some black leadership should be left in the past

December 20, 2018
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The tragedy we’re most used to hearing Black artists experience is being too far ahead of their time. This concerns me as well: there are instances when something interests me, yet I am told by someone in power that there’s no space for what I long to create. This is different from being told that something is not good. The message here is not that you may want to push yourself to make the work better, but that you do not fit. And when you are told this by various people and platforms, you begin to understand that there is no single person to blame for this: the problem is time.

It took radical brilliance for Nina Simone to damn Mississippi, and for Toni Morrison to dream up an epic that made chattel slavery and ghosts real things for the reader. These artists were bogged down and limited by time. Whether this means that there were moments in their career when they were limited from fully expressing the breadth of their genius because there was no space or platform for it; it also means that socialization can often limit a person’s ability or thinking, if not critically and intentionally transgressed. These icons were saddled with the limits of an era that marginalized them and all that comes with it. This is a tragic story, though not original. What is not talked about often enough are the Black artists and thinkers who are locked into a time long gone.

With the recent controversy around Alice Walker’s recommendation of an anti-Semitic author named David Icke in a New York Times interview, the conversation around the iconic author’s politics were brought up for further examination. The overwhelming majority of people, myself included, concluding she was in fact citing and endorsing anti-Semitic text.

When I think of stories Walker told of rubbing and soothing the body of the dying intellectual and filmmaker, Marlon Riggs, I do wonder how someone could not engage bigotry. How can someone know so intimately death by political agenda—the genocide of a nation of Black writers who Alice Walker befriends, including Riggs, had their deaths orchestrated not just by the biological truth of having disease, but the negligence of the Reagan administration—and not be affected by it. That administration, not unlike many others—our current one included—was more more concerned with the reproduction of power, wealth, and whiteness over addressing the violence happening to a community stricken by HIV/AIDs. Alice Walker knows intimately what bigotry and domination can do.

This incident comes not too long after Louis Farrakhan went into his own controversy around using anti-Semitic language and ideas on Twitter. This is not the first time Farrakhan has been critiqued for anti-Semitism, and he has notoriously publicly spewed language that is bigoted based on sexuality, gender, or race.

When I think of both Farrakhan and Walker, I understand them not as Black thinkers or artists who were ahead of their time, but who’ve proven to be limited by their time. Their ideas about domination never expanded beyond the individual, which is necessary to fully critique society. It’s society that socializes the individual, and if you do not do this critical work, you land at bigotry that looks binary, and where villains must exist: The Jews, The White Man, and even mutated lizards, as David Icke theorizes.

It is this gap in critical thinking that creates the inability to both critique the individual and to understand that the individual is not the exclusive wielder of societal evils, but born of a society that is evil and reproduces humans capable of creating harm. Without such understanding, all of these people—Walker, Icke, and Farrakhan—arrive at positions that merely support and reproduce white supremacy.

Domination culture—no matter your past experiences or what you see perpetuated by humans— is a culture that does not value human life, especially if it decides the subject is no longer colluding with whiteness, patriarchy, or capitalism. Often, if the subject transgresses domination culture, he or she is made into an object of hatred and marginalization, perhaps even stripped of their humanity altogether, in the same way David Icke is able to imagine mutated lizards, or white people were able to convince themselves Black people were mules and property, not human.

Such ideas have been transgressed by thinkers and writers like Angela Davis and bell hooks, who consistently explore modes of thinking about domination that go beyond the individual and the moral binary, ideas that often halt true societal transformation. These women, who were also considered ahead of their time, seem to fit more comfortably in the future.

If we cling to that same thread of logic, we are able to see how individuals like Louis Farrakhan or Alice Walker—people who once felt so big and produced so many works and moments we loved—were not ahead of their time, but a product of it. And as they grow older and older, the revolutionary future feels increasingly unfit for their presence.