Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

A History Of Beef Between Black Writers, Artists, and Intellectuals

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, left, escorts Dr. Cornel West across the stage during a symposium at Sharon Baptist Church, in Philadelphia, Pa, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2002.
Brian Branch-Price
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, left, escorts Dr. Cornel West across the stage during a symposium at Sharon Baptist Church, in Philadelphia, Pa, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2002.

Over the weekend, The New Republic posted a 10,000-word essay by black academic and author Michael Eric Dyson that's created quite a buzz within a certain segment of black America.

It's a massive takedown of fellow black intellectual Cornel West, with whom Dyson shared a fine bromance for a couple decades before souring on his former mentor, partly over West's unrelenting criticisms of President Obama (and partly over a whole lot of pettiness). West has in the past described Obama as a "neoliberal opportunist," a "Rockefeller Republican in blackface," and a "black mascot of Wall Street." Dyson thinks that's unfair—and disrespectful.

West, who now teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York — after stints at Harvard and Princeton — has been long admired for his old-school affinity for jazz and blues, mortician-chic couture (black three piece suit, black tie, white shirt) and signature afro. His 1994 book Race Matters propelled him to the top tier of the country's black intellectuals. As a young man, Dyson, who now teaches at Georgetown, was an admirer, a mentee, and eventually a friend, even as Dyson's own star began to sparkle on talk radio, talking-head shows, and the college lecture circuit.

While the reverberations from what's being referred to as the Dyson Takedown continue to roll out, some say this ivory tower sturm und drang seems less than productive when the rest of black America is in extremis. Here's Gary Younge at The Guardian:

"In the best of times, this back-and-forth by two highly paid professionals" would be just a tempest in a faculty club teapot.. "But these are not the best of times," Younge continues. "Black people are being shot dead in the street almost daily by trigger-happy cops and two ostensibly smart men, who have both produced excellent work and who pride themselves on being engaged academics responsive to the needs of the black community, are firing broadsides at each other."

This got us at Code Switch recalling some epic disagreements between black thinkers and doers over the years; beefs like this didn't start with West and Dyson — or even Nas and Jay Z. It's been going on for at least 150 years. Take a look:

W.E.B. DuBois vs. Booker T. Washington

DuBois, who came from a pedigreed, financially stable New England family, became the first black person to receive a PhD from Harvard. A sociologist by training, he wanted the push for civil rights to focus on creating an educated black intelligentsia class. He called this class the "Talented Tenth," and believed it would raise the rest of the race by smoothing the path for others.

Washington, born into slavery, was a pragmatist. He believed former slaves and their immediate descendants needed to be financially independent before all else, and that black communities could prosper only by running their own businesses. His philosophy was if blacks should stayed in their own lane, they could stablilize and perhaps even prosper without interference from Southern whites who were vehemently (and violently) determined to maintain their status under segregation. DuBois strongly disagreed with that approach.

Both men believed in racial uplift, but their plans for getting there were dramatically different. Their argument was neatly encapsulated by Dudley Randall's famous 1969 poem on their back and forth.

W.E.B. DuBois vs. Marcus Garvey

Although Garvey and DuBois were both Pan-Africanists, there was little love lost between them. Their difference was mainly ideological: Garvey concentrated on the needs of the everyday black person, where DuBois dwelt and worked in more elite circles. But their mutual disparagement was also tainted by colorism: DuBois once described Garvey as "a little, fat black man; ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head." Garvey dismissed DuBois as "a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro...a mulatto...a monstrosity."

DuBois's vision of racial uplift jibes with what some call respectability politics today. He wanted to push shining examples of black citizenry front and center for white America to see, people so accomplished it would be hard to deny them their rightful place in society.

Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant, didn't think whites would ever come to accept blacks. He proposed that black Americans return to Africa, where they would live as part of a majority population and perhaps have real political power. He created and sold shares in the Black Star Line, a fleet of ships that he said would eventually sail black Americans back to Africa. In the meantime, he urged, black Americans should work for themselves, support black businesses and services, and avoid contact with whites, who he considered injurious to a healthy black psyche.

DuBois will always be synonymous with barrier-breaking, civil rights and black intellectual achievement. Today, one of the biggest centers of black study is based at his alma mater, Harvard, and named for him. But Garvey left a living legacy, too: it's not a stretch to say that his philosophies influenced the "Do for Self" teachings of the Nation of Islam and the Black Is Beautiful movement of the late 1960s.

Zora Neale Hurston vs. Proper Negroes Everywhere

Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, has by now been rehabilitated as a black cultural icon, but for several decades, a large swath of educated black society deplored the frank depictions of black country life in her novels. They worried that the black characters in her books who laughed loud, danced long, spoke in dialect and were, in general, gleefully "country" were somehow dragging down the race.

Hurston then, kind of like Tyler Perry now, was unrepentant. "I am not tragically colored," she declared in the face of these critiques. "I do not weep at the world. I'm too busy sharpening my oyster knife."

James Baldwin vs. Richard Wright

Wright was the elder statesman of the black expatriate community in Paris. Baldwin was the young upstart, fiercely unafraid of speaking his mind and letting the chips fall where they would. His essay "Everybody's Protest Novel"took a healthy swipe as the novel-as-polemic (think Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Dickens's Bleak House and Harriett Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, stories powered by a social mission).

"Literature and sociology are not one and the same," Baldwin wrote. Black characters in protest novels are not their oppressive conditions, although many readers—especially white ones—would conflate the two. Let art be art, he declared, and don't cloak your protest under a narrative veil.

Wright saw the essay as a personal criticism of his own work, especially his best-selling novel Native Son and his memoir, Black Boy. The differences led to a rupture that was never repaired, although after Wright's death, Baldwin reflected appreciatively on Wright's legacy, saying Wright convinced the world that one could be black and a writer: "He proved it could be done."

Interestingly, both men's works are now read during Banned Books Week.

Mary McLeod Bethune vs. Mary Church Terrell

Terrell, an activist, early feminist and one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree (Oberlin), was a tall and slender beauty and part of turn-of-the-century Washington's black elite. Her father, a former mixed-race slave from Memphis, was one of the South's first black millionaires.

Bethune's parents had been slaves, too — she'd worked the South Carolina fields with them — and she maintained a lifelong interest in raising the quality of life for non-elite black folks. She established a school for black girls in her adopted state of Florida, to teach them essential life skills.

Terrell, about a decade older than Bethune, had been president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, which was dedicated to the protection, support, and uplift of black women and the pursuit of civil rights. Bethune would eventually hold the same position years later, where her brisk directness and interest in a faster-paced agenda ruffled many feathers.

Bethune chafed at the older woman's go-slow advice, and Terrell thought Bethune too reliant on the generosity of white patrons and protectors—chief among them Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. When a February 16th letter to Bethune warned "we should not try to spread ourselves over too wide a surface and thus dissipate our influence and strength," McLeod took umbrage and sarcastically thanked Terrell "for the corrections you have made. I am always happy to have my friends point out my errors. I know how full of them I am."

The two women presented a friendly front in public, though, believing it was important to keep their differences within the black community.

Tyler Perry vs. Spike Lee

Like the debate over Zora Neale Hurston's work, the arguments over how to portray "real" black life in art continues. Lee has derided many popular black films, Perry's among them, as "coonery and buffonery. I know they're making a lot of money and breaking records, but we can do better."

Perry responded from the red carpet at the premier of his sixth movie, Madea's Big Happy Family: "Do you see the millions of people that are coming to see this? Why the hell would I be worried about a Spike Lee or anybody else? They all can go straight to hell, do you understand?"

For another historical timeline of black beef among the talented and famous, take a look at the one The Root put together last year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.