The black blogosphere’s outrage over bell hooks calling Beyoncé a terrorist is reminiscent of the outrage over Cornel West’s critique of President Obama. In both instances, contemporary black intellectuals have taken to the interwebs to express their utter disgust and have deemed West and hooks outdated. What is at stake in the younger generation’s critique is not simply a question of age, but rather is fundamentally a question of ideology. The vast majority of intellectuals of our time are proponents of the neoliberal project – privatization, individualism, and a full on acceptance of capitalist logic. Race, sexuality and gender are critical aspects of their work, yet there an outright refusal to say neoliberalism and capitalism are bad. Neoliberal capitalism feeds on discrimination and alienation. The system is not broken. It is ontologically flawed and working just fine. Contemporary black intellectuals strive for a non-sexist, non-homo and -trans-phobic, and non-racist seat at the table versus a construction of a new table. While breaking the back of various discriminations is crucial, it is insufficient in the face of global capital’s incorporation of historically othered persons who aspire to neoliberalism into the imperial project. To this end, individuals who have made it to the table are to be celebrated because they have achieved the Lacanian nightmare – masked as the American dream.
Respecting our Elders
These elders – hooks and West, who have been faithful in our struggle to our people – risking life and limb – are subject to a criticism by a younger generation of intellectuals who have yet to live under death threat. And none of us have written definitive text. West and hooks in their 20s published ground-breaking discourse-shifting tomes. Prophesy Deliverance and Ain’t I a Woman are two of the most important books written by black intellectuals in the late 20th century. These books broke with neoliberal logic and offered a radical reading of black life in the American empire. They guided and shaped generations of intellectuals to come. Their dialogue and book, Breaking Bread, offered a rare glimpse into the life of the mind of a black man and woman struggling together against the empire. bell hooks named white patriarchal capitalism – a linguistic intervention signifying the zeitgeist of hegemony.
Prior to the age of Obama, hooks and West were the very definition of what it meant to be a black public intellectual – radical intellectuals who held out for liberation for race, class, gender, and to a lesser degree, sexuality at once and who had an abiding love for black people. It seems the case that – as Eddie S. Glaude has argued – “The gravity of black intellectual life has shifted.” It is not to make an essentialist claim about blackness, but rather to acknowledge there has been an de-emphasis on collective struggle and hyper emphasis on individual access and attainment couched in postmodern lingua franca that is vacated of any systematic analysis of neoliberal logic. All of which is buttressed by a disdain for the past – a deeply American sensibility.
Novel But Not Radical
Novel critiques and epistemic skepticism have replaced the radical mode of being that has shaped much of black intellectual life in the United States and abroad. Intersectionality is not insurrection – defending thin counter-hegemonic practices is not the same as a full-on assault on the systems that circumscribe these practices. To be sure, the individual success of Obama and Beyoncé has offered a hopeful facsimile to those toiling on the night side of democracy. Even though their realities beg to differ, like all Americans, black people are seduced by the Horatio Alger narrative of meritocratic individualism. Obama and Beyoncé present possibilities of black progress. Their success presses the black poor to reproduce their Herculean rise. Obama and Beyoncé have both benefited from the black freedom struggle – yet have never made the kinds of political sacrifices that hooks and West have made. While West and hooks’ harsh wording might have been tempered with a nuanced nomenclature, their observations remain true.
President Barack Obama is the blackface of the American empire, a black mascot for Wall Street. Extrajudicial killings, expansion of the security state, drone strikes, black boot-strap speeches, expanded military operations in the Middle East and Africa, and Obama’s cozy relationship with Walmart and Wall Street titans affirm West’s observation. And Beyoncé’s relationship to Sheryl Sandberg’s feminism ignores the economic depravation facilitated by corporate elites and affirms Sandberg’s position that the best way to defeat sexism is to not fight it, but to “lean in” to patriarchy and become better at it than men – “Boss.” For Sandberg and Beyoncé, being a CEO in life is a laudable aspiration. Neoliberal logic does not allow them and their intellectual defenders to think about the ways in which corporations are mediators of oppression. Such a frame does not dismiss the power of Beyoncé’s transgressive sexual politics in popular culture or her business savvy; it accentuates the limits of neoliberalism and highlights its capacity to absorb othered bodies into its own logic. In reference to Beyoncé’s appearance on the cover of Time, bell hooks notes, “Let’s take the image of this super rich, very powerful black female and let’s use it in the service of imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy because she probably had very little control over that cover – that image.” Beyoncé is a most powerful woman in the entertainment industry; her individual success has not “trickled down” into the life chances of the black poor. The emphasis on individual achievement inside morally bankrupt systems is nothing less than terrorizing.
The Master’s House is Burning
While the presence of Beyoncé and Obama in the public discourse has generated some positive images and racist and sexist backlash to boot, their mode of being helps to sustain the white patriarchal capitalist system. The gravity of black intellectual life that West and hooks subscribe to privileges a sustained critique of the entire system.
Unlike hooks and West, Obama, Beyoncé, and most younger black intellectuals believe that the system is a good system that only needs to provide greater access to the historically othered. Thus there is a rush to defend the black embodiments of neoliberalism – Obama and Beyoncé. The radical black feminist and womanist tradition sheds light on the racist and sexist formulations inside and outside the black community and keeps its eye on the system writ large. However, the neoliberal disposition directs its fever-pitched critique at the blatant racist and sexist actions of individuals while it is unable to articulate the ways in which Beyoncé and Obama undermine the very possibility of anti-neoliberal discourse.
Again, the dominant intellectual disposition of contemporary black intellectuals is neoliberal. Their anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-transphobic and anti-homophobic sentiments are easily incorporated into the neoliberal project without critiquing neoliberalism. As Audré Lourde so eloquently wrote – a now often-quoted refrain – “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Neoliberalism is the master’s house and tool. It limits discursive space, subjugates radicality and seduces the othered into defending its existence.
Nevertheless, economic and ecological catastrophe abound. In order to vacate the premises, contemporary black intellectuals must shed the aspirational politics of individual success and situate ourselves in the broader tradition of black radical thought – never mistaking individual success with collective progress; thin opposition for revolutionary struggle; acknowledging clearly that white patriarchal capitalism and its neoliberal expression is amoral and unstable. The American empire is burning. We need firefighters – not cheerleaders. We must dream new dreams – a world without CEOs and empires. We are all at some level complicit in that system. West and hooks have given their lives in service to dismantling it. And for that we must be all grateful.