Black Intellectual Tug of War vs Black Unity

“The power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.” James Baldwin

Black intellectual men, today, threaten themselves (and the community) whenever they allow their personal branding to take precedence over the communities they seek to uplift. The infighting between Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, for many people, was yet another display of narcissism, and West’s false jab at Ta-Nehisi Coates somewhat validated that perception.

We have a history of descent among the black leadership class: James Baldwin vs. Richard Wright, MLK vs. Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington vs. WEB DuBois, and so on.

But black intellectuals’ challenging each other is healthy, only when it brings us closer to social and economic solutions. It’s unproductive if it simply remains an unresolved conflict between two adults. Black Lives Matter and other young grassroots movements have somewhat taken the mantle.


Cornell West (left) and Michael Eric Dyson (right)

At this point, young millennials are not interested in exalting the next male or female leader—they’re interested in collective ideas, solutions and implementations.

The 20th anniversary of the historic Million Man March (Justice or Else!) takes place in a few months; the dark cloud of bittersweetness in the air is suffocating everyone. In 1995, it was held at the National Mall to “convey to the world a vastly different picture of the Black male” and promote the fostering of a self-sufficient black community. Today, we still have rising social and economic inequality coupled with systemic police brutality.

There are number of grassroots gatherings that are happening throughout the country. The aim, as always, is to liberate black lives and challenge this sociopolitical system hellbent on seeing us self-destruct, even if it means interrupting speeches delivered by white progressive, presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders.

Young millennials, despite challenging their black elders as of late, are actually pulling nuggets of truth from both the academia and other grassroots movements.

Last month, I attended a lecture by Tariq Nasheed, director and producer of the critically acclaimed documentary series Hidden Colors. Hidden Colors is a three-part series that investigates the oft-ignored contributions of Africans in the diaspora, challenges whitewashed world history, and provides a more probing angle on U.S. racial dialogue.

It was a packed house. The event was brilliantly organized by the wonderful Qiana Shedrick, director of Home-Together. Informative visuals played on the screen, as knowledge-seeking attendees supported the vendors and waited for Mr. Nasheed.

Tariq Nasheed, like Dr. Umar Johnson, is one of many well-acknowledged voices in the “black conscious community.” Rhetoric from both Nasheed and Johnson doesn’t come without its criticisms (as for anyone in the “beautiful struggle”), but they’re both largely known for their great contributions to Pan-African ideas and direct, unapologetic opinions on historical race relations in the United States.


Tariq Nasheed. Photo Credit: Wilkine Brutus

Nasheed arrived at the International House in Philadelphia, evoked the Spook Who Sat by the Door metaphor, and provided 20 new “codes of conduct” that could potentially steer the black collective mentality forward. Audience members took their own notes, and I also paraphrased the top ones that stood out for me:

-Don’t fall for tokenization: having a black president does not trickle power down.

-Generational American wealth and resources were also passed down with institutional racism, from conservatives and liberals.

-Spending too much time teaching a white supremacist about racism stops you from embowering yourself and others. 

-Elders are competing with younger folks for attention.

-African Americans have no collective economic agenda, while most immigrants (including black immigrants) build wealth and send it back home through remittances.

-Stop overvaluing symbolic victories. It has its purpose, but we can’t remain mesmerized by them and stunt our growth.


International House, Philadelphia. Photo Credit: Wilkine Brutus 

Black Americans are suffering from sheer existential fatigue, and there simply needs to be more discussion panels that address our mental health–in hindsight, Nasheed’s lecture was exactly that, but with an action plan.

Nasheed’s great success comes from his commitment to connect with the common person, something those major black intellectuals have failed to do, mainly because they’re busy fighting against each other in academia.

The Black Lives Matter movement has managed to set things in motion (24 states passed 40 new police reform measures) and continues to make their list of demands clear. It’s not a competition–it’s just that millennials are tired of the talk and want to see actual advancements in both legislation and racial dialogue.

We’re fighting for familial stability, social respect, and economic stability.

Toni Morrison once said, “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” I think we’re finally taking the necessary steps to claim and own our destiny. Let’s hope black intellectuals in academic circles get with the program.

IMG_3374Qiana Shedrick wrapping up the lecture. Photo Credit: Wilkine Brutus IMG_3362

Full attendance at the International House. Photo Credit and article: Wilkine Brutus


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