We’re twenty weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic and 75 days post-George Floyd. The street-marches for justice have not ceased, but the actions to eradicate racial inequality have popularized through conversations assembled on virtual platforms and social media, making this current discourse a novel marker in American history. And since black Americans finally have the world’s attention, more voices continue to weighed-in, like actor Terry Crews and rapper Kanye West, to filmmaker Ava DuVernay and minority leader Stacy Abrams — who appeared on Oprah’s zoom special, “Where Do We Go From Here?” The under-belly of these debates aim toward black liberation, but the POVs with how to attain it have not aligned.
But, 2020 is not the first time this has occurred.
The genesis of this conversation was debated amongst educator Booker T. Washington and sociologist W.E.B. Dubois, three decades succeeding the Emancipation Proclamation. Both men publicized their ideas on how to strive for racial deliverance, but their visions sought opposite directions.
Most famously in his Atlanta compromise address, Washington advocated that the black community should accept the inevitable racial barriers they’d face since American Slavery was their close yesterday. And not to refuge inside the past, or wait for America’s repentance — but that progress and privileges comes as “a result of severe and constant [hard-work] rather than of artificial forcing,” — -which is to say, demanding an obligatory apology inadvertently keeps blacks as whites’ subordinates rather than their peers.
But, Dubois opposed Washington’s position, being a proponent for combating racial oppression through activism. He held the government responsible for legislating civil rights and economical repair for the black community — beliefs that pushed him to co-organize the notable organization for “colored people,” the NAACP. Additionally, these beliefs shaped his celebrated book, The Souls of Black Folks — where Dubois dedicated a chapter critiquing Washington’s Atlanta speech stating, “Mr. Washington’s program practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.”
And it was around this time when the terms “black conservatism” and “black radicalism” were defined — which constructed a binary division within the black community, which still persists in the 21st century.
For example, let’s jump a couple of hundred years to another debate between two other black men: former Atlantic writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and Quillette columnist and philosopher Coleman Hughes. On Juneteenth in 2019, at the U.S. House Judiciary, Coates and Hughes testified on H.R. 40 — -a bill for reparations.
This debate garnered the attention of millions and could be considered the figurative second-coming of W.E.B DuBois vs. Booker T. Washington.
Ta-Nehisi Coates championed the bill stating, “The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape, and child trafficking.” He believed the implications of American Slavery are not only historical but present within “vagrancy laws, red-lining, racist G.I bills, poll taxes, mass incarceration.” A list of “begat heirs” he also cased for in his famous essay — viewing the federal government responsible since the nation’s wealth is “simply complicit in it.”
Coleman Hughes argued back, believing reparations would be “condescending” to all black Americans — especially the 33% that polled against the bill. He stated, “[reparations] would insult many black Americans by putting a price on the suffering of their ancestors,” and “will make one-third of the black community victims without their consent.” Likening Booker T. Washington, Hughes stressed that H.R. 40, “would turn the relationship between black Americans and white Americans from a coalition into a transaction — from a union between citizens into a lawsuit between plaintiffs and defendants,” similar sentiments shared in his piece, “The Case for Black Optimism.”
But, this piece is not about reparations — or about historical debates in 1895. It’s about the “them vs. they” amongst black thought. It’s about the danger of basing “black authenticity” on how a person “fits in” with the “majority.” It’s about how “misfits” are wholly disregarded and ignored, and even worse, caste-out from “black” based on how they think. And on the flip-side, how other ideas are unquestionably applauded because they “fit” the “black narrative.”
After the congressional hearing, Coates was lauded in the media as the voice for the black community — -where Vox praised his testimony, calling it a “history lesson,” for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. On the other hand, Hughes’ testimony was staunched as ignorant and even “anti-black” — -where Rae Sunni, a black columnist, and comedian tweeted, “Coleman Hughes is arguing against reparations. He’s Cooneman Hughes.” And he continues to receive ad-hominem attacks today, while Coates remains the champion of the trial.
But there’s a major contradiction here. We, as black Americans, dislike being stereotyped based on our color. Though, some still pigeonhole a black individual to a “collective ideology” based exclusively on their skin — -but isn’t that the definition of anti-black? Shouldn’t the community protect the right of diverse thoughts? Furthermore, wouldn’t that help destroy the stereotype that black Americans are monolithic?
We must understand the distinctions between groupthink and a majority consensus. There’s a difference between millions of minds attached to a thought vs. millions of thoughts critically agreeing with an idea. This isn’t to say, Coates’ testimony wasn’t impeccable because it was popular. It’s to say, his testimony shouldn’t be considered impeccable based solely on its popularity. In the same vein, Hughes’ testimony should not be disregarded because his position was anomalous. But even though anomalous, it shouldn’t be regarded as “exceptional” because of its originality.
However, this is not a scolding but merely an analysis which matured my critical-thinking. For example, I remember watching the congressional hearing at New York University where Ta-Nehisi Coates teaches, where Ta-Nehisi Coates formerly taught me. I also remember hurling racial epithets at Hughes, calling him a “coon” based upon his position as I applauded Coates’ pro-argument. I don’t regret cheering for my former professor, but I do regret opposing Hughes without considering his POV. And after re-watching the debate, about twenty times, I still see Coates as eloquently accurate, but also view Hughes as controversially truthful. Even more importantly, I realized that if I disagreed with either, my analysis should critique their argument, not their black identity.
And since we’re on the subject, let’s briefly discuss cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams. After reading his Atlantic piece “Unraveling Race,” and his NYT op-ed against Ta-Nehisi Coates, and attending his talk on “Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race” at New York University, I was not his biggest fan. And coincidentally, he graduated from the same NYU journalism program eleven years before my commencement in 2019. Long story short, during grad school, I wrote a vicious polemic about Williams. Instead of criticizing his ideas on race, I attacked Williams racial identity — writing something like,
“Thomas is black, and Thomas is white, but Thomas is light. Thomas is, in fact, closer to white. And with the addition of his white wife, his light children, the “bright” aesthetic of his life — perhaps, that’s why he can write, “What Mr. Coates has lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes.” I am concerned, that Thomas, and other blacks who unjustly convict black people — they are indeed “coasted into hounds” not only at their brothers’ heels but also at their own.”
But it took a thoughtful reevaluation of my motives to see my major flaw; A reassessment that didn’t make me a sudden admirer but conceded my revisions to go after Williams’s concepts, not Williams’ freedom to think. And ironically, this year, he spearheaded a Harper’s article, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” — a piece that fought to protect writers, journalists, and critics “right” to use their first amendment freely. A letter with over 150 signatories, a letter I shared on Facebook.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Some black people would consider themselves “anti-black” and proudly despise their race. To avoid contradicting my objective, consider Stephen Warren — the fictional nemesis of Django Unchained. Or, Ruckus from the Boondocks, the self-identifying “Caucasian” that suffers from “reverse vitiligo.” It doesn’t take much imagination to understand these characters are real somewhere. Still, they are drastically different than say Terry Crews or even Kanye West — -a black individual who holds an “unorthodox” or polarizing perspective.
Let’s jump back in history, and revisit the moment when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met for the first time. They both were at Capitol Hill witnessing the derivation of the civil rights legislation before it was passed years later in 1964. After the Senate’s hearing, a brief encounter occurred facilitated by Malcolm’s friendly approach to King. Before this day, both King and X declared disapproval of the other’s activism tactics. Malcolm X was quoted, saying, “[King is] a 20th-century Uncle Tom,“ for his non-violent approach to racial injustice. At the same time, Dr. King Jr. considered X’s “by any means necessary” method “dangerously radical,” stating, “urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence can reap nothing but grief.”
But, the small exchanged in Washington D.C. subtlety changed them and modified the trajectory of their movements. Malcolm’s rhetoric “softened” likening King’s message for unity, where he wrote, “I was no less angry, but at the same time, I recognize that anger can blind human vision.“ And King’s tone became bolder, adapting some of X’s unabashed nature to shake-up the nation for equality — -which helped when King opposed the Vietnam War and spoke out against the poverty plaguing the black community.
This brief encounter is historically significant.
Neither Dr. King Jr., nor Malcolm X transformed their POVs to match the others, but instead, they considered the other’s POVs. Not only that, possibly made the necessary conclusion that diverse POVs on dismantling systemic oppression aren’t inconvenient stumbling-blocks, but could be essential stepping-stones.
And perhaps that’s precisely why the conversation on how to get restoration has lasted for centuries. Suppose W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Coleman Hughes cases are neither incorrect nor spot-on. Suppose instead, they’ve simply offered up four different ways to inspect racial barriers — or even four different ways to attain liberation as a black individual?
So with that in mind, what if historical and contemporary critical-thinkers, whether considered as “conservative” or “radical,” like writers, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Thomas Chatterson Williams, and Maya Angelou; or journalists, like Ida B. Wells, Gwen Ifill, Max Robinson, and Ta-Nehisi Coates; or economists, like Thomas Sowell, Phyllis Ann Wallace, and Walter E. Williams; and philosophers, like Coleman Hughes, Abram Lincoln Harris, and Fanon Frantz; or educators, like Cornel West, Angela Davis, W.E.B Dubois, and Booker T. Washington; and activists, like Fanny Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis — what if each of them, and the millions of other unknowns, were examiners who’ve inspected the racial problem from different angles?
And what if the answer to our century-old question, “Where Do We Go from Here?”, can be resolved by considering what they’ve already offered up? Where we stand unbiased of where their thoughts align on the “conservative” and “radical” binary? And better yet, where we question this division and ask ourselves, Why are we abiding by this “two-house system” at all?
Can we not see the bigger picture here?
Four hundred years ago, everyone mentioned so far would’ve been killed. They are the very reason why books and pens were criminalized in our ancestor’s hands. These laws weren’t only used to hostage their ability to read and write, but to keep independent-thinking captive. This statement isn’t meant to condescend my ancestors, but merely to expose why literacy was a fatal crime — because once a “slave” could critically think — -they became dangerous property and were better off dead.
Because a literate slave could easily construct an argument justly opposing their captivity even against a manipulated doctrine proclaiming, they weren’t humans. And this is why I make a case for our freedom of thought — — an unconditional stance no matter if the next idea challenges mine.
We are descendants of people who couldn’t be free in all ways but still produced unity, organizing, rebellions, and railroads underground. We should not reduce each other to two-classifications, to two houses, to something a slave-master would do.
We can read, we can write — -we’re closer than we know. But, don’t take my word for it, think for yourself.