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.