Cornel West and the Intellectual Dishonesty of the ADOS Movement

Cornel West recently expressed support for the ADOS movement that has been promoted by Yvette Carnell and others. This was not surprising to me given West’s record of being a critic of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism. West’s support for ADOS also confirms much of what I have been saying about the ADOS movement, which is that the movement is rooted in an attack on Pan-Africanism and the arguments that many in the ADOS movement have made in support of their position is not rooted in a clear historical understanding of Pan-Africanism. West exemplifies this position.

John Henrik Clarke and Cornel West engaged in a debate over this topic in the 1990s, although it was not much of a debate as it was Dr. Clarke simply teaching a lesson. As Clarke said, he only debated his equals and West clearly was not his equal then and is even less so now. What semblance of a debate existed quickly ends at around the 59 minute mark of the video.

The debate was effectively over when West attempted to assert the difference between peoplehood and nationhood, to which Clarke replied: “Look, you wouldn’t say that to an Israeli.” Earlier in the debate, at around 43:00, West also asserts that Africa is too diverse to make generalized comments. West was attempting to emphasize the differences among African people, whereas Clarke was clearly promoting a Pan-African vision and Clarke spoke about his experiences in Africa to illustrate some of his points. West’s discomfort with Clarke’s Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist worldview is apparent, despite West’s expressed respect for Clarke. Clarke, on the other hand, was not very fond of Cornel West. Dr. Clarke once explained: “I think Skip Gates and Cornel West, and these other black conservatives, are no different from the Afrikans who participated in delivering the Afrikans to the beach, to be put on the boat to become slaves. They’re the new slave traders.”

It is not difficult to understand why Dr. Clarke would hold this view of West. West is a brilliant scholar, but his scholarship has so often been used to legitimize attacks against Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism. The best example of this is West’s critique of Black Nationalism in Race Matters. Clarke saw West as part of an emerging black intelligentsia which was being used to legitimize the academic assault against Pan-Africanism and this is precisely what West does in his book.

Most of West’s critique of Black Nationalism in Race Matters comes from a misunderstanding of the Black Nationalists. Much of his assessment also lacks historical context. For example, West writes that “the grand legacy of Marcus Garvey forces us never to forget that black self-love and black self-respect sit at the center of any possible black freedom movement. Yet this does not mean that we must talk about black self-love and black self-respect in the way in which Garvey did, that is, on an imperial model in which black armies and navies signify black power.”

Garvey spoke of black armies and black navies because of the specific challenges that he dealt with. At the time Africa was colonized by European imperialists and Garvey recognized that the Europeans would not give up their African colonies without an armed fight. This became especially apparent when Italy invaded and annexed Ethiopia. The first Italian invasion of Ethiopia was successfully repelled, but Ethiopia was not able to repel the second invasion. Garvey recognized that armed struggle would have been necessary to liberate Africa, which is why he explained: “The U.N.I.A. is preparing to go the way of all other peoples who have fought for liberty. We are preparing to go the way of George Washington and the noble patriots of this great country. It is the way of the sword and blood.”

Liberation for African nations such as Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa involved armed struggle and bloodshed, as Garvey had predicted. In writing about Garvey’s emphasis on black armies and navies West completely neglects the historical context behind why Garvey placed so much focus on building up military power and neglects to mention that it did require military struggle to liberate many parts of Africa. By neglecting to mention this West is able to slyly represent Garvey’s position as being somehow misguided or unnecessary, when the fact is that Garvey’s position was very much necessary for the situation that he was dealing with. Black armies signified black power for Garvey because such armies were necessary to protect the interests of African people.

West’s treatment of Malcolm X involves similar distortions. For example, he spends much time assessing what he describes as Malcolm’s fear of “cultural hybridity” in the United States. The issue is not so much that Malcolm feared cultural hybridity. The issue was that it was irrelevant for him. What would have been the point of focusing on the hybrid nature of African American culture, when as Malcolm explained, African Americans were treated as second class citizens. Malcolm explained:

Malcolm correctly recognized that the problem was that African Americans were not truly Americans, otherwise there would have never been a need for civil rights legislation in the first place. West writes that one “would think that Malcolm X’s second conversion, in 1964, to Orthodox Islam might have allayed his fear of cultural hybridity.” Why? Malcolm himself explained that his views on religion and race changed, but American society did not change. He explained: “But despite the fact that I saw that Islam was a religion of brotherhood, I also had to face reality. And when I got back into this American society, I’m not in a society that practices brotherhood. I’m in a society that might preach it on Sunday, but they don’t practice it on no day — on any day.”

Malcolm was not concerned about any notions of a hybrid culture because he was confronted with the reality of African suffering in America. West also seems to misunderstand certain aspects of Malcolm’s conversion. For example, West writes that for Malcolm “the most striking feature of these Islamic regimes was not their undemocratic practices but rather their acceptance of his black humanity.” West continues to explain that Malcolm “remained blind to basic structures of domination based on class, gender, and sexual orientation in the Middle East.”

Malcolm certainly was not blind to the fact that Arabs had been just as repressive of African people as Europeans had been which is why he publicly expressed his support for the revolution that overthrew Arab rule in Zanzibar. Moreover, Malcolm also expressed disappointment that Arab Muslims had not done more to support the struggles of African Americans. In an interview with Al-Muslimoon Malcolm was questioned on why it was that he still held “the Black color as a main base and dogma” for the struggle that he was engaged in. Malcolm replied by pointing out that African Americans were oppressed precisely because of their color. Malcolm further explained: “Much to my dismay, until now, the Muslim world has seemed to ignore the problem of the Black American, and most Muslims who come here from the Muslim world have concentrated more effort in trying to convert white Americans than Black Americans.”

In that interview Malcolm also pointed out that he noticed strong anti-Arab feelings in West Africa. He also felt that it was primarily the responsibility of the Arab world to truly practice the brotherhood and unity of Islam: “Since the Arab image is almost inseparable from the image of Islam, the Arab world has a multiple responsibility that it must live up to. Since Islam is a religion of brotherhood and unity those who take the lead in expounding this religion are duty-bound to set the highest example of brotherhood and unity. It is imperative that Cairo and Mecca (the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs and the Muslim World League) have a religious ‘summit’ conference and show a greater degree of concern and responsibility for the present plight of the Muslim world, or other forces will rise up in this present generation of young, forward-thinking Muslims and the ‘power centers’ will be taken from the hands of those that they are now in and placed elsewhere.”

Malcolm may not have spoken directly to the issues that confront the Arab world in the way that West would have liked, but I think West believes that Malcolm was less critical of the Arab world than he actually was. This is especially apparent when West writes about “Malcolm’s silence on the vicious role of priestly versions of Islam in the modern world.” One thing to also keep in mind is that Malcolm lived during the 1950s and 1960s, and during that period the Arab world was itself becoming free of European colonial domination. Malcolm saw Arabs as being part of the global non-white majority that was resisting white domination. This also contributed to shaping how Malcolm viewed the Arab world, especially in relation to struggles being fought by Africans in the United States. Again, West was writing from a different historical context that cannot be so easily applied to the period of time in which Malcolm lived.

West’s debate with Clarke and his critiques of Garvey and Malcolm demonstrates West’s discomfort with Black Nationalism, as well as his misunderstanding of Black Nationalism and the historical roots of that ideology. West’s recent comments in support of ADOS demonstrate that West still has not grown beyond his misunderstanding of Black Nationalism and Black Nationalism’s appeal to Pan-African unity.

In the short clip of West speaking on the ADOS movement, I have noticed two main issues with West’s statement that I want to bring attention to. The first issue is that when it comes to the racial oppression of African people we are only talking about a matter of degree. When slavery ended in the Caribbean, the Africans there were subjected to racial discrimination and oppression. The most dramatic example of this was Paul Bogle’s rebellion in Jamaica. For this Bogle was hanged. Africans in the Caribbean also had to wage a struggle of their own to adopt the ability to vote. There was never a KKK in the Caribbean or the type of legalized discrimination that existed in the days of Jim Crow, but this does not mean that systems of racial discrimination did not exist there.

The United States frequently intervened in many Caribbean countries and imposed racial domination over the African population as well. Haiti and the Dominican Republic were invaded and placed under the occupation of America in 1915 and 1916. After Puerto Rico and Cuba gained their independence, America effectively colonized Puerto Rico. Cuba was able to remain independent from the United States, but the United States also worked to ensure that white supremacy remained entrenched in Cuba. This is why an American general named Leonard Wood urged Cuba to deny voting rights to the African population. American racism has never been confined within the borders of the United States, which is something that Pan-Africanists have always understood.

The second issue with West’s statements is that he is trying to emphasize the differences between the various struggles that people of African descent are facing. West has claimed that he stands with those who “represent the radical wing of the black freedom struggle.” Surely West understands that this radical wing has always had an internationalist view of the African American struggle. Martin Luther King, whom West has written about, was not a Pan-Africanist, but he clearly saw the connection between the African struggle for freedom and the African American struggle for freedom. King said:

In embracing ADOS, West is embracing the opposite of King’s vision. The ADOS movement has typically been very hostile towards Pan-Africanism. This hostility comes at a time when Africans around the world are engaging in a struggle for our collective liberation. Omar al-Bashir is the latest African dictator to be toppled by a massive uprising in Africa. In the Caribbean we have seen similar uprisings and protests in recent years. There have been uprisings in Haiti, massive protests in Barbados, protests in Guyana, and the people of Barbuda have been fighting for their land rights. We are living in an era where there is a very active struggle for liberation on the part of African people everywhere. West, who claims to be part of this radical tradition, has endorsed a movement which has withdrawn from the international struggle in favor of a narrow tribal worldview. I use the word tribal because it is the language that Yvette Carnell has used to describe ADOS. I am not suggesting that West himself shares this narrow worldview, but, as I have already demonstrated, West has always been uncomfortable with the idea of racial unity on the part of African people.

There’s also a very serious concern regarding the fact that so much of the division that the ADOS movement is working to create is based on ignorance. Take for example this video by Jason Black in which he asks for someone to show him the Pan-African movement in Africa, which is around the 20 minute mark of his video:

The reason why I invited people in the ADOS movement to participate in African Risings’ African Liberation Day mobilization is so that these people can understand that there are Pan-African movements on the continent. Jason Black is one of the people that I specifically sent this invitation to, although I never received a reply from him. This doesn’t surprise me because if Jason Black was really looking for Pan-African movements on the continent he would have already found them before making his video. Jason Black is completely ignorant about the Pan-African movements that exists on the African continent, so rather than spending his time connecting with Pan-Africanists on the continent and building with them, he makes videos like the one above in which he helps to further spread misinformation and division.

At around 20:40, Jason Black asks for someone to show him the Pan-African movement in South Africa outside of Julius Malema. Is Jason Black aware of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania? This is the type of ignorance and intellectually dishonesty that has motivated me to write so much about the ADOS movement because, as a researcher and dedicated Pan-Africanist, I feel that it is my duty to correct the misinformation.

Then there is Tariq Nasheed talking about people immigrating from the U.S. Virgin Islands:

First of all, people from the U.S. Virgin Islands are American citizens. To say Candace Owens’ family immigrated from the Virgin Islands is like saying someone immigrated from California to New York. And of all the things that one could criticize Owens for, Tariq decides to go after her Caribbean ancestry. It’s the same thing Tariq did to Roland Martin.

Herman Cain is a proud Black American — he emphasizes Black American because he dislikes referring to himself as African. Politically what is the difference between Cain and Owens? Both are black Trump supporters, but rather than focus on political views, ADOS, being the tribal movement that it is, tends to want to focus on people’s ancestry or lineage.

According to some in the ADOS movement, a single non-ADOS ancestor makes you non-ADOS. Umar Johnson has a Cuban ancestor and therefore he is not ADOS. This is how narrowly tribal the ADOS movement can become.

As I said, ADOS is just a very misinformed movement and the fact that Cornel West would endorse such a movement is consistent with views that he has always expressed regarding Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism. The difference is that West has always been a consistent critic of any worldview or ideology which emphasizes the Africanness of Black Americans and the common connection between people of African descent. These are views that West has espoused long before there was an ADOS movement. West’s views were misguided and misinformed then, and they are misguided and misinformed now.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.



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Dwayne Wong (Omowale)

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.