Thursday, May 10, 2012

Catching Randall Kennedy in Harlem

Randall Kennedy preparing remarks before his presentation at Hue-Man Bookstore

On May 8, Tuesday evening, legal scholar Randall Kennedy spoke about his book The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency at Hue-Man bookstore in Harlem. I’ve admired Kennedy’s writings and intellect from afar for some time now. I feel really fortunate to have caught him at such a small venue.

Kennedy’s books make it apparent that he has read and absorbed a broad range of ideas and historical narratives. But seeing him in person revealed to me how measured and animated he can be, how scholarly, humorous, and solemn he can become in a single presentation. I say again that he is an extraordinary writer, but his books had not adequately prepared me for just how engaging he is.

At Hue-Man, he discussed Barack Obama, the 2008 campaign and the upcoming one, Obama’s relationships to black and white voters, legal history, and African American people, culture, and conditions. What elevated the discussion of these issues well above the usual, let’s say typical barbershop talk, was Kennedy’s ability to weave in the finer points of American and legal history.

He was also mindful to present the ideas of other scholars who took positions that differed from his own. Here, by the way, he was doing more than propping others up as simply straw men to be easily dismissed, but instead offered legitimate alternative positions to just about every major claim that he made about Obama, race, and politics.

For instance, he neither celebrated nor ridiculed Cornel West’s unfavorable views of Obama. Rather, Kennedy discussed “Professor West” as a widely known figure with a different take on the President. Kennedy went on to note that African Americans in general had not given themselves “enough credit” for choosing not to “embarrass” Obama for not adequately addressing some of their interests, given that black people were “the anchor” of his successful campaign.

Kennedy’s inclination to present his own perspective alongside several related and differing views was notable and refreshing given how often we are surrounded by so many partisan positions and sound-bites from talking heads. Unfortunately, events like the one led by Kennedy are uncommon. Rarely can a diverse group of about 20 everyday black folks catch such a major scholar at the local bookstore for an extended conversation for free.

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