Before Dyson and West: Remembering black luminaries’ ‘rap battles’


So you think the Michael Eric Dyson article on Cornel West in the New Republic is a tough one? As well as his tell-all interview with The Root? If so, you must not remember the political cartoon from Muhammad Speaks (the newspaper Malcolm X founded in his basement), which was published during the time Malcolm X was publicly feuding with the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois and any of our other great thinkers knew all too well what it felt like to be at the receiving end of a vilification. They won some and lost some. These are a few of the epic throwdowns—the motives and winners being my informed opinion.

W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Marcus Garvey
In 1923, in an article in The Century magazine, a white magazine not unlike today’s New Republic, Du Bois calls Garvey a “little, fat, black man; ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head.” Garvey, responding in his Negro World national newspaper, calls Du Bois “a Negro misleader” who was “a little Dutch, a little French and a little Negro. Why,” said Garvey, “in fact the man is a monstrosity” and “a hater of dark people.”

Motive: Who was going to lead the masses of black people—Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association or Du Bois’ NAACP? Which man’s concept of Pan-Africanism would stick?

Winner: The United States government, which deported Garvey and later hounded Du Bois.

W.E.B. Du Bois vs. the NAACP
In January 1934, Du Bois, in the pages of The Crisis magazine, the publishing organ of the NAACP, calls for blacks to form their own economic cooperatives. (Shades of Garvey?) His archrival within the NAACP, Executive Secretary Walter White, goes into intellectual battle, saying there is no form of segregation the NAACP can endorse, ever. Du Bois tells his readers to ignore his very light-skinned adversary, writing in The Crisis: “Walter White is white. He has more white companions and friends than colored.” After six months of intellectual debate within the magazine, Du Bois resigns.

Motive: Control over The Crisis, the NAACP’s public face.

Winner: Everyone. White gets rid of Du Bois and gets his own people to run The Crisis. Du Bois goes to Atlanta University and writes his history classic Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.

James Baldwin vs. Richard Wright
Richard Wright mentored a young writer named James Baldwin. Baldwin returned the favor by eviscerating Wright in an essay, first in Zero magazine and later in Partisan Review (both white intellectual magazines), called “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” In that critical essay, Baldwin intellectually stomps on Wright’s novel Native Son, calling Bigger Thomas, the book’s protagonist, the black urban gangsta of the day, a stereotypical “Uncle Tom descendant.”

When Wright died in 1960, Baldwin wrote his goodbye. “Alas, Poor Richard” sees print in Reporter, another white intellectual magazine. Baldwin admits that he was wrong for what he did to Wright and “had used his work as a kind of springboard into my own. His work was a roadblock in my road, the sphinx, really, whose riddles I had to answer before I could become myself.”

Motive: There can be only one No. 1.

Winner: James Baldwin

Malcolm X vs. the Nation of Islam
In 1963 Malcolm X is ousted from the movement he helped build, officially because of his comments about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, so he publicly retaliates.

Motive: Jealousy. Fear that Malcolm X would take over the Nation of Islam and, in the words of his friend, the historian John Henrik Clarke, do some housecleaning.

Winner: The United States government, especially its FBI COINTELPRO, designed to destroy black leadership.

Amiri Baraka vs. Shelby Steele
In 1991 Emerge magazine, a black monthly news publication, asked for a debate between Shelby Steele, a rising black conservative thinker, and playwright-poet Amiri Baraka. Steele called Baraka “a mad Marxist rapper,” and Baraka said of Steele, “He is but the latest of the ‘neo-con’ twits imperialism often neons among us to confuse, and is like a ‘natural defense’ any entity grows to protect itself.”

Motive: For Steele, to continue to gain favor among the white power structure, which began to listen to his arguments in his 1991 black conservative manifesto, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. For Baraka, it was to stop this movement in the bud.

Winner: Cornel West. He was “discovered” by those wanting an alternative to Shelby Steele. His first major book, Race Matters, quickly followed. Dyson, by his own admission in the New Republic piece, follows.

Tavis Smiley vs. Barack Obama
On the Tom Joyner Morning Show in 2008, Smiley, then a regular commentator for the program, criticizes Barack Obama for not showing up at his State of the Black Union gathering. Smiley had invited all the candidates, but only Hillary Clinton showed up. Smiley turned down the Obama campaign’s offer to send Michelle Obama as a substitute.

Motive: Smiley, saying he was being fair to all parties, tried to explain to black people that he criticized all the candidates who didn’t show up. But black America collectively said he was confusing his role: He was black America’s Larry King, not the next Martin Luther King. Tom Joyner, followed by the Rev. Al Sharpton and, now, Dyson, slowly turned against Smiley in public.

Winner: Barack Obama

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