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Eddie Glaude: Prophetic Witness and Black Leadership

[By Goyland Williams]

I was fortunate to witness two powerful and
thought-provoking lectures given by Eddie Glaude Jr., the William S. Todd
Professor of Religion and African-American Studies at Princeton University. The
first lecture “The Crises of Black Leadership” was given on Thursday, September
20, 2012 and the second lecture “The Role of the Black Church in the age of
Obama” was held in the community at Ninth Street Baptist Church.
In Glaude’s first lecture, “The Crisis of Black
Leadership”, he makes his case for what he calls “prophetic pragmatism”- a
pragmatism rooted in the Deweyian (John) tradition of American pragmatism and
dipped in the waters of what Amiri Baraka calls “Blues People”. It is this
blues sensibility that Professor Glaude believes can give voice to the
suffering of “the least of these,” and one that challenges the ways in which
blacks think about themselves, imagine their history, and how they conceive of
their own actions.

 Summarizing
most of his arguments from In A Shade of
Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America,
Glaude provokes, prods,
and even pokes us to move from the custodial model of black leadership to a
more democratic commitment to hearing “multiple voices”. Even as he critiques
the idea of “hero worship”, Professor Glaude challenged us to seek out multiple
narratives that tell a more complete and complicated story of black leadership
in America– a narrative that disrupts the assumption of a politically united African-American
citizenry.
Hero worship is the idea that those whom we have anointed
as our heroes should be excessively praised for their deeds, and at the same
time, protected from any serious and sustained critique. Black leadership has
been troubled by our reluctance to speak truth to power even as we extend our
support to those powers.
There is no contradiction between the two. A blues
sensibility allows us to highlight the best qualities of figures such as Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Barack Obama,
even as we bear witness to their shortcomings. If we take our role as
“agitators”, critics, and engaged citizens seriously, holding leadership
accountable comes armed with a Socratic commitment to love and justice as we
strive to not only do good, but to be good.
All too often, African-Americans, as Glaude notes,
have eyes set on the successes of the past and have crowned those leaders as
models for what black leadership should look and sound like in the 21st
century. These moments of nostalgia fail to take into account the uniqueness of
our present challenges and the promises that lie ahead.