This week, I had a heated (and somewhat friendly) debate with Melissa Harris-Perry and Rev. Al Sharpton. Both Harris-Perry and Rev. Sharpton seemed to take issue with an article I wrote openly questioning the motivations behind Melissa’s attacks on Cornel West. Melissa was a professor at Princeton alongside West, during which I assume there was regular interaction. There were reports that members of the African American Studies Department did not support Harris-Perry’s request to be promoted to full professor. While Harris-Perry accurately notes that she has little knowledge of whether or not West supported her promotion, I would suspect that his full support would have gotten her over the hump.
The point of the article, which I tried to make to my friend Rev. Sharpton (sometimes it can be tough to get words in with Sharpton, a frustration I expressed shortly afterward – I feel the same way when I argue with my father), is that I would never have written that article about Melissa had she simply stuck to the issues in her disagreement with Professor West. It’s one thing to think that Cornel is wrong about President Obama, but Harris-Perry’s article reeked of the kind of personal vendetta that I see all too often in academia. Her article on West starts off with the subtle claim that he has lost his relevance as a scholar and deserves to be ridiculed. She even describes his critique as a “self-aggrandizing, victimology sermon deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness,” and says that “Professor West offers thin criticism of President Obama and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class that has been largely supplanted in recent years.”
The emotion that led me to write about Harris-Perry is the same sentiment that, 25-years ago, caused me to fight a kid who was bullying my best friend on the basketball court by pushing him out of bounds every time he touched the ball. Sometimes, you want to give someone a taste of their own medicine, to show them how their aggressive tactics can be easily used against them. I never would have engaged either Harris-Perry or the bully had they not been attacking another person in an underhanded way.
It was not necessary for Harris-Perry to expand her commentary on West to include her disappointment with what she refers to as the “self-appointed black leadership class.” She didn’t have to reduce Tavis Smiley and Cornel West to be nothing but a “soul patrol.” She also didn’t have to refer to their film as a “hilariously bad documentary.” This has nothing to do with the issue, and distracts us from discussing the matter at hand, which is whether or not the politicians in Washington are doing enough on behalf of poor, black, brown and working class people. Harris-Perry, being the polished and seasoned media personality that she is, did a good job of masking what I perceive to be the obvious: There’s bad blood between she and Professor West, and she can now express her anger openly because she’s moved onto another job.
Let’s be honest: Any of us can be accused of having a personal reason for attacking someone else. But even if the attack is personal, that doesn’t make the point invalid. If a woman divorces her cheating husband and tells the police that he’s a drug dealer, he might actually be a drug dealer, so its worthy of an investigation. While I seriously believe that neither Cornel nor Melissa would be silent if their relationships with Obama and each other were in tact, the truth is that their personal beefs do not invalidate their arguments.
One final point is that you’ll notice that Rev. Sharpton consistently mentions the actions of Cornel West and Tavis Smiley in reference to my conversation with Sharpton himself. I respect Rev. Sharpton immensely, but I tried to make it abundantly clear that my name is NOT Tavis Smiley, nor is it Cornel West. As odd as it sounds, I have NEVER IN MY LIFE had a conversation with Tavis (I suspect he may be bitter over my concerns about his unreasonable attacks on Obama three years ago). I haven’t spoken to Professor West since I began my career in public scholarship (we talked for literally 10 seconds in 1998, when he had no idea who I was, and he also left me a voice mail once two years ago). So, I cannot take responsibility for their actions or the reasoning behind them.
I deliberately remain detached from most of the other individuals who do the work that I do because it is always my goal to be as objective as possible. So, I try to call things as I see them, similar to how I approach the grading process with my students. If someone does a good job, I give them credit. If they do a terrible job, I let them know it. That is why I am neither a hater of President Obama, nor am I in the Barack Obama fan club. In politics, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, just permanent interests. My interest is the well-being of black, brown, poor and working class people, period.
Debates must always be forced back to the issues. We must embrace the idea of discussing the facts, and stop believing that anyone who speaks up about the excruciating pain of black America is somehow “hatin” on Obama (this is politics, not a rap music video). We must all engage in a political education and realize that using our individual and collective voice is critical to the Democratic process. If we remain silent, then our people will continue to suffer. This is something that I personally cannot accept.