Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.
The recent contretemps between Harvard University professor Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates, the National Book Award-winning author and the nation’s most prominent journalist writing about race, has black social media riveted and continues to spark national controversy.
The debate originated from West’s recent charge in The Guardian that Coates, considered perhaps his generation’s boldest analyst of white supremacy’s historic and contemporary impact on black folks, as an intellectual wolf in sheep’s clothes: “the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle.”
After white supremacist Richard Spencer’s approving retweet of West’s recent takedown of Coates, Coates deleted his Twitter account, telling his 1 million-plus followers he did not get into the game to spend precious energies on political and intellectual squabbles.
For West, Coates’ focus on white supremacy has become an intellectual obsession, window-dressing that disallows for a wider critique of American empire and lets President Barack Obama off the hook for his complicity in the continued oppression of black people. West was famously quite critical of Obama.
It’s not about whether one of them is right or wrong. It’s about what we do with, what we make out of, their disagreement. The debilitating choice is to allow the West-Coates debate to turn into an energy-sapping distraction from the entrenched issues of race, war and democracy that both men have devoted their lives to addressing in word and deed. The harder choice is to constructively engage with the ideas they’ve put forth but that have become obscured by the now rancorous tone of debate. Coates’ decision to delete his Twitter account impoverishes national conversation and debate about black history and political activism.
West may rightly be judged for the harshness of his criticism, and Coates may have tried to opt out of intellectual spats by bidding peace to his Twitter platform, but the fact remains that black intellectual traditions – from the feminism of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells to the conservative black nationalism of Booker T. Washington and the radical socialism of Hubert Harrison – have always been fraught, contested and hotly debated in public and private.
The common denominator that has bound this tradition historically is the broad-based effort to challenge institutional racism, promote healthy black communities and reimagine black identity and American democracy in the process. While none of these earlier intellectuals and activists ever debated on social media, if it had existed at the time, they certainly might have.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from the now-concluded public exchange between West and Coates is that ideas matter. Serious and engaged thinkers, writers and intellectuals can respectfully and publicly disagree on critically important issues.
Going back to the late 19th century, W.E.B. Du Bois, the first black person to receive a doctorate from Harvard and a pre-eminent scholar, famously clashed with Booker T. Washington, the most influential black powerbroker of his day and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, over the direction of civil rights efforts. The younger Du Bois challenged the more established Washington’s strategies of political accommodation to Jim Crow (publicly criticizing him in print in his 1903 “The Souls of Black Folk”), even as he admired aspects of the Wizard of Tuskegee’s efforts at political self-determination.
Once he was middle-aged, Du Bois went on to critique, sometimes in ugly and unseemly ways, Marcus Garvey, the pan-Africanist activist and political mobilizer who in the 1920s helped to build the largest mass black movement in American history.
Perhaps the most famous black intellectual debate of the latter half of the 20th century involved two activists still under-recognized as brilliant thinkers: Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Malcolm X and King met only once, in March 1964, but they carried on a public debate over the fate of the black community that would continue well past their deaths. Malcolm’s public excoriation that King’s dream had become a nightmare for black folk obscured how seriously he took the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Georgia preacher’s ideas – a truth too often ignored by subsequent histories of both men.
Indeed, Malcolm’s X’s famous “Ballot or Bullet” speech concedes the importance of voting rights (a focus of King’s) to his own conception of a black revolution in a way too often ignored. Conversely, King found his radical voice during his final three years. A strong influence was observing democracy’s jagged edges on the streets of Watts after the 1965 rebellion, the same type of urban neighborhood that Malcolm proclaimed as his own.
In a social media age where individuals curate news and streaming choices to reflect their political worldviews, respectful debate and civil dialogue has become a lost art. The democratization of public media spaces means that a white supremacist can endorse one side of an intellectual debate between two engaged black thinkers in a way that would have horrified earlier generations and should give us all pause.
Twenty-five years ago Cornel West burst onto the scene with the best-selling book “Race Matters,” a slim but elegant meditation on racial justice, black activism and black intellectual responsibility in the post-civil rights era. West combined the erudition of an Ivy League-trained intellectual with the confident street swagger of a California native who admired the Black Panthers in his youth.
His enthusiasm for the wide spectrum of black intellectual, religious and cultural thought – with an intellectual curiosity that allowed readers to make sense of Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Christian and Marxist ethics, jazz, blues and gospel tradition – proved revelatory.
Coates’ riveting “Between the World and Me” captured the national zeitgeist in the age of Black Lives Matter. After almost two decades of laboring in relative anonymity as a journalist, Coates channels the shadows of Baldwin’s fierce prose into urgent truth-telling for a new generation. Coates’ essays on reparations, mass incarceration and the Trump presidency in The Atlantic have galvanized millions of readers across racial lines, making him the most well-known author of his generation writing about racial justice.
We need more public engagement from black writers and intellectuals, not less. West’s philosophical disagreements with a younger intellectual committed to social justice should always be guided by the ethic of love he advocates in some of his most insightful work.
West and Coates have divergent intellectual styles and political worldviews, but each draws from an intellectual tradition that King held up as a shield to protect people of color and Malcolm X wielded as a sword to defend them from racial brutality. In a nation with roughly 42 million black people, it is worth remembering they have at least that many opinions about the contours of the black freedom struggle.
While the most celebrated black thinkers can jump-start national debate on race matters, larger community forces set that debate’s parameters. What bound Malcolm X and King together in life and death was an unapologetic love for black folk. The strength of black intellectual traditions rests not on their ideological uniformity, but on their diverse resiliency that allows the panoramic expression of black thought to be utilized by new generations.