Beware the Drum Major Instinct: Cornel West and Tavis Smiley at Dillard on MLK Day

By Kristina Robinson

I’m an eighties baby. The Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday was signed into law by Ronald Reagan the year I was born. I’m also from New Orleans, Louisiana, one of the largest entry points in the nation for enslaved Africans, the private prison and incarceration capital of the world, and home to one of the largest income disparities in the country. Life in New Orleans is oddly an embodiment and the antithesis of Martin Luther King’s dream. If we are thinking about Holiday Martin, then sure, we do have the right to sit and live and eat and shop near white people.  But real-live, the-night-before-he-died Martin might say today that New Orleans, a place where black people are poor and exploited, is an utter nightmare.

On Dr. King’s holiday, Dillard University will host Dr. Cornel West, prolific author and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, along with PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley to address this very topic. The event, part of West and Smiley’s Poverty Manifesto lecture series, begins at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 21, in Lawless Memorial Chapel on Dillard’s campus (2601 Gentilly Blvd.).

What does solidarity with the poor mean? What does it look like in action in 2013? And do we need a tour? Our dear brothers seem to think so. This past election cycle, Smiley and West launched Poverty Tour 2.0: A Call to Conscience. They hosted six town halls in the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida. The mission of the trip was to bring a spotlight to “the plight of poor people of all races, colors, and creeds.” However, what has largely dominated the headlines concerning the pair’s recent activism is their full-throttle attack on President Obama and the new black intelligentsia employed by MSNBC, all of whom are vocal supporters of the administration. West and Smiley’s insults, cloaked in slick prose, made me think of two of living Martin’s—not Holiday Martin’s—last speeches.

“The Drum Major Instinct,” King’s last sermon before his death, warns humanity to police the drive that compels us to be out front. This is the drive that corrupts the mission of his “Mountaintop” speech, which he gave the night before his assassination. These final words by King reveal a very different man than the smiling, benevolent dreamer of the holiday. The living Martin, the man who was murdered in Memphis, was a man committed to ending poverty, militarism, and exploitation across the globe. He gave a call to action by means of economic withdrawal from those businesses in the business of exploitation. This is a strategy that requires each person’s single and equal contribution—no drum major needed.

So that’s the trouble for me with all this squabbling of Cornel West’s with the most privileged in the black community. All sides of that equation seem to want to delegitimize the other. This reeks of the drum major instinct to me, the need to lead the parade. What the poor and those in solidarity with them need is people willing to rest their fate with theirs—not those looking to be the victor in an intellectual cockfight over who’s the baddest motherfucker in academia.

This election cycle, I was constantly reminded of a 1992 Donahue episode entitled “The Issue is Race,” which Cornel West appeared on. He and Phil Donahue moderated a panel that featured, among others, a young, fierce Sister Souljah. She flat out told West that none of the programs hatched in the ivory towers of Princeton or other institutions were doing anything for black youth, who were suffering daily in America. I feel much the same about the battle of intellectual radicalism being waged by Cornel West and amongst the intelligentsia. Quibbling over whether Michael Eric Dyson is a phony for supporting the president or not is not stopping any bullets from flying down my city’s streets tonight, nor will it feed a hungry child.

During the election, I wanted Cornel West and Tavis Smiley to shut up. I’m one of those pragmatists. I felt like: Can’t we wait until Mitt Romney has been safely returned to his homes before we call Obama on his shit?  Yet, I am also a believer of saying what’s on your mind. As Dr. West wrote in his groundbreaking volume, Race Matters, “The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism.” I’m a fan of a multifaceted approach to the eradication of poverty and the liberation of exploited peoples. I believe, like in a boycott-and-divest strategy, that we’re all necessary, from the president to Dr. West to Sharpton, Farrakhan, the New Black Panthers, the MSNBC collective, and all us Black and brown people in the streets of New Orleans and elsewhere who are living this daily struggle to stay alive.

Poverty is a question of structures, not morals—this is why I would prefer to hear Dr. West’s plan to attack those things, rather than the character of the other public intellectuals he disagrees with. For those of us on the ground—those of us who aren’t on tour of any kind, who aren’t on television—it’s crucial, as Dr. King advised in the “Drum Major Instinct,” not to lob judgment at those who are. It’s crucial to be mindful of one’s own drum major instinct—an instinct played out in an individualistic race to the top, an ethic that says I am not my brother’s keeper. If we care to rid this wealthy nation of poverty, we must reconcile ourselves with the fact that the fate of us all rests on the poorest among us. The drum major in us may want to count our own individual accomplishments and deny our collective suffering, but the legacy of Dr. King calls us all to be bigger than ourselves—to be whole where the other is fractured, until one day we can all exist free and healed from bondage.