Portrayed by the immensely talented Jeffrey Wright:
Dr. Narcisse is a doctor of divinity, vice, and chaos. So, he walks into the room and he stirs things up but he’s an equal opportunity troublemaker, so it’s not solely with Chalky that he has issues. But his relationship to Chalky is one that’s based in the intra-racial relations of the time to a wonderfully detailed extent—at that time, there was something of a great debate within African-American society, among the great thinkers of the past: W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and within the Harlem Renaissance about what was the way forward. Within that debate were some pretty vicious personal attacks over complexion, politics, between urbane and rural—a lot of those dynamics are fleshed out within the relationship between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky. It even further immerses the storyline in real history.Hopefully, Jeffrey Wright's character Valentin Narcisse will inspire viewers to learn more about Marcus Garvey, arguably the most powerful black leader in United States history.
This is a fascinating time for those of us interested in the politics of black respectability. While public discussions of black respectability are not new in the United States, the election of Barack Obama has pushed them into the forefront of the public discourse. Yes, these conversations have long-occurred in black private spaces, and among activists, organizers, intellectuals, and among "regular" folks. But changing media, the cracking of the colorline, new technologies, and the rise of a multicultural elite class, have created a "Black Superpublic" where what were once private conversations are now made accessible to the mass public.
In keeping with this moment, Barack Obama has embraced the opportunity to play Scold-in-Chief of Black America. To much controversy, Bill Cosby has famously called out the black underclass, the ghetto youthocracy, and how the culture of poverty thesis has been proven to be an internalized life world for all too many, wherein limited material circumstances, a lack of education, weak impulse control, and poor decision-making skills have come to be inexorably identified with what it means to be "authentic" and "black".
Historically, those African-Americans who were invested in the politics of black respectability, we called them "race men" and "race women", had a deep and abiding love of black people. While their words may seem harsh to the post civil rights generation, these advocates and fighters for black uplift and human rights were confronting a system of formal white supremacy. For most of American history, the colorline was a life and death matter. It killed, demeaned, and marginalized both black lumpen and black royalty. In its own ironic way, Jim and Jane Crow white supremacy was radically democratic and inclusive.
The debate about black authenticity was also central to the various types of resistance, as well as forms of political advocacy and behavior, embodied by the Black Freedom Struggle. Likewise, the "Black Prophetic Tradition", what is a philosophy and rhetorical approach where African-Americans are truth-tellers and the conscience of a nation that force it to live up to the promise of freedom and full liberties and rights for all peoples, is also at the heart of the Black Freedom Struggle.
But who gets to police the boundaries of this tradition?
Cornel West has nominated himself to this role. While the routine sniping and upsetness by Brother Cornel towards Barack Obama has become a public spectacle and show since the President's election in 2008, West has outdone himself in the following conversation with Chris Hedges at Truthdig where he suggests the following:
“He is a shell of a man,” West said of Obama. “There is no deep conviction. There is no connection to something bigger than him. It is a sad spectacle, sad if he were not the head of an empire that is in such decline and so dangerous. This is a nadir. William Trotter and Du Bois, along with Ida B. Wells-Barnett, were going at Book T tooth and nail. Look at the fights between [Marcus] Garvey and Du Bois, or Garvey and A. Philip Randolph. But now if you criticize Obama the way Randolph criticized Garvey, you become a race traitor and an Uncle Tom. A lot of that comes out of the Obama machine, the Obama plantation.”
“The most pernicious development is the incorporation of the black prophetic tradition into the Obama imperial project,” West said. “Obama used [Martin Luther] King’s Bible during his inauguration, but under the National Defense Authorization Act King would be detained without due process. He would be under surveillance every day because of his association with Nelson Mandela, who was the head of a ‘terrorist’ organization, the African National Congress.
We see the richest prophetic tradition in America desecrated in the name of a neoliberal worldview, a worldview King would be in direct opposition to. Martin would be against Obama because of his neglect of the poor and the working class and because of the [aerial] drones, because he is a war president, because he draws up kill lists. And Martin King would have nothing to do with that.”
...“It no longer has a legitimacy or significant foothold in the minds of the black masses,” West said. “With corporate media and the narrowing of the imagination of all Americans, including black people, there is an erasure of memory. This is the near death of the black prophetic tradition. It is a grave issue. It is a matter of life and death. It means that the major roadblock to American fascism, which has been the black prophetic tradition, is gone. To imagine America without the black prophetic tradition, from Frederick Douglass to Fannie Lou Hamer, means an American authoritarian regime, American fascism. We already have the infrastructure in place for the police state.”By making such a claim, Cornel West has metaphorically excommunicated Barack Obama, the country's first black president, from the continuity of the Black Freedom Struggle. Such a move is merciless; it is cruel; the language is rhetorically lethal.
These are complicated matters that lead to a larger question. On a basic and foundational level, the debates about Barack Obama and his obligation to the black community are centered on how we choose to define what constitutes Black Politics and the black political tradition.
Is Black Politics a set of principles and beliefs grounded in group uplift, linked fate, and trying to negotiate life in a racialized and racially hierarchical society? Alternatively, is what we would then term as "black politics" just the many different ways that individuals arbitrarily defined as "black" in the United States negotiate access to resources, opportunities, and generally maximize their own utility?
These are deceptively simple yet important distinctions.
They frame how Cornel West and other black leaders locate and understand Obama's relationship to black history and the African-American community. On Boardwalk Empire, the characters of White and Narcisse represent similar questions at the site of intra-racial and inter-class conflicts within the African-American community during the late 19th and first part of the twentieth centuries.
Writing on the conflict between Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse, Salon's Neil Drumming observes how:
Valentin Narcisse and Chalky White are positioned as polar opposites. White is dark-skinned and comes from humble beginnings. He speaks pigeon English and makes his employees read aloud letters addressed to him. Valentin Narcisse is of much lighter complexion, and, though he does so with a faint Trinidadian accent, quotes the Bible — and himself — with great eloquence.
“Boardwalk Empire” is unrelentingly a show about power play. Narcisse’s and White’s struggles to keep what they deem their own is no different than Nucky Thompson and Arnold Rothstein’s tense but oh-so-polite negotiations or Al Capone’s open challenges to anyone else vying for a slice of Illinois. However, for a show where even a fan like myself must admit the constant posturing, pushing and pulling — and murdering — can get a little redundant, the White-Narcisse conflict possesses a bit of extra flavor. It is steeped in conflict that has existed among African-Americans since slavery: educated versus uneducated, Southern versus Northern, light versus dark.Despite the specific historical era it may use as a motif, popular culture (TV and film) is a reflection of the present. Chalky White and Dr. Narcisse are engaging in a struggle over power, resources, and wealth in a quasi-historical version of Atlantic City in the TV show Boardwalk Empire during the 1920s. Cornel West is debating--in a one way conversation--Barack Obama about the United States' first black president's role in the Black Prophetic Tradition and the Black Freedom Struggle in the twenty-first century.
Both examples are connected by a common thread: Who is really Black? And who gets to decide?