Melissa Harris-Perry VS Alice Walker: Sista Courtier VS the Real Sista Citizen

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Professor Melissa Harris-Perry has an MSNBC show and a byline in The Nation as “Sister Citizen.” But what would the output of a “sista citizen” look like? Would it extol and praise the Great Man, excusing him from responsibilities and his own promises, or would it ask him, and the rest of us hard questions? What's the difference between a citizen and a cheerleader?

Melissa Harris-Perry VS Alice Walker: Sista Courtier VS the Real Sista Citizen

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

For those who don't know the word, a courtier is a person who hangs out in a royal court or the company of some Great Man to compete for and enjoy his favor. Some of every president's advisors and associates are courtiers. So also are the people who used to hang around Mike Tyson or Floyd Mayweather so that every time the champ ordered a cheeseburger they could say “Cheeseburger! Get the champ a cheeseburger! That's right champ!”

Melissa Harris-Perry's latest piece in the Nation, titled What Difference Would Obama's Re-Election Make to Black Americans? is far from the worst piece of sycophantic fluff produced by the hangers on who infest our black political class these days. It's mercifully brief and well written. But it powerfully illustrates the depths to which some leading black intellectuals feel obliged to sink to keep their perks and further their careers.

The answers Harris-Perry offers to her title question are that Obama is a Democrat and blacks do better under Democrats than they do Republicans, and that of course he's black. “For African-Americans,” Harris-Perry says, “having a black president matters in terms not fully captured by policy outcomes.” In other words, for Harris-Perry Obama's center-right policies of war, austerity and privatization of essential services like the public schools have and ought to have no bearing on his black support. Thus freed from having to analyze the policies, the lady can descend into hagiography:

No matter what policies he pursues, the president’s racialized embodiment stands as a symbol of triumphant black achievement. By embodying the American state in blackness, President Obama stitches together the double consciousness identified by W.E.B. Du Bois: “two souls, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” For many black observers, there is a certain wonder in the simple reality that President Obama has not been rent in two by the sheer force of embodying both blackness and Americanness.”

While Harris-Perry shies away from examining the actual impact of her Great Man's policies, or holding him accountable to his own promises and the needs of millions who voted for him, she takes quite seriously her courtier's duty to make the Great Man at ease. She recounts that when she sat down to do an Oval Office interview with the president for Ebony magazine she was pleased that she was able to make the president laugh. For Harris-Perry apparently that was the high point of it all.

But is making the Great Man chuckle really the best we can expect from our marquee black intellectuals these days? Were there just no difficult questions to be addressed, no issues upon which the president has been less than truthful or forthcoming about till now.

Did Harris-Perry ask about the president's policy of jailing whistle blowers, or his torture of Bradley Manning, or why he made bankers who bet against their own bad loans whole but has failed to rescue hundreds of thousands of foreclosed, and often black homeowners? Did she ask why the president can't or won't do a WPA-style program like President Roosevelt in the 1930s to dig subway tunnels or create green jobs, or why he continues to dodge climate change negotiations, champion nukes and “clean coal” and hasn't stopped the fruitless and destructive war on drugs? Not likely, as Harris-Perry has already told us that policy is a lot less important than his being a Democrat with “two warring ideals in one dark body...” and all that.

The Harris-Perry byline in the Nation is “Sister Citizen”. But you really cannot be a citizen and a courtier at the same time. Citizens serve the people and ask hard questions. Courtiers serve themselves by serving the court of some Great Man.

Alice Walker is a lot closer to being a real Sister Citizen than Harris-Perry will ever likely get. Walker is unafraid to pose difficult, and for the powers that be, uncomfortable questions. Her poem “Democratic Womanism, read in a September 28 Democracy Now interview begins...

You ask me why I smile
when you tell me you intend
in the coming national elections
to hold your nose
and vote for the lesser of two evils.
There are more than two evils out there,
is one reason I smile....”

The rest is well worth reading. Though Walker did gush through an unconditional “...it's so beautiful to have a pretty brown family in that big White House...” endorsement of the president back in 2008, the lady is no courtier. Walker put herself in harm's way, on one of the relief boats to occupied Gaza, the world's largest open air prison, enclosed and operated with gigantic US support by what Romney and Obama agree is the United States' “most steadfast democratic ally in the Middle East.”

Recent polls cited in Ha'aretz, the Israeli newspaper of record, reveal most Israelis think an apartheid state is OK, and describing it as that is all right as well, as long as they get to be on top and Arabs are on the bottom. A real sista citizen would have a deep problem yukking it up, even with a black president who backed and bankrolled apartheid with her tax money and in her name anyplace on earth.

If Ebony magazine commissioned a real sista citizen in the tradition of Alice Walker to interview President Obama, the result would be something really worth readying. For its part, The Nation needs to reconsider Harris-Perry's byline. She's no sista citizen. She's a sister, but a cheerleader, a courtier. A sista courtier.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report. He lives and works near Marietta GA and is a member of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. He can be reached via this site's contact page, or at [email protected].