What happens when 2 of the world’s most renowned Black intellectuals air their personal grievances with each other bitterly, loudly and publicly?
Neither wins and the Black community loses.
Sunday, Georgetown professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson published a 10,000 word takedown of his former mentor and friend and fellow Black intellectual Dr. Cornel West for The New Republic entitled “The Ghost of Cornel West”.
The piece is blistering, dense and unrelenting, alternately accusing West of being a “self-anointed prophet,” “an unintentional caricature of his identity,” “a curmudgeonly bitter scold and critic,” and comparing him to the boxer Mike Tyson, who Dyson explains was once an exciting champion in his sport before quickly devolving into a sad shell of himself.
Dyson attacks West for failing to follow the prophetic tradition while lashing out at others for neglecting to do the same, for what Dyson perceives to be an intense and unfair disdain for President Obama and anyone who is even remotely supportive of him (including Dyson and his peers, Melissa Harris-Perry, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton), for the hypocrisy of criticizing celebrity in activism while seemingly relishing it, and for failing to produce anything of academic value over the past several years.
By the end of the piece, I was equal parts amused (there was plenty of shade thrown that would give the women of The Real Housewives of Atlanta a run for their money), exhausted (I repeat, it is very dense), and frustrated. Many of Dyson’s critiques of West are valid concerns that have been leveled many times before (as Dyson acknowledges in the piece) but lines such as “West is still a man of ideas, but those ideas today are a vain and unimaginative repackaging of his earlier hits,” strike out from the page with a cringe-worthy edge, seemingly brimming with spite.
At one point, Dyson recounts an experience with his former friend of 35 years that adds little to the narrative but paints an embarrassing, laughable picture at his expense:
“West had a huge crush on the R&B singer Anita Baker, and I got us tickets to see her perform in New Jersey. After a brief backstage introduction to the singer I had finagled, West relived his high school track glory and sprinted up the street in glee.”
Throughout the entire piece, there is no clear message to the reader on what to do with this new information.
No real alternative to West is given nor a new path to follow.
Not much is offered to guide anyone on how to recognize productive leadership, just 10,000 words on how Cornel West does not represent it, ending with a wonderfully composed line seemingly written with a flame that one can almost feel, “(West’s) greatest opponent isn’t Obama, Sharpton, Harris-Perry, or me. It is the ghost of a self that spits at him from his own mirror.”
In a month when we have had at least 3 high profile police assaults on Black men and women (Eric Harris, Tania Harris and Freddie Gray), it felt hollow to read such an extensive and personal attack on one Black leader launched by another. This isn’t to say that West’s attacks on Dyson, Harris-Perry, Jackson and Sharpton are any more substantial. It has certainly been argued by Dyson and many others that West’s affection for name-calling and accusations of race-traitorship have been unhelpful and low.
It also isn’t to say that Black leaders should not criticize one another. On the contrary, having thinkers challenge each other encourages them to grow and to seek new ways to better help our communities. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X had many public disagreements, but Dyson acknowledged to The Root following the publication of the piece, “Martin Luther King never talked about people he disagreed with in the way West has talked about me or Melissa or Jackson or Obama. Martin Luther King didn’t even call the white racists he disagreed with those kind of names.”
Dyson seems to be wholly unaware of the hypocrisy of his statement. Yes, he goes out of his way to avoid extensive name-calling and even offers much praise for his former mentor, but there is unmistakable maliciousness to be found in statements like “if West is no prophet but instead a dynamic and once-indispensable social critic, neither is his nastiness the echo of divine disfavor from on high.”
When asked by The Root why he wrote the piece, Dyson stated, “something irrational is going on (…) it was the nastiness of the tone. The unprincipled assault. There’s a difference between that and ad hominem (…) when you weight it down under the burden of extraordinary, personal bitterness, it just wipes away all the good stuff that you might say and makes us question what it is about the motivation for your criticism in the long run.”
Yet Dyson’s piece is full of bitterness and pain, and the lack of self-awareness points to the biggest problem: Dyson’s ego and his need to defend against West is so engulfing that he can write 10,000 bitter words critiquing bitterness and think that he’s doing the Black community a favor.
Dyson’s piece added a few vibrant brush strokes to the depressing picture of Black intellectualism today, which seems to be increasingly concerned with infighting and egotism at the expense of Black lives. What he is doing, which is very much in line with what he accuses West of doing, is using his platform to take up valuable space and time for the sake of a bruised ego and personal slights and leaving little room for anything else.
To use a phrase by the poet Phillip B. Williams, it reinforces the terrible trend of grievance as activism rather than focusing on mitigating the causes of grief. Anger becomes both the means and the ends and viable solutions are ignored.
It is a trend that Al Sharpton followed when he derided young Ferguson activists as being “pimped” for refusing him the spotlight in the movement they created.
It is a trend Dyson seems so aware of when responding to West spewing nasty names at Obama after a perceived snub.
But it is also a trend Michael Eric Dyson supports by writing an exhausting, lengthy diatribe simply for the sake of a take down.
And all the while Black people are dying in the streets.
Black intellectualism is important. Giving name to our problems and working tirelessly through them by thinking deeply and logically is necessary.
Working tirelessly to cut one another down or to preserve pride, however, leaves no energy to do the necessary work we have given these scholars so much of our support so that they can do.
Black people deserve better.