author – activist – faculty – mom
When I first read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World and Me, I was deeply moved. The one minor note that stuck out was his hopelessness about ending white supremacy. Yet I interpreted that despair as a post-traumatic stress effect left over from his early experiences of racism.
I didn’t read We Were Eight Years In Power because I am deeply ambivalent about the Obamas. Let me begin by saying it would be an answered prayer to have them back in the White House today. While Obama’s legacy is profoundly moving to me emotionally, it’s deeply complicated for me politically. Many of his policies went against my progressive values, although I know his agenda was significantly limited by congressional obstruction. And he did shift his stances on many issues during his presidency, although his neoliberalism also was profoundly damaging worldwide. As a black woman leftist, I have yet to reconcile the contradictions of this presidency.
So Cornel West’s recent public criticism of Coates hit home in many ways. The most valuable part for me was how West put Coates’ hopelessness into a broader context. While I saw it as a result of personal trauma, West saw it as a negation of the power of political movements, particularly the black struggle for liberation. Wherever it stems from in Coates, I can’t help but agree that such a public articulation does invisiblize and undermine our movements.
At the same time, why you gotta come for a brother like that, Cornel?
As a black public intellectual myself (on a much smaller scale, obviously) I just have a code that I don’t come for black progressives. Period. I have a huge body of work attacking Cosby and R Kelly. I have spoken critically against Dr. Dre and NWA. But black progressives? Grassroots women of color feminists? Nah, I don’t come for my people like that.
Recently, another black woman wrote a takedown piece of a show by a woman of color. I really disagreed with her as I read it. I was halfway through the season and wanted to publicly defend the show. But my first instinct was to get her email address from an editor at an outlet we had in common and do a dialogue piece. But then I watched the rest of that show’s season and had mixed feelings about the show. So I let it go.
My only exception to my rule was when I went after two black women celebrities when I thought they had made media that was profoundly damaging to younger, poorer women. Yet if I’d had a way to contact them directly and have more of a public dialogue, I would have.
Cornel, how come you didn’t reach out to TaNaheisi for some kind of back-and-forth? You would likely have access to him. I don’t believe everyone deserves dialogue. I’m not going to engage with the right wing public figures I criticize, because they have proven themselves to be enemies of everything that I stand for and all the communities that I represent. But when I have a many common goals with other progressive people, I don’t want to treat them as enemies.
As the GOP tax bill passes, and we need to mount continued resistance, we need to develop strategic alliances. As we move toward the next set of elections, we need to be able to distinguish those with whom we have common goals from those who would crush and exploit us. It’s not about unity, but rather about coalition. We need to be able to handle differences with respect in order to win.