This article originally appeared on 18 Jan 2018 at https://www.popmatters.com/louise-thompson-patterson-keith-gilyard-2520985874. Here's an excerpt of this piece everyone should be reading:
In mid-December, noted American philosopher, social critic, and public intellectual Cornel West published an excoriating commentary on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
"Coates and I come from a great tradition of the black freedom struggle," West writes. "[Coates] represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible. This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.
"The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading."
In a powerful and important critique, West criticizes both Coates and Obama – "the first black head of the American empire". In contrast to those who choose to cooperate with and even benefit from a neoliberal structure that still oppresses black Americans and other marginalized populations of the world, West proudly affirms his decision to stand with those "who represent the radical wing of the black freedom struggle. We refuse to disconnect white supremacy from the realities of class, empire, and other forms of domination – be it ecological, sexual, or others."
In addition to the core disagreement between West and Coates -- whether, and how far, to participate in American capitalism and empire -- there's a generational divide as well. West was publishing essays on Marxism in the '70s; Coates was just born around the same time.
West's essay sparked a terrific intellectual debate, drawing in all sorts of other brilliant interventions, both for and against his position (and some neither). Some participants have urged the two to stop fighting but in many ways this sort of vigorous public debate is precisely what America's increasingly moribund intellectual fabric needs.
Peniel Joseph's intervention on the matter reminds us "that black intellectual traditions… have always been fraught, contested and hotly debated in public and private." His article offers mostly male examples of this lengthy tradition. But the issues and realities that divide West and Coates would be all too familiar to Louise Thompson Patterson (1901-1999) as well. Keith Gilyard's new biography of Patterson offers a sobering reminder of the lessons to be learned from those who came before in the struggle.