About That Dyson Article …

After reading the infamous article penned by Michael Eric Dyson, in which he vehemently attacks controversial public intellectual Cornel West, I was left with a facepalm and a need for a strong cocktail. The entire diatribe felt like a jilted lover desparately clinging to a neoliberal analysis of Black cultural traditions.

His analysis (dare I call it that?) felt forced and unwarranted. The basic structural composition was poorly organized, and reliant on semi-academic fluff wrapped in patriarchal condescension. A personal angst dressed in pseudo-intellectualism appropriate for public consumption and mass market appeal.

Cornel West, for certain, has enemies. His attacks on President Obama have been scathing. But Dyson fails to accurately place West’s condemnation of the first Black president within a proper political context. As a trained academic, surely this charge wouldn’t be too hard — the purpose of academia is to provide a complete environmental background under which analysis is placed. God knows the article was long enough to include such a scrim.

Painting West as a delusional has-been vagrant, Dyson doesn’t hold West’s ire as academically or politically credible … even though it is. President Obama, though Black, has aided in institutional anti-Blackness, and reinforced parasitic global white supremacy. From the use of drones, to hyper-surveillance and mass deportations, President Obama deserves Black push back.

Maybe West’s tone is harsh and his timing is off. Maybe his criticisms don’t adequately take into account the immeasurable complexity of the American political system, and the confined role President Obama plays within it. But to limit West’s review of the Obama presidency as a crazed envy; the maligned words of a public pariah unjustly angered by his exclusion from the political inner-circle, is not just irresponsible … it’s lazy.

Dyson’s article reads like a buy-in to neoliberal advocation of Black status in public life. From the beginning, his likening of Black artistic visionaries and scholars in hierarchal fashion is an awkward analogy easily suctioned through a corporate lens.

There are Black monopolies in public thought that pounce on the Black rank-and-file, West being one whose racial voice is handedly silenced by W.E.B. du Bois, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Toni Morrison. Dyson indolently presents this corporatist view as fact, instead of the debatable opinion that it is.

“If black American scholars are like prizefighters, then West is not the greatest ever; that title belongs to W.E.B. Du Bois. Not the most powerful ever; that’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. Not the most influential; that would include Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison …”

There’s also an elitist condescension of us mere Black mortals who lack the privilege and access to be well versed in Black academia. There’s a nuanced subtly that presidential contender Obama used West to puppeteer the minds of “the black masses.”

“Obama welcomed West’s support because he is a juggernaut of the academy and an intellectual icon among the black masses.”

But what truly angered me was Dyson’s use of (Black) women as props in his fiction. He closes his article with a cheap low-blow; he hints that West’s “delusional” anger is festered in an unsure sense of self that transcends his romantic life.

“West’s memoir offers a poignant and honest accounting of his relationship with women, and by extension, his relationship with Obama, who was, for a time, the object of West’s profound political affection…”

Challenges to Black male sexuality is one of the oldest tricks in the white supremacist playbook. And the fact that Dyson, trained in Black traditions and history, gently evoked such a tactic is damn close to Black betrayal.

He also noted the strategic work of Black queer women Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, creators of the rallying call #BlackLivesMatter … but he didn’t name them. Instead, he briefly mentioned these women warriors as fodder to boost his progressive pastoral credentials.

“When I utter progressive beliefs about equal rights for women or queer folk as a professor, I am sometimes lauded. When I was a church pastor—not a prophet, something I have never claimed to be—the same sermon that garnered praise from progressive scholars earned me scorn from church officials and members and even cost me a pastorate when I tried to put my beliefs into action and ordain women as deacons.”

And there’s use of Melissa Harris-Perry — her brilliance minimized to serve as a foil to West’s derangement. She’s a supporting character in the romanticized epic of a Black man so foregone, his tragedy is ripe for comedic dissection.

Altogether, Dyson’s prolix revilement is suspiciously convenient. His words could be read as a preemptive strike in a germinal 2016 presidential campaign. A character assassination — a means to discredit West before he’s called upon to impugn the political integrity of top contenders for a post-Obama White House.

Like Hillary Clinton.

The heavyweight Democrat has a robust campaign machine — with political recognition, financial access, and unrivaled experience, her role in the presidential race is a solid one. She’s qualified, determined, brilliant, and pragmatic…and she’s keeping her eye on the Black base. With many high profile grassroots pro-Black activists publicly questioning her commitment to Black Liberation, she knows she’ll need Black foot soldiers with more reach and validity firmly in her corner.

Dyson is a good fit. He has the connections and platform without the threat. Cornel West is a threat. A few choice words about Clinton’s ties to mass incarceration and the Black base starts to look for other political options.

To me, Dyson’s article was a strategic maneuver — a preemptive setup that’s weak-kneed at best, and betrayal at worst. Dyson positioned himself as a respectable Black savior attuned to the revolutionary vibe, but deeply invested in capitalist/political infrastructure. Cornel West is his arch-villain, a fallen angel suffocating in the clutches of a demented satanic-like possession, while Dyson is a deliverer of reasonable truth and justice, even when, with closer inspection, his words ring shallow.

*Featured Image Credit: www.thepeoplesmic.blogspost.com

photo 1Arielle Newton, Founder/Editor-in-Chief. Get at me @arielle_newton. Get at us @BlkMillennials.

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5 responses to “About That Dyson Article …

  1. I have a thought that I wanted to get your opinion on bc I’m not well educated on these matters and wanted to run this by someone who has thought a lot and studied this topic…I see your point about how the idea that there are limited seats at the table for prominent black intellectuals and political thinkers is a dangerous product of white supremacy, and how it pits black leaders vying for these limited spots against one another. On the flip side, however, isn’t saying that black leaders should not challenge each other/disagree/critique each others ideas just another manifestation of this “limited seats at the table” bullshit? Because there is room for a seemingly unlimited amount of powerful white voices in our society, white leaders have the luxury of critiquing, disagreeing, and even vehemently taking one another down. I believe that when leaders disagree and critique one another the intellectual community benefits because not only are we forced to confront a diversity of opinions and solutions to problems, but people are held accountable for their opinions and motivated to change, evolve, and improve their ways of thinking. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I understand the standpoint that black leaders need to stand together rather than fight amongst themselves for the “seats at the table” that white supremacy has artificially and intentionally created. But if we’re telling black leaders that they must all align their messages and thoughts, and that they should not express the diversity of opinions and disagreements that white leaders are afforded, then isn’t that just another way in which white supremacy’s “limited seats” philosophy is influencing/stifling the ways in which black figures can express themselves?

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    • Hi Rebecca,

      Thank you so much for your comment.

      It’s okay for Black intelligentsia to critique each other’s work. But Dyson’s article was a personal attacks done (I believe) for a personal political advantage. His critique wasn’t based on political or social theory … he aimed to discredit a Black man (Cornel West) who has said controversial things, but always with a political critique. His tone, at times, is hard to stomach … but it’s always rooted in sound social observation and judgment.

      Dyson’s article wasn’t critical. It was an excoriation. It was a takedown.

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