Many Americans currently sit on pins and needles waiting for the grand jury decision on the fate of Officer Darren Wilson and, by extension, the fate of the passions that have animated events on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri for months. However, the story of Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown didn’t happen in a vacuum. What is important to consider is how we got to this moment intellectually—something that exists in a much larger intellectual context. I’ll sketch that out today and in coming weeks.
The “Age of Obama” has proven to be an interesting one when it comes to race. I’ve joked on Twitter before that once the dust settles from this era, historians will have a field day with the variety of incidents that have occurred based around the issue of race. These would include anything from then-Senator Obama’s run for president, to the Henry Louis Gates incident of 2009, to the firing of Shirley Sherrod, to Trayvon Martin, to the events in Ferguson. A thread running through all of these incidents is the response of President Obama to moments in recent American history that suggested that the questions some Americans assumed we answered on race long ago awaited new responses. But beyond that, the era has been a perplexing one for African American intellectuals, many of whom are divided over the issue of supporting the first African American president.
Critiques of President Obama from the African American Left have been aggressive, yet there’s also no mistaking that the counter-critiques by others on the Black Left have been equally bellicose. The most notable of this is the intellectual standoff between Cornel West and Tavis Smiley among others on one hand, and a variety of Obama supporters on the other (Melissa Harris-Perry, Michael Eric Dyson, etc.). There’s a certain irony to having the first African American president yet, at the same time, African American intellectuals having some of their fiercest arguments yet over the future of the African American community. That is not meant as hyperbole, because African American intellectual history (just like American intellectual history) is filled with moments of sharp debate and critique.
The writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates are also helpful here. I don’t want to go on a limb and declare him the best public intellectual of our age (that certainly causes much more trouble than it’s worth). While his piece on Reparations became the rage of the summer, I think his earlier essay, “Fear of a Black President”, is his most important statement on the Obama Presidency and the African American experience. There is a racial realism (not pessimism) that pervades the essay, both a weariness in dealing with the subject of race, and a wariness in how Americans deal with the “debate over race” in the present. Throughout the piece, Coates grounds his arguments in a long, historical backdrop, reminding us of President Obama’s own reluctance to deal with the subject of race—while being at the center of so many racial controversies.
I’ve been thinking a bit about some of the recent books on African American intellectual history that both point to the past and consider current day concerns as well. The one that, I believe, best captures this moment is Houston Baker’s Betrayal (2008). In it, Baker argues that “betrayal has often marked the works of hand of post-Civil Rights era black public intellectuals” (emphasis his) and that in general, black public intellectuals have lost their way since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (xii) At times the book can read as a harsh indictment of black intellectuals in the last thirty years—and that’s precisely Baker’s point. He was exhausted with the intellectual emptiness in his eyes, of the writings of such figures as West and Dyson. On West he wrote, “His work is full of earnestness, ethical polemic, flimsy evidence, and a faux sense of urgency.” (83)
Still, while Betrayal is a fascinating read, and necessary to understand not just the African American but the American intellectual moment on the eve of the Obama Age, it doesn’t quite get a question that’s been central to my writing here at the US Intellectual History blog: how does one write an African American intellectual history from 1968 (the death of King) until 2014 (the midpoint of Obama’s second term, and the Ferguson crisis)? I don’t know the answer to that question—but I’m going to take a shot. Because, in the final analysis, understanding Ferguson means understanding much, much more than the incident between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. The response to Ferguson, both on the ground and nationally, needs a deeper historical context. That’s something I’m going to try to do in coming weeks.