A few people have asked me to comment on this. I'm a bit hesitant, because this tape hits me somewhere very personal, and requires that I say some critical things about people I like. I think Mos Def was offering up that corner consciousness, in which brothers preach nihilism under the cover of an alleged "Knowledge of Self" or "Thinking for oneself." I think Christopher Hitchens, rightfully, sonned him. As a Mos Def fan, and member of the hip-hop generation (whatever that means) I felt embarrassed. That's probably not my right, but I felt that way. Here's where it gets really weird, I held one person responsible for the whole debacle--Cornel West.
I don't know that this is fair, but I immediately thought back to when West and Mos Def were on The Bill Maher show and Mos basically said he didn't believe Bin Laden brought down the towers. West pointed out that he disagreed, but instead of pushing Mos, he went into this explanation for why black people tend to be paranoid. His explanation was perfect in substance, but bad for Mos Def. I thought the elder radical owed it to the younger radical to challenge him, to push him past nihilism and paranoia.
Again, this is all about me and my constant ruminations over my status as a lapsed black nationalist. With that in mind, two things need to be said.
The first is about what I still hold on to. I came up in the "conscious" community, and the one value that the Babas and Mamas taught me, that I hold with me to this day, is the sanctity of the relationship between the elders and the young, the sense that the elder doesn't exist to simply cosign the emotions of the young, he exists to push the young past that, to challenge them, to force them to be better despite themselves.
The whole notion of "It takes a village" was pushed by the conscious community. That idea has been wailed upon by people who don't know what the fuck their talking about, who've never sat on a stoop in a ghetto, who file reports and columns about people who are Martians to them. At its core, it simply means caring about people who are younger than you, in the way that you care about your child. I get the conservative critique of that ideal--it's certainly Utopian, but no more so than, say, "love thy neighbor." My interpretation (others may not share it) of the "It take a village" mantra would have called on West to pull up Mos Def, as opposed to making excuses for why he would think that way.
The other thing I learned in the conscious community was the value of critical thinking. The idea was that you live in a world where the Tuskegee experiments actually happened, where the FBI did plot to destroy the Panthers, where J. Edgar Hoover terrorized black leaders from Garvey to Huey Newton. In that vein, you should be skeptical of what you see and hear. This is the perspective Mos is coming from. (Note the Assata reference.) But here's the thing--if you really get that message, it ultimately leads you to be critical, not just of the larger white narrative, but of the narrative put forth by those around you.
So here's the deal--I was a history major at Howard University. I came to that school believing very much in an Afrocentric view of history. From that perspective, my first semester was just devastating. I had a professor, Dr. Linda Heywood, who specialized in taking on kids like me (the ones who believed ancient Egypt built fighter jets) and forcing us to face facts. She was, of course, a trained historian who was used to debating kids like me, and for every Chancellor Williams or Diop I whipped out, she had a David Brion Davis or a Eugene Genovese.
I couldn't escape by dismissing her as part of a white plot--she was not just a black woman, but a black woman with a PhD in African History, who was teaching at the most storied black university in the country. I couldn't attack her street cred, and so I had to engage the argument. I found her infuriating--which led me to take two more classes from her. A buddy of mine recalls the most poignant moment for us under her tutelage. At the end of a particularly debilitating lecture, she looked at us and said, "So with all the evidence I've given you, explain to me why blacks are not inferior to whites."
She didn't believe that of course. The point was preparation for what we'd encounter out in the world. Here is thing--my best professors at Howard (and there were many) knew that those of us who fashioned ourselves budding intellectuals would have to debate people who did not believe that it took a village, people who'd gone to the best schools in the world, and who were armed with the latest facts and science, and Ma'at would not save us. We could not hide behind myth--even if our opponents could. We were black. We had to be better than they'd heard.
I watched that clip of Mos Def, and thought back to my own rather tortured relationship with my past. I guess I'm a bit narcissistic. But you guys already know that. Still, I couldn't help but feel that someone should have prepared him, should have made him better than what Christopher Hitchens had heard. That people who loved him should have pulled him aside after his last appearance, and said "Like it or not, you represent us. You can't lean on myth and paranoia. You do a disservice to yourself, and to black people, when you do."
I thought Cornel should have pushed him away from being slippery with the facts, away from media conspiracy, away from that "I'm from the projects" pose, and out into the real. I thought he should have went at him brutally. Because somewhere out there a Christopher Hitchens was waiting, and when they met, he would have no mercy.
What you are getting here is the raw. Words and emotions that will likely come back to haunt me. I don't know that it's right--but it's what I feel, it's what I aspire to, even as I fall short on a daily. I believe that we have to be prepared for these motherfuckers. I believe we have to be equipped. I believe that the world is not Martha's Vineyard. But I also believe that the world is not the ghetto. I'm due for shape-up, like all the rest of us. But there's a reason this sort of shit stays in the barbershop.
This is supposed to be real talk, right?