At the age of 71, I am a member of the progressive sector of African-American intellectuals, the post-World War II civil rights generation. The civil rights organizations I identified with were the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women, the Congress of Racial Equality, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, among others. The leadership personalities I looked up to and revered were W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Mary McLeod Bethune, Dorothy Height, James Farmer, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, John Lewis, Medgar Evers, and Fannie Lou Hamer, to mention only a few.

However, just recently several articles have appeared by members of the post-civil rights era generation of Black academics that amount to tossing poisoned darts at African Americans’ mainline civil rights tradition and its courageous leadership figures. One of these civil rights tradition-offending articles, penned by Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, appeared in the New York Times, September 27, 2002. In the op ed piece, Dyson claims he belongs to a new generation of Black intellectuals who consider leadership personalities like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks fair game for anyone’s comedic dishonoring. He defended such dishonoring of King and Parks in the Black people-offending MGM film, “Barbershop.”

Supporting the mindless hip-hop style irreverence toward African-American civil rights leadership, Prof. Dyson considers it some kind of new freedom for Black actors and entertainers to verbally dishonor Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and others. Dyson approaches the analytically bizarre in his article when he claims “that the barbershop…may be one of the last bastions of unregulated speech in black America.” He also claims that, “at the worst [civil rights organizations] are antidemocratic institutions headed by gifted but authoritarian leaders.”

These observations are not just bizarre, but outright falsehoods. They are analytically wrong and serve as anti-Black ammunition for conservative opponents of African-Americans’ civil rights agenda. The fact of the matter is that millions of everyday African-American citizens are fully aware of the unique, populist give-and-take interaction between leaders and followers that is typically experienced in branches of the National Council of Negro Women, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Bar Association, the African Methodist Episcopal Church convention, Black women’s sororities, etc. Extending forward from the Emancipation era in the late 19th century, the nooks and crannies of African-American life have been saturated with open speech, far more so than among other American groups. Open speech is precisely what, for example, Negro spirituals, gospel music, the “dozens,” dinner table-talk, street talk, meetings of all kinds of African-American organizations, have been about. Michael Dyson, an ordained Black clergyman, might do himself well to revisit the folk essence of African-American institutions, before he again contemplates an affront to Black people’s honor.

But Dyson’s article was a relatively mild version of the new Black leadership pretense among hip-hop spokespersons, when compared with another op ed article in the Boston Globe (October 2, 2002) titled “There’s No Bridging The Hip-Hop Gap,” by Todd Boyd, a professor of cinema/TV.  Boyd’s grotesque slanders erupt like weeds from a thicket of historical ignorance, as he attempts to elevate hip-hop spokespersons to premier leadership status among African-Americans. Let me explain.

Slandering the ancestors

Todd Boyd commences his historically vacuous article with a cynical assertion that nothing associated with African-American life and history warrants reverence from today’s young Black citizens. He dismisses as valueless the courage, blood, sweat and tears expended by Blacks in the long and tortuous struggle to smash the cruel edifice of legal White supremacy. This intellectually thuggish outlook embraced by Boyd and his hip-hop followers – an outlook that honors nothing genuinely human – is packaged in slick commercialistic lingo that adds to its profanity. Boyd appears to be building a career on insults to past generations of heroic American-American leaders and citizens who, in Martin Luther King’s words, “fought the good fight.” Boyd’s words drip with contempt for Black people’s civil rights tradition:

The new-school hip-hop generation exists with a mandate to ‘keep it real’; this has to do with a hardnosed truth about the world and letting the chips fall where they may. There is now a generation of black people in the United States who find the ways of their parents and grandparents inapplicable to their own lives.

In elaborating this crude and nihilistic outlook – this ode to hedonism and materialism, with its slap in the face of the heroism of our ancestors’ struggle to smash American slavery and White racism – Boyd wants the post-civil rights generations to believe that the only important outcome of their ancestors’ struggle was “assimilation into the mainstream.” This is a twisted, barefaced lie. The facts of the matter are, of course, quite different. Thanks to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, multi-thousands of Black Americans have a greater number of middle-class and good working-class jobs and hold authoritative positions in industry and government. Yet they are in no serious sense “assimilated into White society,” because White American society still harbors the racist mystique in most of its sectors.

The vast majority of us African-Americans who work alongside our White American compatriots in industry, banks, retail stores, schools, colleges, law firms, hospitals, in construction, etc., attempt to cosmopolitanize and liberalize the mindset and attitudes of White Americans, rather than defer to and get-along-with old racist habits and attitudes of White Americans. The goal of most Blacks has never been “to assimilate” into some White “mainstream.” Boyd’s charge against the vast majority of today’s middle and professional class Black Americans – that they have “assimilated into racist White America” – is nothing but a lie!

Boyd even has the gall to package this Big Lie in pseudo-radical language: “Hip-hop,” he tells us, “having come about in the aftermath of civil rights, sees this assimilation as being akin to selling one’s soul to the mainstream [white] devil.” I could hardly believe my eyes when they fell upon this sentence, this arrogant and inept ploy by Prof. Boyd to, first, co-opt Minister Farrakhanesque, Black nationalist militant lingo (“the mainstream [white] devil”), then attempt to make it applicable to the phony militant patina of hip-hop verbalism. Such contortions suggest just how pathetic hip-hop minded Black intellectuals like Boyd, Michael Dyson, Tres Ellis, and their circle have become in the quest to claim for themselves the mantle of “new Black leadership.”

The fact of the matter is, there’s nothing whatever that’s seriously radical or progressive about hip-hop ideas and values.  It is sad that there are university academics among us like Michael Dyson and Todd Boyd (respectively at the University of Pennsylvania and University of California) who fail to recognize the political emptiness of most hip-hop expression. Hip-hop entertainers and its entertainment modalities do not represent a “new worldview” for African Americans. Quite the contrary, the “hip-hop worldview” is nothing other than an updated face on the old-hat, crude, anti-humanistic values of hedonism and materialism.

The “hip-hop worldview” is far from being a viable post-civil rights era message to African-American children and youth. It is seldom a message of self-respect and self-dignity as Black individuals and as American citizens, a message of discipline of one’s emotions, discipline towards education, discipline and respect toward one’s parents, and discipline and respect towards friendship among peers of both sexes – this last being a discipline so badly required to reduce unacceptable levels of violence among African-American youth. It is ironic, in fact, that Black youth in poverty-level and weak working-class families who struggle to design a regime of self-respect and discipline in matters of education and interpersonal friendship, get no assistance whatever in these respects from hedonistic, materialistic, nihilistic, sadistic, and misogynistic ideas and values propagated by most hip-hop entertainers. The cruelty of the irony is compounded because many hip-hop entertainers come from working-class backgrounds, and yet lack awareness of the injury done to the life chances of themselves and their peers by the warped values that are the hallmark of hip-hop. This is truly sad indeed! Truly sad that Professor Todd Boyd can claim that hip-hop represents a new leadership paradigm for African-Americans.

Contempt for the Black legacy

Of course, hip-hop can claim to be associated with a certain kind of achievement. The genre has fashioned an entrepreneurial and commercial accumulation breakthrough among African-Americans in the Black/White pop entertainment relationship. As Todd Boyd is happy to report in his article, “the hip-hop generation has produced several black figures on Fortune magazine’s list of the richest people under 40.” However, hip-hop entertainment gains in African-American business ownership are hardly the only important entrepreneurial advances among African-Americans in the post-civil rights era, as anyone who keeps up with the nearly 30-year-old Black Enterprise journal is well aware.

Whether they recognize it or not, Todd Boyd, Michael Dyson, and their hip-hop intellectual colleagues have become advocates of anti-human and Negro-minstrel skewed dynamics in contemporary African-American entertainment. It is utter nonsense to pretend that this amounts to a new kind of leadership paradigm for African-American society. Yet this is precisely what Professor Boyd claims in his article. He writes with pride that “Whereas the civil rights generation found its calling in politics and the pursuit of political institutions, this hip-hop generation has contempt for these institutions and finds [commercial] culture to be the primary means of expression.” Thus, for Todd Boyd and also Michael Dyson, African-Americans worthy of respect today are not “Thurgood Marshall, Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Fannie Lou Hamer…etc.,” but “Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, Russell Simmons, Master P., Queen Latifah, and Missy Elliot.”

Clearly, something quite awful has gone wrong in the intellectual character of the new advocates of hip-hop culture like Boyd and Dyson. Their intellects have become saturated with inhumane, politically useless and morally repugnant pop entertainment modalities. Interestingly enough, there is an effort – hopeful perhaps – to capture some of the élan generated by hip-hop entertainment and translate it into genuine social and political activism, the kind of activism Todd Boyd has “contempt” for. A group calling itself the First Active Arts Youth Conference has emerged with this goal in mind, and launched its inaugural event in the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, on September 21st, 2002. (See Renee Graham, “Stirring Consciences with Hip-Hop,” Boston Globe, September 20, 2002.) If such a new trajectory within hip-hop modalities is to succeed, it clearly must disengage from the typical dynamics which have thus far defined the cynical character of hip-hop.

Dr. Martin Kilson received his BA degree from Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, and his PhD from Harvard University, where he taught from 1962 to 1998. He was the first Black granted full tenure at Harvard. Kilson is Frank G. Thomson Research Professor, Harvard, and recently completed, “The Making of Black Intellectuals: Studies on the African-American Intelligentsia.”

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Issue Number 50
July 17, 2003

Other commentaries in this issue:

Cover Story: Barefoot, Sick, Hungry and Afraid - The real U.S policy in Africa

The Consequences of Believing Your Own Propaganda by Mamadou Chinyelu

Cartoon: Hollywood's Magic Negro

Affirmative Action as a Tool of Imperialist Expansion and Aggression by Mark P. Fancher, Guest Commentator

One Bush Too Many in Africa by Kweli Nzito, Ph.D., Guest Commentator

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Contents of Issue 49 July 3, 2003:

Cover Story
The Slow and Tortured Death of Affirmative Action - Redress of racial wrongs no longer public policy

Supreme Court Affirmative Action Decision

A message from Clarence Thomas to all African Americans.
View the BuzzFlash Cartoon by Eric Harrison.

GOP Bullies DC on Vouchers - No democracy for Black city

Strom Thurmond survived by Black daughter... Can the world survive "bubble" America?... DLC could be fatal to Democrats

Movies' 'Magic Negro' Saves the Day - but at the Cost of His Soul by Rita Kempley

Fear of a Black "Street" Army By Glen Ford, Co-publisher, The Black Commentator

The New York Times’ Racist Lies about Africa by Milton Allimadi, Guest Commentator

The "Enronization" of America by Ahmed M.I. Egal, Guest Commentator

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.