There is an insidious and largely unseen effort by the White House to silence the handful of voices that remain true to the black prophetic tradition. This tradition, which stretches back to Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, has consistently named and damned the cruelty of imperialism and white supremacy. It has done so with a clarity and moral force that have eluded most other critics of American capitalism. President Barack Obama first displayed his fear of this tradition when he betrayed his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, abetting the brutal character assassination of one of the church’s most prophetic voices. And he has sustained this assault, largely through black surrogates such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey, in vicious attacks on Cornel West.
“Jeremiah Wright was the canary in the mine,” West said when we met a few days ago in Princeton, N.J. “The black prophetic tradition has been emptied out. Its leaders have either been murdered or incarcerated. … A lot of political prisoners who represent the black prophetic tradition [are] in jail. They have been in there for decades. Or we have leaders who have completely sold out. They have been co-opted. And these are the three major developments. With sold-out leaders you get a pacified followership or people who are scared.”
“The black prophetic tradition has been the leaven in the American democratic loaf,” West said. “What has kept American democracy from going fascist or authoritarian or autocratic has been the legacy of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin King, Fannie Lou Hamer. This is not because black people have a monopoly on truth, goodness or beauty. It is because the black freedom movement puts pressure on the American empire in the name of integrity, decency, honesty and virtue.”
The tradition is sustained by a handful of beleaguered writers and intellectuals, including Glen Ford and his Black Agenda Report, James Cone, Carl Dix, Bruce Dixon, Boyce Watkins, Yvette Carnell, Robin Kelley, Margaret Kimberley, Nellie Bailey, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, Maulana Karenga, Ajamu Baraka and Wright, but none have the public profile of West, who is routinely attacked by Obama’s black supporters as a “race traitor,” the equivalent of a “self-hating Jew” to hard-line supporters of Israel. It is understandable why this tradition frightens Obama. It exposes him as the ideological heir of Booker T. Washington, a black accommodationist whose core message to black people was, in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, “adjustment and submission.” The wide swath of destruction Obama has overseen on behalf of the corporate state includes the eradication of most of our civil liberties and our privacy, the expansion of imperial war, the use of kill lists, abject subservience to Wall Street’s criminal class and the military-industrial complex, the relentless persecution of whistle-blowers, mass incarceration of poor people of color and the failure to ameliorate the increasing distress of the poor and the working class. His message to the black underclass in the midst of the corporate rape of the nation is drawn verbatim from the Booker T. Washington playbook. He tells them to work harder—as if anyone works harder than the working poor in this country—and obey the law.
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