Dyson vs. West: Black 'leaders' have never agreed on everything – and that's OK

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Can’t we all just get along? Better yet, when it comes to black intellectuals, can’t we agree to disagree? After all, it’s not as if black leaders and thinkers always have agreed on everything.

In an extensive essay in The New Republic on Sunday, Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson provided a critique of Dr. Cornel West — scathing at times, laudatory at others, and ultimately, it seems, reflecting the views of a disappointed family member.

Essentially, Prof. Dyson comes at West for his uncompromising condemnation of President Obama and argues his former mentor has seen the twilight days of his scholarship, a “dramatic plummet from his perch as a world-class intellectual.”

Dyson’s critique — which was a melding of both the political and the personal — was a response to West, who lobbed the first shots a number of years ago with highly personal statements regarding Dyson, certain black leaders and figures and of course the president himself.

And Professor Dyson has fired back with a 9,600-word salvo.

“’Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned.’ Even an angry Almighty can’t compete with mortals whose love turns to hate,” Dyson writes. “Cornel West’s rage against President Barack Obama evokes that kind of venom. He has accused Obama of political minstrelsy, calling him a ‘Rockefeller Republican in blackface’; taunted him as a ‘brown-faced Clinton’; and derided him as a ‘neoliberal opportunist.’”

During a discussion between the two scholars in 2011, Dyson shared with West his strategy for discussing Obama in front of black audiences, one which addresses the president’s achievements and failures, and the hostility he has faced as the first black head of state.

“No matter how vehemently I disagree with Obama, I respect him as a man wrestling with an incredibly difficult opportunity to shape history,” Dyson said. “West looked into my eyes, sighed, and said: ‘Well, I guess that’s the difference between me and you. I don’t respect the brother at all.’”

As someone who has highly respected both of these men for years — and their service for the cause of black folk — I have a somewhat different take on the recent article by Dr. Dyson and the larger issues of African-American intellectual “beef,” or this high-level version of playing the dozens, as it were.

The fact of the matter is that, for all the talk of historical unanimity in the black community and reminiscing about how everyone thought and acted in the same way during Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, this never was the case.

Black intellectuals and leaders always “went at each other” throughout history. Perhaps it is a passionate concern for the betterment of a people that makes it — and always made it — so personal.

For example, a century ago, there was the conflict between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington and between DuBois and Marcus Garvey. DuBois, who believed in the need for protest to fight against racism, segregation and lynching, rejected the more accommodationist approach of Washington.

Washington was the architect of the Atlanta Compromise, a tacit agreement between some black leaders and the white power structure that blacks would pretty much accept segregation, not make any waves or political moves, and pursue vocational education.

“No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” he said. “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”

Meanwhile, DuBois founded the Niagara Movement in opposition to Washington’s Atlanta Compromise. DuBois’ more militant organization was a predecessor of the NAACP, which he also cofounded. Among its declaration of principles were protests against Jim Crow laws and opposition to racial discrimination and denial of economic opportunities to blacks.

“The Negro race in America stolen, ravished and degraded, struggling up through difficulties and oppression, needs sympathy and receives criticism: needs help and is given hindrance, needs protection and is given mob-violence, needs justice and is given charity, needs leadership and is given cowardice and apology, needs bread and is given a stone,” the declaration read. “This nation will never stand justified before God until these things are changed.”

While both DuBois and Garvey — the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and proponent of the Back-to-Africa movement — embraced pan-Africanism, economic nationalism and preserving black culture, the two men had a longstanding antagonism towards each other.

Garvey, believing whites would never accept black people as equals, advocated racial separation and criticized Dubois’ support for racial integration. And DuBois thought the UNIA leader was a threat to the NAACP. In the NAACP magazine The Crisis, DuBois called Marcus Garvey “without a doubt the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world.” And DuBois, A. Philip Randolph and other black leaders publicly criticized Garvey’s Black Star Line, questioned its feasibility and derided his plan for black upliftment.

Similarly, during the civil rights movement, there were divisions and conflicts among personalities, egos and organizations. For example, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was a competitor to the NAACP under Roy O. Wilkins.

Further, the rivalries among SCLC, the NAACP, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) threatened to harm the movement. And of course, there were the differences of opinion between the black nationalist Malcolm X and the more moderate integrationist Dr. King.

Minister Malcolm once called King “Rev. Dr. Chicken Wing,” though the two men seemed to converge later in their lives, King becoming more radical and militant and Malcolm reaching out to civil rights groups.

So, looking at the most recent public clashes between Dr. West and Dr. Dyson, we must remember there is a precedent. I can’t help but think of what Clemenza said to Michael Corleone in The Godfather: “That’s all right. These things gotta happen every five years or so, ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood.”

However, given the present-day tendencies in our social media-driven culture towards name calling and conflict as entertainment, such clashes risk becoming distractions from the problems facing the community.

In the past, some leaders learned to collaborate despite the divisions, while others fell prey to “divide and conquer” tactics and the machinations of covert government intelligence.

Sometimes you just have to agree to disagree.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove