Monday, June 27, 2011

A Heavy Weight Debate

(Chicago, IL)- The leading Black rhetorical prognosticators are always at the ready to opine on any subject. They have dealt with everything from the usage of the N-word to the political poetic geniuses of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace AKA “Biggie Smalls.”

So when word of a showdown between the pre-eminent duelers of word and Black culture, Dr. Cornel West and the Reverend Al Sharpton, announce they are going to lay bear their souls before the Black press, National Newspapers Publishers Association, there is a sense of something much bigger at play.

NNPA is struggling to stay relevant in a world where digital plays a bigger part in the world of African Americans who have abandon traditional strongholds in urban American and migrated to the suburbs. Leading this charge to evolve is Danny Blakewell who has merged his civil rights mission in Los Angeles and used his clout to take over the Los Angeles Sentinel and ask some of the nation’s storied Black newspapers to allow him to lead them into this revolution.

The Black press has had its challenges in this current environment. The African-American press' position as the authority of Black politics through its endorsement of candidates and the writing of the narrative of Black life is unquestioned. They haven’t lost the soul of black folks, but they are in a tug of war for Black youth. This youthful culture does not have a sense of why there is a Black press. They are less tuned into news with impact, instead they ask for more items of entertainment value (who’s dissing who; who’s started a reality series; who was seen on the red carpet etc…)

The fact more African-Americans use cell phones to reach the Internet are a poignant commentary on what challenges face the Black press in today’s society. At the Drake Motel in Chicago, at their annual meeting all of this is laid bare.

“I’m trying to set up Facebook Page for the NNPA,” says Richard Muhammad of the Final Call Newspapers. The Black Press has been slow to adopt some the technological tools many reporters use in their work. Two of those who’ve embraced the technology are in attendance, Benjamin Phillips, IV of the Baltimore Afro-American Newspapers and Denise Rolark Barnes of the Washington Informer. Rolark-Barnes who inherited her paper from her dad has been using the “new media” phenomena with traditional print.

Long before the rest of their brethren had embraced the net the Afro for a long time was in the space and leading the charge for change. Phillips and his cousin Jake Oliver of the Afro-American Newspapers were early adopters of the Internet moving in a direction a lot of Black newspapers should have been in years ago.

So with all this Black press power in the room the anticipation of Reverend Al Sharpton and Dr. Cornel West alleged duel brings out a who’s who. Predictably, supporters fall into either camp. There’s Dr. and Reverend Michael Eric Dyson whose books on culture are must reads (Rev. Marcia and Dr. Dyson are celebrating their 19th wedding anniversary today). Then there is Maulana Karenga and his wife, the father of Kwanzaa, getting a front row seat. Making an unexpected entrance is Martin Luther King, III the son of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I enter the hotel, the Reverend Jackson lets me know he’ll be listening. The Reverend Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, former head of the NACCP is here. Charles Ogletree, famed Harvard University Legal Scholar is outside the room selling his new book, but gives up the merchandising to see for himself. George Curry will be moderating the event. Lastly, Roland Martin of CNN and Tom Joyner Morning Show fame is using his new device to stream live and tweet simultaneously to the world. I’m seated with former NABJ President Herb Lowe and his wife Mira Lowe who are experimenting with a new twitter tool call “Storify.” It allows you log tweets as a running thread (genius).

The air is thick with possibilities. Some have suggested this is the “Thrilla in Manila” event. Rev. Sharpton quickly dismisses this suggesting; "If you came for a circus" then go to the Chicago Zoo. Despite this announcement no one is running for the doors. With this much “Black Star Power” in a room you dare not miss a word.

After remarks during a luncheon we retire to an adjacent room for the discussion. During the remarks portion both make references to Gideon from the bible. I’m reminded Dr. West’s PhD is in theology and Sharpton being a member of the clergy I should be not surprised at the biblical references (may need to read the good book again).

The Discussion

The idea which leads to this discussion came after Dr. West suggested the President was concerned more about plutocrats and oligarchs and not about poor people. The discussion will only last 30 minutes but as an observer it packs a punch.

Cutting to the chase George Curry asks, “If you had to do it over would you have said things differently about the President?” West, “you mean my dear Brother Obama.” “You didn’t call him that,” says Curry.

“I say what I believe… I proceed based on my conception of the war that we are in … we are in a war with oligarchs and plutocrats who are greedy who don’t care about poor and working people and proceed to generate policies that produce neglect, abandonment, police surveillance, mass incarceration, mass unemployment, and in the prophetic tradition, in all of its humility always says, no matter, you tell the truth about the suffering of the least of these the weak and venerable no matter the cost…I support those who have access to Brother Barrack, be it Brother Sharpton, be Brother Ogletree or others… there is a role to play with those who have access…there a role to play for insiders.”

Sharpton chimes in responding to charges of insiders not challenging those who championing the varied influence (Wall Street, Investment Bankers, etc…).

“Maybe Ogletree or some of us was there… which is why others in the past have been close to other presidents. ..We ain’t the first one to have access…That ain’t nothin new. ..I think it would be more glaring if the first African-American President didn’t have anybody with access to him. So rather than us condemning those with access we need to say to them… we must hold them accountable.”

This exchange is why I came. The back and forth was riveting. I’ve posted a portion of the debate that will give you sense their rhetoric. I’m not certain we learned anything spectacular, but it was window into world which may have been as important as at the turn of the century when debates between W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington occured(I know these two would not like the comparison but “I’m just sayin!”)

Charles Robinson, III


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