Recently, the New Republic magazine published an essay that created frenzy within the black public intellectual community. The Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson published a 10,000-word essay lambasting his former friend and mentor, Dr. Cornel West. Dr. Dyson lamented Dr. West’s descent into irrational outburst of public disdain against President Barack Obama. The essay establishes the formidable voices these two black intellectuals have forged over the last two decades of American history. Dyson writes that West’s influence has not only waned, but has run its course in the annals of black prophetic voices in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Both men rose to prominence as notable voices of the hip-hop generation, speaking against the powers that be. They became the new voices of a different timbre of black liberation theology. Both men are deeply rooted in the black religious experience. Dyson is an ordained Baptist minister who has pastored and now lectures and teaches across the country. West is the son of a preacher, and while not in ordained ministry of any capacity, has been recognized as a prophetic voice on race, gender, social, and religious matters. Both are prolific authors (I own several of their books) and are highly esteemed by the hip-hop community culture as gurus and prophets. Indeed both have contributed to the storied fables and rhetorical synopses of the hip hop culture by either the spoken word genre (West has released several spoken word albums) or the dissection of hip-hop icons (Dyson has written several articles and books icons such as Tupac Shakur). However, their biggest connection is that both esteem Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a modern day prophet and seek to fill the void of his prophetic voice that was lost after his assassination.
While both Dyson and West have created for themselves a large public sphere for their intellectual prowess and prognostication, much of what they say and write remains largely unknown to many Black Americans. West rocketed to fame with his book “Race Matters” the seminal piece of writing that has continued to generate the main thinking points for contemporary racial thought. Dyson’s articulate, incredibly rapid speech filled with the highest of eloquent words, and swift cadence captures the ears of black and white listeners alike. Both still fail to connect to the general body of black believers, the faithful churchgoers who have yet to be liberated from an over-idealized existence in the faith of the black church and its religious experience. In that sense, both seem not to matter to the Master of their souls.
It is from this perspective that the “beef” between Dyson and West as exposed in the article is an elegy to the authentic prophetic voice that the Black church and community needs. What made the voices of James and Cecil Cone, King, Gardner C. Taylor, Howard Thurman, E.V. Hill, C.A.W. Clark, Leon Sullivan, and others is that they spoke to the masses and the master under the prophetic unction of an oppressed people. They have been revered as pillars of black faith and social empowerment. Both Dyson and West’s voice have been sullied by the esteem given them by the very media that once denied those aforementioned giants seats at the table (though to be fair, the American has become a different beast since the time of some of the aforementioned preachers). Dyson and West have both been the go-to scholars for the media to help bring that tense intellectual edge to matters that affect Black America. For some, Dyson and West represent the best and brightest of minds and voices in the Black community. For others, Dyson and West represent sell-outs who no longer authentically connect to the world or the people they speak for. For this writer, Dyson and West present only a pericope of the black intellectual prophetic voices that are yearning to engage on the same platform. Dyson and West only matter to the masters of the airwaves and not the Master of the “souls of Black folks.” When the prophetic voice becomes mainstream, it can no longer be prophetic. It becomes nothing more than a minstrel show. When the prophetic voice creates dissension among those to whom it has given. It loses its authenticity and power. When one prophetic voice uses the element that helped to shape it as an attack against another, it becomes nothing more than sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.
We are in need of authentic prophetic voices in the black community. We are in dire need of black intellectuals who are unafraid to once again proclaim what “thus says the Lord” to the masters of this American universe. We are in need of scholars who can help reshape the black mind into the great one it once was. While both Dyson and West will still share space in the amphitheater of public intellectuals, their fates have been sealed as nothing more than media puppets whose voice is no longer prophetic but leaning more towards pathetic.