Tavis Smiley and Cornel West faced tremendous criticism from large sectors of the African-American population for daring to stick to their own political principles and attempting to hold Barack Obama, the U.S. empire’s first Black head of state to account to said principles, in the grand tradition of Black activists, intellectuals and media.
By attempting to remain true to their own political positions, and to positions most of their critics themselves held prior to the election of Obama, the two men – one a media personality, the other an academic and activist – fell from grace in elite Black circles and in the popular opinion of the Black masses.
This fall was the result of the Black electorate who felt some need to protect Obama – and who largely were unaware of the role and purpose of the U.S. president – combined with the Black “mis-leadership class” who took on the duty of providing cover for the president, thereby exposing their own lack of political principles.
Compounding the dilemma for these two men was the corporate media, which fawned over Obama as the man who could save the nation – whatever that is supposed to mean.
Every president is billed as the “leader of the free world” and must be presented as greater than those of us of the unwashed masses. Presidents are particularly glorious and unquestioned when they are attacking other countries.
Further still, Black radio – traditionally a forum to air Black grievances about public policy – exposed its subservience to the White House as well, making Smiley and West lone voices among those Black critics who have access to mainstream press.
Numerous other Black thinkers held on to their political principles in the age of Obama, but they were not, and are not, invited into corporate media spaces, even in Black corporate media spaces. Therefore, Smiley and West were largely alone among mainstream commentators in maintaining the Black radical tradition of speaking for the Black voiceless, and staying committed to principled criticism of public policy for the good of the Black masses.
Long debate history
There is a long tradition of debate, disagreement and argument in Black political history. People argued, disagreed and debated at the Black Political Convention in 1972 in Gary, Indiana. Black leaders like DuBois and Garvey disagreed vociferously, often getting personal in their assaults on each other. So it was odd to see the Black political chattering class and the Black masses expect everyone to fall in line behind a politician and to view disagreement and criticism, even personal criticism, as treasonous.
What was immediately odd about the criticism of West and Smiley was twofold. One, these are two men who have devoted their entire public lives to either talking about, raising awareness of or advocating on behalf of Black people and Black issues. They’ve done so irrespective of political pressure and they have been consistent.
Yet, in the blink of a campaign, all of their prior work was forgotten. They were marginalized as if they were two Black Judases who had no track record of advocacy in the Black community. A towering media figure and a decades-long public intellectual were cast away for essentially doing what they had always done.
The message was clear for many of the rest of us who dared criticize the Head Negro in Charge. If they can kick West and Smiley to the curb, no one else of lesser public stature is safe.
All of Smiley’s “State of Black America” specials were forgotten. His BET news programs and interviews. The PBS and NPR shows highlighting Black issues, irrelevant. West’s books, public intellectual pontificating and community activism, all suddenly garbage. The cult of Obama would brook no dissenters.
Even more strange and nonsensical was the contrast between Smiley/West and Obama. Two men with track records of advocacy and activism were kicked to the curb in favor of a man with practically no such history of Black advocacy, or activism, or even argument, in his entire political or personal life.
‘No Black America’
Two unabashed supporters of the Black community were pushed aside in the minds of millions of Black people in said communities, for a man who said there was no “Black America, no White America, only the United States of America.” Really?
Black media has always played a significant role in the political life of Black America. Shows like the Tom Joyner Morning Show were outlets for at least marginal political discussion on issues that affected the non-existent (in Obama’s words) “Black America.”
Smiley was the first to feel the wrath of Black media’s support for Obama. He was quickly scolded, repudiated and replaced Joyner for his criticisms of then-candidate Obama.
On one Black radio station in Chicago, the Black female host suggested that Smiley was jealous of Obama because he had assumed the mantle of the president of Black America (even though Obama said it didn’t exist), and that he secretly wanted to be president of America. Total hogwash, since Smiley has always said his interest was media, not direct political office. Callers chimed claiming Smiley was jealous of Obama.
This episode was particularly curious in a city like Chicago, where the average Black resident didn’t know Obama before his campaign against Bobby Rush. Even then, he was not a household name despite the fact that he was a state senator. In fact, his only really connection to Black Chicago was his attendance in Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church.
One would have expected a different, more nuanced assessment of a presidential candidate coming from Black Chicago, but the well-financed public relations juggernaut of the Obama machine crushed common sense throughout America.
Smiley’s PBS show continued and for much of the Obama presidency, his radio show went on as well. The cruelest darts, arrows and condemnation really have been leveled at West, however. In hindsight, it should have been obvious.
‘Shady Sharpton’ onboard
When Rev. Al Sharpton became Obama’s “point man” on race, it should have been obvious to everyone that anyone who had any real commitment to civil and human rights was not welcome. And it should have been equally obvious that Obama himself lacked commitment to those issues when he chose the always-shady Sharpton as his foot soldier.
Additionally, given Obama’s ostracism of Rev. Jessie Jackson when Jackson criticized him for being absent on the Jena 6 controversy, it should have been clear that Obama would brook no dissent from the Negros. So when West even mildly critiqued Obama’s policies, it was met with a swift rebuke by the Obama team, Obama himself and “Obama America” (not to be mistaken for “Black America”).
What is forgotten (or is perhaps unknown) by the large swaths of Blacks who still feel somehow betrayed by West, is that West did over 65 campaign events for candidate Obama when he still believed that in the candidate.
Then West determined that Obama was “a Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a Black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.” He was quickly sidelined by the Obama “folks” and ostracized by the Black denizens of the United States (most of whom still find themselves mired in “Black America”).
Despite West’s track record of activism and scholarship and his public intellectual status, he was disinvited to the Black family picnic immediately. As Glen Ford and others have rightly noted, Blacks placed the interest of President Obama above their own interests. And when people like West tried to speak to those interests, their voices were not heard, as they were drowned out by the propaganda machine that is at the disposal of every occupant of the White House.
Criticized on the road
Even when Smiley and West went on their poverty tour to highlight the issue of extreme poverty (particularly in Black America), it wasn’t enough to bring him back into Obama country (where there is no Black America).
As reported in The Nation: “The tour, despite its lofty goals, has been dogged by a raging debate, largely in the Black community, over scathing criticisms Smiley and West have levied against President Barack Obama in the past. In addition to derision by bloggers and media figures, the tour encountered backlash amongst some of the very groups of people it purported to champion.
“Crowds in Detroit disrupted the tour’s town hall meeting with a pro-Obama protest, while many other citizens denounced the tour via Twitter. And even though West has been a vocal critic of Donald Trump, it is still common to see Blacks on social media inquire why he hasn’t said anything about Trump.”
The real issue
Black people’s criticism of West and Smiley for doing what social critics and activists should do – hold politicians accountable – is less about them and more about Black people ourselves.
The average person, Black or White, has little knowledge of foreign policy, the status of the U.S. as an empire and how that effects domestic policy, economics or other critical issues effecting American life.
Our people were too impressed with a man singing Al Green to them at the Apollo Theater while their overall condition deteriorated under his watch. As I once noted on Facebook, Black people did not want an end to a racist, oppressive system. They only wanted a Black person to lead the racist, oppressive system.
But having said that, it is also a tale of the power of public relations. To paraphrase Malcolm X, “the media will have you thinking the bad guy is the hero.” It matters not whether one thinks Obama is the bad guy. The point is that all presidents can shape their own narratives and create their villains through the power of the media and the bully pulpit.
A case in point
Sharpton, despite his history, was refashioned into true Black civil rights leader due to his allegiance to Obama. West and Smiley, despite their histories as media and intellectual figures, were recast in the role shady political operatives. Despite Obama’s brief stint as a “community organizer,” he was refashioned as a community activist on par with Chicago’s murdered Black Panther activist Fred Hampton.
History will prove that there is a Black America; there will continue to be a Black America; and people like West and Smiley will be citizens of it, critics of it and advocates for it.
Obama, by contrast, will prove to be a citizen of Imperial/Corporate America. This is the real America where the sovereignty of nations is subject to the whims of Manifest Destiny and where everything is for sale, including our data, our “likes” and the hopes and aspirations of Black America.
Obama’s hero? Reagan
The president who championed the discredited idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats” and who credited Ronald Reagan as a political hero – a loud, ominous warning sign for sure – still enjoys widespread love and admiration from Black people. Periodicals like The Jacobin that published the essay “How Obama Destroyed Black Wealth” received little to no attention.
In the era of Trump, it is all too common to see Black people on social media pining for a return of a “real president.” In one sense, they are right.
Obama was a “real” president. He maintained and expanded the empire, even destroying an African nation in the form of Libya; consolidated the power of the powerful, particularly the financial industry; managed the social status quo; quickened the privatization of public schools; and showed that blind ambition has no permanent interests and no permanent enemies.
Yet Cornel West, to this day, is not given credit for staying the course, sounding the alarm and maintaining a principled position. Instead, to date, he is still seen by many as a traitor to Black America because he dared criticize the Black president – the same Black president who said there was no Black America to begin with.
History may show that West was right – again – when he wrote, “The reign of Obama did not produce the nightmare of Donald Trump – but it did contribute to it. And those Obama cheerleaders who refused to make him accountable bear some responsibility.”
Yes, there IS a Black America. Anyone who ever said there isn’t one needs critics.
Attorney Bryan K. Bullock practices law in Merrillville, Indiana. Click on this commentary at www.flcourier.com to write your own response.