Gathering the Tribe

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Melissa Harris-Perry points out the absurdity of Ivy League professor Cornel West attacking Obama's connections to "upper middle-class white and Jewish men,"


This comment is utter hilarity coming from Cornel West who has spent the bulk of his adulthood living in those deeply rooted, culturally rich, historically important black communities of Cambridge, MA and Princeton, NJ. And it is hard to see his claim that Obama is "most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they" as anything other than a classic projection of his own comfortably ensconced life at Harvard and Princeton Universities. Harvard and Princeton are not places that are particularly noted for their liberating history for black men. 

 Let me be clear, being an Ivy League professor does not mean that one has no room to offer critical engagement on issues of race. Like Professor West, I too make my living at elite, predominately white institutions. For the past five years we were on the same payroll at Princeton. Like Professor West I supplement my income by giving lectures about race, politics, and history. Like West I hope to influence policy, inspire individuals, and intervene in public conversations about race. My criticism of West is his seeming unwillingness to acknowledge how our structural positions within the academy and in public intellectual life can be just as compromising to our position vis-à-vis black communities as is President Obama's. 

As tenured professors Cornel West and I are not meaningfully accountable, no matter what our love, commitment, or self-delusions tell us. President Obama, as an elected official, can, in fact, be voted out of his job. We can't.

Adam Serwer draws from his own life, to point out the hilarity of having "one group of morons question your citizenship while others question your blackness,"

Growing up mixed you sometimes face a kind of confusion. Those around you press you to make a choice about how much of yourself you're willing to give up, how much you're are willing to pretend in order to claim membership in one club or another. West demands to know why Obama isn't sitting at the black table in the dining hall, while reminding him that he's only welcome there by his graces. What you eventually learn is that peace is not something the "gatekeepers" have to offer and is the last thing they want you to find. Eventually you learn the rules of the game are silly and destructive, and who you are can't be negotiated either way. 

 To some degree this is just a part of adolescence, but most people have grown out of this kind of racial pageantry by middle age. West has not, but perhaps worse, he assumes the president has not. Perhaps he did not read the president's autobiography, or he would have realized that Obama is not a lost little mulatto child who is willing to give West something in exchange for that which is not West's to trade. Obama's struggle to find peace with himself is essentially the opposite of "deracination," a term that takes on all the force of an epithet here. Obama is lambasted as a Kenyan anti-colonialist by the likes of Newt Gingrich, and as a wide-eyed surrogate of "upper middle class white and Jewish men" by the likes of West. 

That last point is key.  As surely as Trump was whistling at a certain tribe of grievance-mongering white people when he demanded to see Obama's grades, West is whistling to a tribe of grievance-mongering black people, when he tars Obama as fearful of "free" black men and culturally white. But West's constituency is considerably smaller. Among the presumably mentally-enslaved black masses, Obama is arguably the most popular public figure in the country, outdistanced only by his wife.

This is rather personal for me. I went off to Howard University when I was 18. The greatest experience I had at the Mecca was bearing witness to the broad diversity of the black community. I had never met black people who were in Jack and Jill, or listened to Marilyn Manson, or were openly gay. I had never met Hispanic black people, or black people from Canada.  I think if Howard had casted out every biracial black person, or black person who'd grown up as an "only," or surrounded by white culture, we would have cut our student body in half and the school would have gone out business.

I learned there that to be black was to be born into a family, who'd taken the one-drop rule, flipped it, and created their own personal rainbow. And that power of irony, embedded in our very name, holds me in such a way, that to lose that aspect of blackness would mean losing the thing itself. If I can't flip it, I don't want it. 

I am not one for shrinking the tribe. I learned that at Howard University. Perhaps at Princeton, as with so much, black studies are more advanced. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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