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BLACK LIKE WHO? On Black Rage

American culture seems to lack two ele­ments basic to race relations: a deep sense of the tragic and a genuine grasp of the unadulterated rage directed at American society. The chronic refusal of most Ameri­cans to understand the sheer absurdity that confronts human beings of African descent in this country — the incessant assaults on black intelligence, beauty, character, and possibility — is not simply a matter of de­fending white-skin privilege. It also bespeaks a reluctance to look squarely at the brutal side and tragic dimension of the American past and present. Such a long and hard look would lead this nation of undeni­able opportunities and freedom-loving peo­ple to acknowledge its legacy of unspeak­able crimes committed against other human beings, especially black people.

Unfortunately, this fact has become trivi­alized — partly by black middle-class oppor­tunists — into a cynical move in a career game of upmanship that reinforces white guilt and paralysis. Yet, as our great artists like Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Lil­lian Smith, and Toni Morrison have shown, the tragic plight and brutal treatment of black people is a constitutive element — not a mere moral mistake — of American civili­zation. To put it crudely, America would not exist without 244 years of black slavery, 85 years of Jim and Jane Crow (including the lynching of a black man, woman, or child every three days for a quarter of a century), and now, one of two black kids caught in a violence-infested life of poverty.

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Black responses to this unique American experience have been shot through with rage — just as were Jewish responses to at­tacks, assaults, and pogroms in anti-Semitic Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Yet xenophobic czars and au­thorities were not surprised at Jewish rage. Wouldn’t any vicious tyrants expect this response from their victims? In stark con­trast, most American elites, owing to nar­row, self-serving notions of freedom and justice, have been flabbergasted at the ex­pression of black rage. This is so even though most black rage has not been direct­ed at American elites, but rather at other black people (especially women), Italian shopkeepers, Korean grocers, gays and les­bians, and Jewish entrepreneurs. These tar­geted expressions of black rage, though of­ten downright cowardly and petty, signify the social invisibility and relative power­lessness of a people toward whom Ameri­can elites have been and are indifferent.

The ’60s was a watershed period because black rage came out of the closet. As white institutional terrorism was challenged, black rage surfaced with a power and a potency never seen in American history. In fact, it threatened the very social order and stability of the country. The major Ameri­can-elite response to this threat was to re­duce tragic black persons into pathetic black victims and to redirect the channels of black rage in and to black working-class and poor communities. The reduction was done by making black poor people clients of a welfare system that both sustained and degraded them; by viewing black middle­-class people as questionable and stigmatized beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs that fueled their identity crises; and by rendering black working people (the majority of black people!) as nearly nonex­istent, even as their standard and quality of living significantly declined.

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The high social costs borne by much of black America during the Republican years of recession and “recovery” have been dev­astating. Measured in terms of housing, education, jobs, health care, and, above all, the massive social and moral breakdown in nurturing black youth, we may be at a point of no return. And yet the chickens now coming home to roost are not the ones we expected. Instead of a focus on the funda­mental sources of black social misery — the maldistribution of wealth and power fil­tered through our corporate, financial, and political elites, we find black rage directed at racist ethnic individuals and communi­ties, mere small players in the larger game of power in the city, state, and country.

Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of black leadership. In New York, Mayor David Dinkins, a decent man in a desper­ate situation, has failed to make the requi­site symbolic gestures to the black commu­nity in his efforts to disarm white charges of personal bias and racial favoritism. This strategy has backfired. Community spokes­people, like Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Herben Daughtry, two steadfast and courageous activists locked into an endless cycle of immediate reaction to events, are, at times and out of frustration, swept into a rhetoric that embraces the lowest common denominator of black rage. The slide from demands of justice and due process to those of vengeance and vigilan­tism is a shon one for an abused and en­raged people. Yet, as reverends Sharpton and Daughtry at their best recognize, this slide is neither morally right nor politically effective.

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Elijah Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr. understood one fundamental truth about black rage: It must be neither ignored nor ignited. This is what separates them from the great Malcolm X. Malcolm indeed articulated black rage in an unprecedented manner in American history; yet his broad black nationalist platforms were too vague to give this black rage any concrete direc­tion. Elijah and Martin knew how to work with black rage in a constructive manner: shape it through moral discipline, channel it into political organization, and guide it by visionary leadership. Black rage is as American as apple pie. That is why the future of our city, state, and country de­pend, in large part, on whether we acknowl­edge it, how we respond to it, and the manner in which bold and wise leaders direct it.

Next: “Ghosts” by Joan Morgan

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Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary

An obstructive, agitprop style detracts from the important, singularly American story buried in Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary, director Stephen Vittoria’s account of the life and imprisonment of writer and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. With more passion than persuasion, Vittoria tells of an exceptional black Philly kid growing up in the days when police chief Frank Rizzo was attempting to beat the civil rights movement back with 1,000 nightsticks. A scattered narrative emerges from the voices of Mumia’s sister, his fellow Black Panthers, unidentified actors reading unidentified texts, observers like Cornel West and Alice Walker, and Mumia himself. Radicalized at a young age, Mumia’s role as the Panthers’ scribe and spokesperson prepared him for a career in journalism and radio, where he brought attention to Philadelphia’s MOVE black liberation movement. Oblique and thickly layered with rhetoric, this account does little to illuminate Mumia the man, but it sets Mumia the statue aglow. Vittoria elides the story of Mumia’s 1981 arrest for murdering a police officer and subsequent death sentence (commuted in 2012) to focus on our culture of incarceration. Enough of Mumia’s righteous intensity burns through the cult heroics to suggest that his American tragedy needs little adornment and remains to be told.

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Sean Price: “Cornell West Is the Devil”

Editor’s note: In Tweets is Watching, Phillip Mlynar asks local artists questions based solely on the contents of their Twitter timeline.

Sean Price is Twitter rap royalty. The Brooklyn-based M.C. is followed by your favorite rappers and his own timeline sparkles with a bunch of endearingly uncouth jokes and barbs at other tweeters. So ahead of the October 30th release of his Mic Tyson album, here’s Sean P on smoking weed while watching Bob Ross, his favorite NYC burger spot, and the shady side of Cornell West.

See Also:
Pharoahe Monch On Jean Grae’s “Kill Screen,” Pop Lockin’ Wednesdays, And The Freedom Tower
Smoke DZA on Old School Harlem Dust Smokers, The Canadian Border Patrol, And Whether 2Pac Is Alive In Cuba
Skyzoo On Bed-Stuy’s Breakfast Options And Supermarkets, Spike Lee, And Not Getting Signed By Jay-Z

Why did you decide to freestyle over Action Bronson’s “Pouches Of Tuna”?
Action Bronson’s dope. That was like a salute to him. It’s like pouches of tuna? A pouch of tuna doesn’t sound right, it sounds disgusting. So what’s more disgusting than that? Swine on pineapples! But yeah, Action is dope. When I first heard the record I thought it was fuckin’ awesome.

Have you ever enjoyed eating swine on pineapples?
Of course. I haven’t ate pork since I was a child but I remember my mom making the ham with the pineapple on top. If you eat pork it’s like a traditional meal, like a traditional food at Christmas and Thanksgiving.

You also dined at Bare Burger recently.
I was there with my wife yesterday. She won’t experiment like me, so she had a regular burger, but I had the elk burger and I had the ostrich burger.

How was the ostrich burger?
It was fuckin’ great, yo!

How did it taste different to a normal burger?
I can’t describe it but it does and I like it. It was great. I just be liking to try shit. I was in Spain and I called home, told the wife I ate escargot. She was like, “What’s that?” I was like, “Snails.” She went, “Eew!.” I like to try shit. As long as it ain’t pork.

What’s the story behind PF Cuttin’ and the Beats By Dre headphones?
Oh, this fuckin’ guy, man, I give him Dre headphones and he fuckin’ put the cheapest batteries… Where you live at?

Brooklyn.
So you know Family Dollar?

Yeah.
This motherfucker buy the cheapest AAA batteries and put them in Dre headphones! I’m like, “Don’t do that, you’re disrespecting the headphones.” He’s a cheap fucker. That’s my boy nevertheless. He’s like, “They had 20 of them for like $5.” I was like, “Yeah, they worth that.” You only get one session done with a battery!

Did you ever consider asking for the headphones back?
Nah, I wouldn’t do that. I’m not an Indian giver.

I take it you’re a fan of Boardwalk Empire?
Yeah. I just like to see people get shot and do things illegally. Like if I see it on a TV show that kills as many people and curses like that, I’ll watch that too.

So who’s Sean Ross?
You know what? Me and Dru Ha and Noah and the rest of the team, we like to do these skits. We did the rap clinic, the tennis skit, so I just did two more. One of them is Bob Ross and the other is where I impersonated Nardwuar. I was Seanwuar.

What did you paint as Sean Ross?
Actually, I did something real nice! I can’t give it out yet, but I definitely did something!

Do you know of any other hip-hop artists who are good at painting?
You know, I don’t really know other hip-hop artists! Nobody in the Boot Camp Click paints though!

What inspired the Bob Ross skit?
I remember when I was little I watched Bob Ross and me and Rock used to live together and just smoke weed and watch Bob Ross. We’d smoke weed and watch Bob Ross until we fell asleep. It was great.

Is there a Nardwuar interview with Sean Price lined up?
Only Nardwuar would know. I’d be down for it though. He does great interviews.
What’s the most surprising or obscure thing you think Nardwuar would dig up from your past?
Hmmm, I don’t know. [Pauses] Probably a numbers sheet. Back in the days we played numbers, like the illegal lottery numbers in the street. So it would be surprising if he pulled one of those out.

You tweeted about Gorilla Coffee at one point.
Yes I did!

Why do you like Gorilla Coffee over other coffees?
Have you ever tried it?

Yeah.
It’s fuckin’ awesome! Ha ha, you know the answer you just want to get me to say it! That shit is like if you had a real rough night and feel like shit, that’s the coffee to go for. You can run a marathon on it.

If you had to endorse Gorilla Coffee, what would you say?
Gorilla Coffee – the closest thing you’ll ever get to rocket fuel! [Pauses] I don’t know if that was good.

Do you really believe that Cornel West is the devil and drinks the blood of cows?
Yes.

Do you have any evidence of this?
No, I have none. That’s just my weirdo way of thinking.

Why do you think he’s the devil then?
I don’t know, man. It’s something about people who talk all that shit and all that “We need to do this and we need to do that…” I don’t trust nobody, I don’t believe nobody. I don’t think he’s intentionally poisoning us; he thinks he’s doing good but he’s a puppet like the rest of them.

Who’s the funniest person you follow on Twitter?
Eric Kelly, the boxer. Me, him and my man Vinnie Paz from Jedi Mind Tricks, we’re fuckin’ hilarious. And my man Hex Murda. We’ll be cracking jokes all day.

Do you ever delete anything you’ve tweeted?
Once I did – I deleted a bunch of them. I said something about somebody and it got to the point where I said one thing about the person and everyone who works with that person agreed with me and it was like 12 people crackin’ on one person. It got kinda out of hand. I was like, “Hold on, I might be fuckin’ up my money!” So I went back and erased ’em.

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What Does Occupy Wall Street Mean For Art?

What can art learn from Occupy Wall Street? I speak only for myself, but I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.

Several days into the occupation, I went to a panel discussion on the Lower East Side titled “Manifestations of Resistance.” Shortly into the discussion, a woman stood up and asked why, instead of sitting there, we didn’t head down to Wall Street. So a bunch of us did, and as we sat in a circle in Liberty Plaza, the idea of a biennial—or anti-biennial, really—began to form.

The next week saw an accelerated exchange of e-mail, creation of The Wall Street Occupennial website, a mission statement, a call to artists, a Facebook page, a database, and then: Nothing. Or, almost nothing.

What happened? For one thing, the occupation itself was gathering strength. Liberty Plaza was filling up with people and receiving media attention. It didn’t need art for publicity or legitimacy. Now it had unions, Marines, and Cornel West. Plus, we were told, Occupy Wall Street was “started by artists.” But what did this mean?

It seems more accurate to say that OWS was organized by a coalition of artists, activists, and students. Liberty Plaza, however, became a kind of art object: a living installation or social sculpture made of bodies, animals, alternative barter stations for food, clothes, and books, a kitchen with composting, literature tables, public lectures, assemblies, a “community sacred space,” drum circles, protesters, media center, press team, visiting journalists, walkways taped off for tourists, and lots and lots of text—painted, written, scrawled, and printed on every conceivable surface.

How could art—that is, the stuff made in the art world—compare with this? Artists and curators might have embraced “social practice” in recent decades. But, along with the more biennial-friendly “relational aesthetics,” social practice generally consists of symbolic actions or events. OWS actually collapsed, if not the hackneyed divide between art and life, the micro-divide between art and creative activism. The “organized by artists” claim is telling. A century ago, “social scientists” would’ve been preferred; now “social artists” fits.

But the critiques offered by the OWS General Assembly overlap heavily with the art world: corporate domination of museums; art-school debt; a 1 percent system (less, really) of funding and canonization. The ’70s and ’80s saw an accelerated process of art being absorbed into institutions, and artists tried to resist it. But Institutional Critique, as it came to be called, only reinforced the fact that “liberal” institutions can absorb just about anything, including “critique.”

In April, omni-theorist Slavoj iek—who also took the people’s mic at Liberty Plaza—asked whether “it’s time to start questioning: Is the system our ultimate horizon?” The good news, as iek saw it, was that “This is the moment when utopias emerge. You invent utopias when you’re in deep shit and cannot do otherwise.”

Art was, for a long time, a utopian model. But with bohemianism eroded by gentrification and the 1 percent end of the art spectrum devoted primarily to vapid, overfunded gestures, you wonder if a recent Columbia University symposium, which described art as “a catalyst and platform heralding justice, solidarity, and a peaceful future” is nostalgia—or just wishful thinking.

Down at Liberty Plaza, Naomi Klein observed: “We have picked a fight with the most powerful economic and political forces on the planet. That’s frightening.” But the art world has always had a weird proximity to power. Wealthy patrons and collectors mix with artists. Clement Greenberg called this “an umbilical cord of gold,” attaching artists to the rich, and Nelson Rockefeller once joked that the only reason he bought art was to keep artists from becoming revolutionaries. (And yet government funding in the ’30s was partially responsible for the “triumph” of American painting in the ’40s and ’50s.)

Contemporary art is steeped in revolutionary discourse. But there’s a major disconnect between theory and praxis. For me, the Occupennial, named in reaction to biennials, the primary vehicles for creating global markets and transcultural taste, seemed like a step toward fusing the two.

So, what happens now? As a working group of the arts and culture committee of the General Assembly, the Occupennial is just one art group among several. Maybe it’s a platform. Maybe it’s an idea. Maybe it’s a call to artists: If you haven’t plugged into this movement yet, there’s still time. It’s waiting for you.

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SOLIDARITY FOREVER

Feeling mad as hell about the Republicans’ attack on labor? This year’s Left Forum, with the theme “Towards a Politics of Solidarity,” is the ideal place to vent your frustrations. The annual event is the largest gathering in North America for left-leaning intellectuals and organizers from around the world. Take your pick of more than 300 provocative panel discussions over three days, including “The Obama Years: Potential and Peril for American Progressives,” “The Tea Party and the Media,” and “How the Exception Became the Rule: The American Middle Class.” Keynote speakers include culture critic Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Nickel and Dimed), and Malalai Joya, a former member of Afghan parliament.

March 18-20, 2011

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Late-Life and Times with Bill Withers in Still Bill

The smooth, purposeful voice that pushed “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me” up r&b and pop charts airs late-life-crisis grumbles and practiced reminiscences in a relaxed new documentary. Bill Withers, who nailed sounds-of-the-’70s hooks from touchy funk (“Use Me” and its wary-wicked clavinet) to adult-contempo bliss-out (“Lovely Day”), celebrates his 70th birthday here with the requisite musing about keeping a hand in recording. Though he’s ready with easy charm, his sensibly jaded edge makes things interesting (both tendencies may be reactions to stuttering since childhood). Thirteenth-born in a West Virginia mining family, and late to the business in his early thirties, Withers held on to a factory-line job at first, and maintains a mythos about scant performing experience despite what his Navy buddies say. He walks railroad ties in the old hometown, visits stuttering kids, amiably deflates a forced rap session on selling out with Cornel West and Tavis Smiley (Withers: “We’re all entrepreneurs”), and refrains from criticizing his aspiring-singer daughter. Happily married to an MBA, with a son headed to law school, Withers gets a sleepily even-keel portrait that could use more on musical technique, though it is nice to see him get happy with singer-songwriter Raul Midón.

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Examined Life According to Slavoj Žižek and Crew

“Things,” as Dwight D. Eisenhower once observed, “are more like they are now than they have ever been before.” But why? Is something better possible? Could there be another way of looking at life—or movies? Ideas beam out from Astra Taylor’s engaging new philoso-doc Examined Life; the viewer basks in the intelligence on-screen and, occasionally, soaks up the rays.

A purveyor of intellectual vaudeville, the thirty-ish Taylor has mobilized a group of professional philosophers. Coaxed from their classrooms to hold forth in the midst of life are Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler, and the voluble subject of Taylor’s previous doc, Slavoj Žižek, who typically steals the show by staging his rant—a critique of “ecology”—in a garbage dump.

Something new under the sun? Very smart people explain how to live without religion even as they self-consciously attempt to be in the moment. Taylor’s emphasis is on moral philosophy and, although her film’s structure is not exactly dialectical, it’s been assembled so that, without ever meeting face-to-face, the philosophers appear to critique each other’s ideas. Thus, after West convenes the symposium by invoking Socrates’ defense of self-reflection (“The unexamined life is not worth living”), Ronell pops up to interrogate the nature of self-reflection, questioning the filmmaker as to the nature of her project and slyly invoking Heidegger’s “path to nowhere” as she strides purposefully through a Manhattan park as filled with layabouts as any Greek agora.

The most stylish of the assembled philosophers, Ronell professes a suspicion of meaning and speaks in praise of moral anxiety: “If you have a good conscience, then you’re worthless.” Taylor retreats from the void, however, by moving the discussion to safer territory. Animal liberationist Singer takes a midtown shpatzier along Fifth Avenue, smugly observing conspicuous consumption while explaining that ethics are a matter of basic choices. Standing in Times Square, Singer declares the meaning of life to be commitment to the common good. This neo-Kantian platitude effectively stops the conversation, although not the discourse. (At the very least, it illustrates the distinction that Ronell made, following Heidegger, between philosophy and thinking.)

Appiah uses an empty airport as a backdrop to parse the difference—highly relevant to our last presidential election—between an open-minded cosmopolitan and a parochial universalist. Strolling around Lake Michigan, Nussbaum introduces the social contract and (cosmopolitan?) notion of justice for the disabled—while the filmmaker unaccountably underscores the philosopher’s presentation with obtrusively jaunty cocktail music. That Nussbaum lacks the gift of gab is accentuated by Cornel’s return—driven by Taylor around Manhattan as he opines on the courage to think, with a torrent of name-dropping that climaxes in his delighted self-characterization as “a jazz man in the life of the mind.”

The beat goes on as political philosopher Hardt, co-author of Empire, rows the filmmaker around Central Park lake. Faint strains of salsa can be heard as Hardt explains how, 25 years before, he’d gone to Nicaragua to learn how to make a revolution. In the movie’s best bit of improvisation, the professor gets so caught up in his ideas that he runs the boat aground. Having failed to notice that he’s not navigating a gated park, Hardt draws attention to the lake as “not a bourgeois, but an aristocratic location”—an inadvertent punch line that pretty much sets up for iek’s expulsive performance beside a colossal trash heap: “This is where we should start feeling at home.” The subject of his rant is ecology—which he describes as an ideology, in the Marxist sense of a comforting falsehood. “We need more alienation from nature,” this most provocative (and creature-like) of the thinkers declares. “We should become more artificial.”

The most action-oriented member of Taylor’s cast, Butler takes a walk through a San Francisco neighborhood in the company of a disabled friend, artist Sunaura Taylor. Engaging in dialogue and picking up the thread of Nussbaum’s argument in the light of iek’s unsentimental humanism, Butler uses the excursion as a teachable moment on the politics of disability. West, however, gets the last word: He assimilates iek’s attack on nature by suggesting wisdom begins with catastrophe and arguing against grandiose romantic projects: “Why think you should have the whole thing?” Why, indeed?

Life puts an exclamation point at the end of Taylor’s variety show. As West jumps out of the filmmaker’s car at the north end of Union Square and makes for the subway, two girls rush out of the crowd to shake his hand. It’s The Matrix reloaded!

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Call + Response Goes Where Born into Brothels Went More Effectively

Somebody’s got to pick up where Bono left off, right? A Bay Area musician and Live Aid baby, Justin Dillon recently discovered human trafficking, then decided to make a movie about it. Performance excerpts from the “Concert to End Slavery” (sure to be a companion music DVD) are annoyingly interspersed with Dillon’s earnest efforts at self-education. Madeleine Albright, The New York Times‘s Nicholas Kristof, and other experts give him a tutorial on the millions of women and children who are pressed into service as prostitutes, child soldiers, and agricultural workers. Cornel West (gah!) explains slavery and the blues. On-screen graphics, palsied camera work, and those damn music clips (Matisyahu, Moby, etc.) make this more MTV than Frontline, but Dillon knows his audience was weaned on basic cable. The result is like American Idol meets a C.A.R.E. infomercial. Concerned celebrity-activists Ashley Judd, Daryl Hannah, and Julia Ormond testify to the horrors of trafficking and even visit a few brothels in Thailand and India. If you don’t read the papers, this would be shocking and new. That the Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels was there first, and to better effect, doesn’t deter Dillon’s enthusiastic advocacy for “open-source activism.” His call is commendable if not compelling. “I don’t want to wear someone else’s despair,” Judd tells him about Third World garment manufacturing. Hey, we should put that on a T-shirt! Oh, wait . . .

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Ebony and Imus

“There’s a white brother named Paul Woodruff singing—he sounds better than Robin Thicke!” Princeton University professor Cornel West says excitedly, referring to “Still Here,” a single on his new spoken-word CD, Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations. West, the public intellectual and widely cited authority on American race relations now famous for playing himself, “Councillor West of Zion,” in the last two Matrix movies, calls everybody “brother” or “sister.” It’s so very ’60s and Christian and gentlemanly of him. He and “Brother Prince,” Mr. 3121 Jehovah’s Witness Brother Prince himself, wrote Never Forget‘s first single, “Dear Mr. Man,” and have become good friends. Prince surprised a few people with last month’s protest LP Planet Earth, and now this. “The question is” (one of Professor West’s favorite phrases), since when has he been down for the cause?

“I went to Paisley Park some years ago,” says West. “You know, [Prince] has those xenophobia conferences every year. He brings in people from all around the world. He pays for it, actually. They’re there for three days. There’s dialogue during the day on all the various forms of xenophobia. I gave a lecture. And then that night, I remember seeing Norah Jones before she was big. Of course, Sheila [E.] was there. Maceo [Parker] was there. Chaka Khan was there . . . ”

“Dear Mr. Man,” an organ-goosed open letter to the U.S. government in which most of West’s contributions consist of ad-libs like “Break it down, Brother Prince!”, finds the Purple One railing against environmental abuses, constitutional abuses, Geneva Conventions abuses, and institutional racism. We tired of y’all, he says. We tired of y’all spyin’ on fellow citizens, adds West. We tired of y’all lyin’ to justify war. We tired of y’all torturing innocent people. And though other Never Forget tracks like “America” (featuring Black Thought and Rah Digga), “Mr. President” (featuring KRS-One and M1), and “Bushonomics” (featuring Talib Kweli) tout similar sentiments, not all of the fire and brimstone here is directed at the White House. West also calls out his rap-artist brothers and sisters for “degradin’ other folk.”

“50 Cent, Snoop, Game, Nelly,” West says, as if he’s writing their names on the board. “On one level, I love those brothers, because their artistic and aesthetic work is a part of who I am . . . . On the other hand, I challenge those brothers because I’m just against misogyny. I’m against homophobia. So somebody can be in my house and in my community and I still have to present a moral critique, because I’m just against those things. I just think they’re wrong. “So the question is,” West continues, “how do I deal with the love and embrace of them as artists and at the same time respectfully challenge them? So in that sense, I’m not really with the crowd that trashes hip-hop. I can’t stand that. That’s ridiculous. And I’m not with the crowd that somehow tries to give some justification for misogyny or homophobia. I just think the critique of homophobia has to be more explicit on hip-hop records—that’s why I’ve addressed it on my album. Including the domestic violence and the misogyny and the sexism and so forth—it goes hand in hand with that. That’s true with anything—anti-Semitism, it could be racism, any form of bigotry. I just have to take a stand against that. It’s just who I am. Now that’s a little different from this post-Imus trashing of Snoop. Because I’m not part of that crowd. At all.”

West bridges the generation gap on Never Forget by including guests from Lenny Williams and Gerald Levert (before his death late last year) to Andre 3000 and Rhymefest. Though the opus is hip-hop-heavy, West doesn’t consider himself a part of the hip-hop generation. He calls himself a “Motown–Philly Sound–Curtis Mayfield–generation brother” who “intervenes in the culture of young people.”

“It’s a matter of trying to present to young people a danceable education,” he says. “Or what I call a ‘singing paideia.’ [Paideia means “a deep education” in Greek.] You have to get people’s attention and focus on serious issues. Then you try to cultivate their self and put a premium on critical reflection, and then you try and engage in the maturation of the soul, which has to do with courage, compassion, and just love, basically.”

That’s what’s happening on “The N Word,” the Never Forget dialogue with Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson. It’s a sequel to a song of the same name on West’s 2001 CD, Sketches of My Culture, in which he calls on black folk and rap artists to stop using the word “nigga.” In April of this year, Russell Simmons and other record-industry leaders officially called for a moratorium on the word in hip-hop records. Many argue that in the last half-century, the term has been appropriated by blacks as a term of endearment among themselves. The 2007 version of “The N Word” continues the debate as a flautist (“an Italian brother, Brother Dino”) darts in and out of West and Dyson’s statements over a James Brown–ish vamp, just as Brian Jackson would with Gil Scott-Heron.

Dyson: We have to use the n-word, even if we agree ultimately in it being retired. There is not yet the point in our culture when we can afford to surrender that word. One of the reasons I deploy that term is because I wanna remind white folk and other bourgeoisie negroes who have looked upon me . . . as “that nigger,” but refuse to say it to my face: “I know [what] you’re saying about me, so I’m gonna put it on front street.” We may be using the same term, but we’re not using it the same way. We’re not giving it the same meaning.

West’s response: Take a text like Huckleberry Finn. The word “nigger” is used over 100 times. It’s a work of art. The work wouldn’t be the same without that word. You could make the same case for Tupac’s art and the use of that word . . .

West believes that the pejorative “nigger” can’t ever be completely separated from the hip-hop-friendly “nigga.” But if he can’t get people to stop using it, he hopes they at least become more aware of how, even with the best intentions, the word can become dangerous or grossly misunderstood.

“There is a rhythmic seduction with the word,” West says. “If you want to say ‘cat’ or ‘companion’ or ‘comrade,’ that doesn’t have the same rhythmic resonance as the word ‘nigga’ . . . The rhythmic seduction goes hand in hand with how black people use language . . . you’re just not going to get folks to stop using words like that. It just ain’t gon’ happen. The question is, when these young people use ‘nigga’ with an ‘a,’ are there elements of self-hatred—dishonoring each other, disrespecting, distrusting each other, which is part of the history of the word with an ‘-er’? It’s really about, “Show me the love and the respect and the honor and the dignity, and you can basically use any word you want.” But if I see these young folk using nigga with an ‘a,’ and they still disrespecting one another, dishonoring one another, mistreating one another, and player-hating one another—then I know the effect of the ‘er’ word is still operating in the ‘a’ word.”

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Black to the Future

Three years ago, Princeton University appointed Harvard professor Cornel West as the school’s newest professor of religion. This came after Harvard president Lawrence Summers questioned the quality of West’s “scholarship” to colleagues and the press. Despite the fact that West had written or edited over a dozen books, Summers had taken issue with West’s alliances with failed presidential candidates Bill Bradley and Al Sharpton and West’s recording of a spoken-word CD.

Amid the furor over West’s departure from Harvard’s celebrated department of African and African American studies came a much quieter yet no less disturbing contretemps. That June, a group of conservative scholars withdrew from a panel on the prominent philosopher Sidney Hook that featured West as a discussant. Asked to explain the boycott, CUNY’s John Patrick Diggins told
The New York Times, “I’m concerned about whether [West] has any point of view in matters of philosophy,” despite the fact that West holds a Princeton Ph.D. in the discipline and devoted some of his 1989 book
The American Evasion of Philosoph y to Hook.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education this April, Robin Wilson portrayed African American studies programs as fighting against irrelevance—and for their very survival. The article depicted a field in the midst of an “identity crisis”: departments struggling to attract students while budget cuts thin the faculty, courses cross-listing with other departments, programs “scrambling to reinvent themselves” and “broadening their courses” by changing their names or widening focus to study African peoples from the Caribbean and Europe.

It is a portrayal that many African American scholars of various disciplines blasted as ridiculous and patently false, especially considering that quite a few “traditional” disciplines, such as sociology and English literature, did not become formal courses of study until the end of the 19th century.

“Black studies is 30 years old and we’re already talking about its demise?” asks Dwight A. McBride, a professor of English and head of the African American studies department at Northwestern. “Did anyone talk about the demise of sociology at 30? We are not crediting disciplines like black studies for making inroads, working from the margins to produce this knowledge in this country.”

Though West and other public intellectuals usually bear the brunt of such attacks, mainstream criticism of black intellectual scholarship has been around since the first black studies program rose from the ashes of pain and protest at San Francisco State University in 1968. Students and activists steeped in the ideals of black nationalism and the black power movement began to clamor for an educational experience that in some way reflected their life experience. “There was a void in the traditional Eurocentric educations,” says Shirley Weber, head of the Africana studies department at San Diego State and president of the National Council for Black Studies. “Students demanded inclusion in the curriculum and professors that looked like them.”

By the end of the ’60s, 100 colleges and universities had black studies programs, but they faced a structural dilemma: Professors hired to fill such programs, despite their interest in Africana research, had doctorates in traditional disciplines. In addition, several institutions allowed them to become, as Gerald Early pointed out in the
Times, “freighted, absolutely deep-sixed with therapy and utopian politics—the need for race solidarity and to heal the diminished, damaged black mind.” Indeed, SUNY trustee Candace de Russy said as much in February 2002, causing an uproar when she charged black studies with being “therapeutic in nature,” with the goal being “consciousness-raising as opposed to conveying solid scholarship.” Conservative academic Shelby Steele of Stanford concurred, telling the
Chronicle, “It was a bogus concept from the beginning because it was an idea grounded in politics, not in a particular methodology. These programs are dying of their own inertia because they’ve had 30 or 40 years to show us a serious academic program, and they’ve failed.”

“Anything black, anything that is African centered, will always be questioned on its worthiness by the institution,” says Weber. “The question is always whether we are scholarly enough.”

Although the number of actual majors has never been high (the Department of Education notes that fewer than 700 undergraduate degrees were conferred in the field in 2002), the courses remain popular on many
campuses. Approximately 450 colleges and universities grant degrees in the subject, a number that has remained stable for a decade, and many programs, such as the elite departments at Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, Michigan, and Columbia, continue to draw students of all types into their classrooms.

“It surprises me that this debate is out there, but then again, it’s always been there,” says Rebecca Wender, a 2000 Columbia graduate in African American studies and dance. “To me, it’s obvious that [black studies] is not integrated into our education at all, and we do not have a full history of America.”

African American studies may have only existed as an academic discipline since 1968, but the foundation was laid at the turn of the 20th century, when seminal works like Alain Locke’s
The New Negro, W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk
, and especially Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro
provided the groundwork for many of the prevailing ideas that led to the discipline’s creation. Despite this long tradition of scholarship, current public thinkers like West, Asa Hilliard, Michael Eric Dyson, and Molefi Kete Asante still find themselves having to explain the relevance of their work.

Many departments find themselves with growing pains as they evolve from concentrating on the study of the black experience in America to the study of the African diaspora and beyond, incorporating the study of black people throughout Latin America, South America, and the Caribbean.

“There has always been an international component to black studies,” says Eisa Nefertari Ulen, a professor of English at Hunter College. “These issues of displacement and identity, the diverse ways of being black in America, will come up, especially from younger writers. This sense of sameness is something we have to grapple with and eventually get away from.”

Others in the field believe that the future of the discipline lies in its democratization: Scholars of all stripes must learn to form a “knowledge network” to share informa
tion and avoid the isolation inherent in academia—to work within the community to learn more about it. “The future is going to be a function of what’s going on in the black community,” says Abdul Alkalimat, head of the Africana studies department at the University of Toledo. “If class polarization continues, we’ll have only a certain kind of student . . . who does not share the mass black experience.”

All of these changes, say scholars and students alike, represent an evolution, not a struggle of survival.

“It’s difficult to argue incline versus decline,” says Alkalimat. “It’s more like an ebb and flow. It’s part of the give and take, the fight for stabilization. It’s an ongoing thing.”