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Cornel West and the Crisis in Black Leadership – The Feminist Wire

Cornel West and the Crisis in Black Leadership

By Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou

The recent controversy ignited by Cornel West’s critique of President Barack Obama and subsequent critiques of Dr. West reveal a fundamental crisis in Black leadership. Traditionally, African American intellectuals and activists have encountered the office of the President as outsiders with a nuanced understanding and repertoire of tactics including electoral brokerage, inside strategy and social protest (organized and rhetorical).

These tactics have been executed against “The White Man.” The oppositional politic was the normative means of encountering the office of the Presidency and the deployment of fierce rhetoric was an accepted means of public engagement. Both the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama are a disruption of that rhetorical and tactical tradition. The African American tradition of speaking truth to power has been complicated because that power is now embodied by “A Black Man.”

This is a unique moment in American democracy. The white supremacist gaze in the United States demonized black bodies, subjected their intelligence and interrogated their national allegiance. Barack Obama’s winning campaign called into question these deep seated notions that shaped U.S. public policy and perceptions.

Hence, the Obama presidency is an electoral and existential victory. The way in which African American people make meaning for themselves inside the American empire has been recast. There is a widely accepted narrative about Obama’s election. While it is true that his presence in the White House is because of his intelligence, effective fundraising apparatus and sophisticated campaign machinery, the red carpets at the inaugural balls were soaked in the blood of martyrs.

The presidency of Barack Obama is a by-product of African Americans’ 400 years of struggle for access to the democratic project called America. The President has often located himself in that tradition and trajectory. He has strategically trafficked in the prophetic rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and employed the homiletical rhythms of the Black Church. He has conveniently used these cultural signifiers in a way that is titillating to the national consciousness—linguistically embodying Black folks’ quest for a more democratic society.

Moreover, Black folks take great pride in the presence of three generations of African Americans in the White House. The real image of a beautiful Black family beaming into the homes of all Americans has a deep impact on the psyche of the nation, and a denigrated people. There is a collective desire on the part of Black America to protect and shield their existential idol-President Barack Hussein Obama. This is a new space in U.S. history—racial and collective national memory. The right wing backlash, contemptible treatment and flat out disrespect consistently directed at the President and First Lady only serve to reinforce this protective existential and racial logic.

However, there is a counterpoint to this protectionist logic. Based on the criterion set forth by the African American freedom struggle, there is an expectation beyond physical and psychic symbolism. Behind the ad hominem attacks, personal slights and blogosphere punditry, what is at stake in West’s complaint is this prophetic expectation—there must be public policy to reflect the very tradition that the President uses and benefited from in his rise to power. Is it inappropriate to have this expectation of the President Barack Obama? Is it appropriate for Black folks to levy a critique and action against a Black man in the White House? Or must Black leadership focus on defending the President from racist attacks?

The protectionist logic combined with the ultra conservative Republican Party has circumscribed the political vision of the vast majority of African Americans.  The logic goes that criticism of the President is tantamount to supporting ultra conservative politics. Regardless of his legislative record, African Americans will vote for him in record numbers. This electoral allegiance is not a negotiating tool, but, rather, an existential duty. The protectionists cheapen any critical conversation about the President’s agenda. The only legitimate engagement is an insider strategy—access to the White House and supporting the administration’s agenda at all cost. Accordingly, organized and rhetorical protests are, vehemently, dismissed.  In this formulation, the aforementioned questions and West’s lamentation remain unanswered.

The improvised electoral options guarantee that the President will not have to provide any substantive policy response to underemployment, unemployment, foreclosures, affordable healthcare, quality public education, expanding prison industrial complex and affordable housing—all of which affect African Americans, disproportionately.  This makes him no different than any other president. Hence, he should be treated as such.

Every president since Abraham Lincoln has had to contend with an organized and rhetorical protest—the prophetic tradition.  This tradition has always focused on the nation’s treatment of the most vulnerable citizens—the least of these. Under the prophetic gaze, politicians have either been celebrated or rebuked.  Fredrick Douglass and the abolitionists supported the Underground Railroad and offered stern public rebukes of Abraham Lincoln for not ending slavery. A. Phillip Randolph and the broader labor movement marched and chastised Franklin D. Roosevelt until the creation of the New Deal. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement pressured and protested the Kennedy and Johnson administration into the passage of Civil Rights and the Great Society legislation.

King once remarked that electoral politics are thermometers—measuring political climate; social protests and movements are thermostats—setting political climate.  Organized and rhetorical protests have set the climate for an effective insider strategy and subsequent electoral allegiance in the voting booth. Prophetic rhetoric and organized rage have created the context for the passage of public policy that improves the quality of life for the least of these. The contemporary political climate is such that there are very limited possibilities for progressive social policies to emerge from the administration, itself. A recalcitrant Congress, a right of center Democratic Party and two decades of neo liberal policies require that the President serve a right of center agenda which has been at odds with the prophetic tradition and the needs of the most vulnerable.

Hence, African American leadership can not go it alone. The challenges facing democracy are nothing less that the retraction of the promise of the Civil Rights Movement, dismantling of the Great Society, and reversal of the New Deal—let alone an ever expanding prison and military industrial complex. Cornel West’s critique is part and parcel of a grand tradition of fiery prophetic rhetoric that must be connected to social movements. In order to shift the political discourse and create the conditions for progressive policy, a new multi racial and multi issue coalition has to emerge. Rhetorical protest must be matched with mass organizing.


Raised in the rural Arkansas Delta, Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is a third generation ordained Elder in the Church of God in Christ (Pentecostal). He is the former Senior Minister of Lemuel Haynes Congregational Church (UCC) in South Jamaica Queens, New York. He is the author of the forthcoming, Gods, Gays, and Guns: Religion and the Future of Democracy. Rev. Sekou authored the critically acclaimed Urban Souls, which takes a refreshing approach to the spiritual crisis in America. Rev. Sekou has given over 1000 lectures throughout the country and abroad, including Harvard Divinity School, Princeton University, University of Virginia, the University of Paris IV- La Sorbonne and Vanderbilt University. He has studied continental philosophy at the New School, systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary, and is currently studying religion at Harvard University.

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