by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
MSNBC has decided that its stable of in-house Black Democrats is no longer in season, and can be discarded. Melissa Harris-Perry is hurt. She and others specializing in interpreting Black folks to white folks (and vice versa) are being pushed aside. “Harris-Perry believed, like so many before her, that the quality of her intellect could compete against a corrupt and racist system that only recognizes power, possession and ancestry.”
The “Negro Whisperer” from 1926 to 2016: Seasonal Workers
by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
“It was people like Harris-Perry who were saying. ‘Calm down. You just don't understand how this game works.'”
As the Obama Administration enters its final months in office Black TV personalities, such as Rev. Al Sharpton, Joy Reid and others face the realization that their presence is no longer required. These media personalities are facing a tenuous future with cable networks, such as MSNBC. Jared Ball reporting for The Real News explores this situation in a recent interview with Yvette Carnell titled: Melissa Harris-Perry and the Fall of the 'Negro Whisperers.' Carnell writes about politics, international and cultural issues for Your Black World and is the founder of BreakingBrown.
The concept of a “whisperer” is taken from a 1995 novel called the Horse Whisperer that explored the ability of a horse trainer to give voice to and interpret the behavior of his animals to their owners. The cross pollination of these concepts is fertile ground for analyzing the behavior of Black folks who provide professional interpretations of the African community to the wider white population through media. They simultaneously encourage Black communities to acquiesce and accept conditions of terror, political disenfranchisement and powerlessness as being part and parcel of the American condition.
For Carnell, these Negro Whisperers, “a gang, a gaggle of Black people,” were an unintended benefit to the Obama Administration. Their function, from the perspective of white media networks, was to explain the Obama administration to black and white audiences and allay tensions that may have roiled in either or both.
“They encourage Black communities to acquiesce and accept conditions of terror, political disenfranchisement and powerlessness as being part and parcel of the American condition.”
There were two discrete missions for these whisperers. The first was to provide a rationale that explained to the Black electorate how it was that Obama could ignore any accountability to a clear Black constituency after receiving over 90% of their votes. Second, and perhaps more importantly, they interpreted Obama to white people who could find comfort in having a Black voice endorsing the hidden white agenda, thus deflecting its criticism.
Yvette asserts that this Whisperer behavior, provides intrinsic value to corporate media groups, such as, MSNBC:
“…she (Harris-Perry) has played the role throughout Obama's presidency as someone who basically gave him cover, so that...when he was implementing policy that didn't help black people, and (was) talking about (how) one wave, or whatever, lifts all ships and all that nonsense, it was people like Harris-Perry who were saying...'Calm down, he is doing stuff for us. He is...helping us. You just don't understand how this game works.' ”
Despite her invaluable role in providing political cover to the Obama Administration and to those that depend on Black gatekeepers to keep the Black community in check, MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry’s situation exploded last week when it became obvious that her popular television program was in imminent danger. In a memo to her staff informing them that she was not prepared to continue the program, Harris-Perry wrote:
"…our show was taken — without comment or discussion or notice — in the midst of an election season. After four years of building an audience, developing a brand, and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced…I have stayed in the same hotels where MSNBC has been broadcasting in Iowa, in New Hampshire, and in South Carolina, yet I have been shut out from the coverage. I have a Ph.D. in political science and have taught American voting and elections in some of the nation's top universities for nearly two decades, yet I have been deemed less worthy to weigh in than relative novices and certified liars. I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobblehead. I am not owned by MSNBC. I love our show. I want it back.”
“They interpreted Obama to white people who could find comfort in having a Black voice endorsing the hidden white agenda, thus deflecting its criticism.”
Harris-Perry, however, quickly denied there was any racial component to the termination of her show. In fact, she later clarified her remarks to the New York Times saying she did not believe race placed a role in “her recent absence from the air.” She never linked its termination to the service she provided as an apologist for the Obama Administration, adding, “I don’t think anyone is doing something mean to me because I’m a black person.”
Despite Harris-Perry’s academic credentials and experience within academia she seemed unaware of the structural features of white supremacy and her participation in that system. As a political scientist one would have expected her to understand that groups rarely concede their power and privilege to others voluntarily. Nevertheless, whether she admitted it publicly or not, Harris-Perry's show was cancelled because – with Obama entering the lame duck period of his presidency – her role as a Negro Whisperer was no longer required. Denying the role of racism in the termination of her program did not make her seem above the fray or ingratiate her to those in power. Quite the opposite, begging to restore her show with “I love our show. I want it back” only served to marginalize the academic integrity she sought to assert.
Structural racism and white supremacy provide the basis for intergenerational experiences and links similar conversations. Harris-Perry's example is connected to a consistent pattern within Black middle-class behavior of wanting to believe that they have risen above the pains, punishments and humiliations suffered under white supremacy. Harris-Perry believed, like so many before her that the quality of her intellect could compete against a corrupt and racist system that only recognizes power, possession and ancestry.
Langston Hughes in a 1926 article writes about this class of “Negroes” consistent in its behavior and its devotion to protecting their corporate masters. When summarily dismissed from lofty positions or blocked from professional attainment they summarily deny any racial attribution. From The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain:
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, "I want to write like a white poet:” meaning subconsciously, “ I would like to be white.”…And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”
“She seemed unaware of the structural features of white supremacy and her participation in that system.”
From 1926 to 2016 the structure of white supremacy has remained vigilant and remarkably consistent. The 21st century group of “Negro Whisperers” will learn, as their ancestors before them, that those in power see their contribution as seasonal. Malcolm reminds us:
“What will they give us in 1965? I just read where they planned to make a black cabinet member. Yes, they have a new gimmick every year. They're going to take one of their boys, black boys, and put him in the cabinet, so he can walk around Washington with a cigar—fire on one end and fool on the other.”
There is no substitute for African self-determination. If we fail to learn this lesson we will continue to produce Negro Whisperers from one generation to the next.
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship by your side
Than none at all. Provide! Provide!
Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated: No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. She worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered South African vanadium mine workers. Marsha's successful lawsuit led to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet, serves on the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.com and coordinates the Hands Up Coalition, DC.