); that we all love 20" rims (thanks ghetto fabulous rap stars); and that we all think the first black president should go out of his way to shuck and jive his way to deposit a mule and 40 acres into the hands of every colored person in the country (thanks to too many people to name).

The fact that some public figures and so-called leaders are feuding over how much direct assistance and dedicated focus the African American community should expect from Obama makes it clearer that blacks are as monolithic as members of the Tea Party movement are unified in what to do with Glenn Beck.

They are not, of course, as some would rather shut his mouth, and other Tea Partiers wish he'd talk louder and more often. Still, they remain in the party, even knowing the risk that the extremists among their membership could derail their mission by going bombastic at any moment.

Actually, who do you think spit on one black Congressman and used the n-word on another as the contentious health care vote raged on last Sunday night? It likely wasn't someone who worked the phones in Obama's campaign office some time ago.

For starters, radio and TV personality Tavis Smiley has been as consistent as a metronome in insisting that African Americans consistently exert pressure on the president to acknowledge and understand the disproportionately negative effects the recession is having on the black community -- and then translate his comprehension into real action.

Smiley, who has espoused that a black agenda is America's agenda pretty much since Obama was elected, has said: "How are we going to do this dance with black leaders and the president when everybody is walking on eggshells because they are scared to hurt the president's feelings. Great presidents are not born, they have to be made. They have to be pushed."

Profoundly true. Historically accurate. And culturally divisive.

Meanwhile, Obama -- who wouldn't have made history even if every African American voted for him -- has said that policies and other steps to lift the entire nation out of this mess will improve the fortunes of blacks -- and other racial and ethnic minorities for that matter. The whole rising tide lifts all boats thinking.

Add in prominent African Americans like Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, professors and authors Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, and some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among others, who have taken opposing positions on what blacks can reasonably (and politically) expect the president to do to helps blacks and remain effective (let alone win a second term), and you have a certifiable dust up; one that is dividing the black community like a butt.

This important debate won't -- and shouldn't -- go away. It's conflict-ridden, uncomfortable and distracting to a degree, but as Smiley has said, being a trailblazer isn't exactly the easiest thing to do. The African American who blazes the first trail for others like him to more easily navigate after him gets bruised by many thorns along the way.

That's true for Obama as well as Smiley, who has essentially led the most public charge and had the first death grip on Obama's feet as he has tried to hold them to the fire.

Obama expected bumps and bruises at the hands of his detractors and ardent supporters. That African Americans are arguing over what their "brother" atop the political food chain should be doing to help his community means that we're paying attention, we care, we're suffering, and want solutions.

That's what affected voters do. And the worse their ills, the louder they scream.