John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
It's all about this business of "contesting." And it's about all of us.
One thing we all know is that if Cornel West actually met Barack Obama alone in a room — and we can be sure this will happen one day, and likely more than once — he would embrace him and call him brother.
That's what he does with everybody, and I doubt he truly thinks Obama has a "fear of free black men." West was thinking of himself as a prophet, as so many of us encourage him to do. He was telling, thus, a truth that many are uncomfortable with. Except that this time, the truth wasn't true.
Why tell it, then? Because what West was doing was contesting for the sake of it, out of a sense that this is the noble thing for smart, engaged people to do.
You have to watch out for that stuff.
Contesting is good, solid post-Enlightenment behavior to a point. But West was displaying a tic that has spread too far and deep into our society, including into notions of black authenticity. Of course we contest when we think something is wrong. But must we contest just because it's fun?
I think of a young woman I saw recently, listening to her iPod. She was scrunching up her face, pointing this way and that, nodding tersely — all very pissed off, but with rhythm. One assumes she was listening to rap, and quite caught up in the "message" of whatever the music was, encouraging her to join into extended charismatic complaint.
Likely, the complaint was about something valid in itself. But think historically for a second. We forget how very, very modern the idea of contesting is as an entire way of life, seeping into the way you move and gesticulate 24-7 to your favorite music. When, in the history of humanity, have human beings ever taken their folk music as an occasion for frowning and for dwelling, at open-ended length, on indicting society?
Freedom songs, protest songs, yes. But the music that wallpapers your whole life? The music you associate also with joy? That you spend money on? That you pump into your ears all day, every day? Of course, until recently there was no way to experience music that consistently at all. But here we are, and we do. Imagine: We are humans who can have contesting in our ears during, basically, our whole lives. One points, nods, sneers to the beat. One gets off on this. All the time.
But how likely is contesting that's that endless — virtually subconscious — to be focused enough to help anybody? We are dealing with contesting as commodity, contesting as congealed into attitude.
The rest is predictable. A black woman rises from poverty and creates a media empire. She becomes a billionaire and is recognized around the world. And here we are, when she goes off the air, criticizing Oprah for being a tad aloof with strangers — as if someone as famous as she could not be — and savoring when she banks on an African school that doesn't quite work out.
Plus, the general media skewer her for turning problems into a badge of pride — whereas if she encouraged a "get over it" perspective, she'd be roasted as well (like Dr. Laura); and if she went too political, she'd be too left for many, while Cornel West would be saying that she was the one afraid of "free black men."
Interesting — we'd shudder at the thought of dragging Madam C.J. Walker through the mud like this. But somehow, doing it to Oprah today is contesting. Lovely, isn't it, when "contest" morphs into merely "contrary"?
Or it's 2005, and a black film-industry executive tells us, "I don't think much has changed for black films. They still think that we're monolithic, and mostly the films are limited to urban themes and comedy." I see. That was the year of Hitch, Coach Carter, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Guess Who? and Are We There Yet? The black middle class is well represented in all five, including the Madea movie, and one could hardly call the five a "monolithic" clump of "urban" nonsense. A few months before, Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman had won Oscars; neither Ray nor Million Dollar Baby was "urban" or "monolithic."
This executive couldn't have missed all of this. His comment had as much relationship to reality in 2005 as West's does to what Obama is, or as Oprah bashing does to the good she has tried to do, or as that catchy body language over a beat has to creating political change. All of this is not contesting but "contesting." The quotation marks are deliberate: I mean a kind of contesting that is more a routine than a plan, a sad fashion in our times.
In 1965, James Forman was trying to set up a protest demonstration in Montgomery, Ala., against what had happened in Selma. James Bevel wasn't with it. "Demonstrate for what?" Bevel asked. He thought they should do a "demonstration" in, well, Selma, not just perform in Montgomery.
We should all ask ourselves that question sometimes. Contest, yes. But contest what? And why? Contesting also happens to just feel good for its own sake, and we waste too much energy when we forget that.