A seat at the table: NABJ and the Omarosa Manigault-Newman show

5 mins read

Somehow, somewhere, some way, a needed dialogue on dismantling the deeply troubled relationship between the black community and law enforcement transformed into the Omarosa Manigault-Newman show.

It is almost one in the morning in humid New Orleans, and I am so troubled that sleep is difficult. Earlier in the day, I left the W.E.B. DuBois annual plenary given by the National Association of Black Journalists (at its conference) in profound sadness and rage. The argument is circulating that NABJ was wrong for inviting Manigault-Newman, or at the very least, bringing her onto a panel focusing on the serial police killings of black people throughout the United States.

With that, she gave new meaning to the title, “a hero ain’t nothing but a sandwich” because I feel like a shrimp po-boy right now.

Now serving in the Trump Administration as the Assistant to the President and Director of Communications for the Office of Public Liaison, Manigault-Newman is the highest-ranking African-American on the cabinet, and as she aptly explained on stage, she would rather have a seat at the table than “be on the menu.”

The plenary began as an intense and emotional, yet productive discussion bringing those affected by police violence into conversation with law enforcement, academics and media folk. Valerie Castille, the mother of Philando Castile — who was gunned down by a Minnesota police officer in 2016 while strapped into his car’s safety belt — detailed how she lives in grief daily while fighting to change laws.

The same applies to Sandra Sterling, who relives the petite mort she experienced the moment she looked at the video of her nephew, Alton Sterling, being held down by Baton Rouge police and shot at close range. Yet and still, Sandra protests Louisiana’s racist policing though she has gotten beaten and pepper sprayed for her actions.

A collective heartbreak ensued. A journalist next to me teared profusely. I offered one of my grandmother’s handkerchiefs that I carry around for incidents like this, but she refused, explaining that she covers Minnesota and this story, in particular, was exceptionally hard for her. And like she, I cried because I felt almost powerless in figuring out how I as a member of the press can move the issue to resolution rather than continually reporting carnage. My encounter speaks volumes to the overwhelming grief and trauma black journalists endure in the relentless murders of black people by law enforcement.

The second round of the plenary offered more insight with former LAPD Sergeant Cheryl Dorsey, community activist Arther Reed, Buzzfeed’s Joel Anderson and The Root’s Jason Johnson, all offering a sober but needed perspective — from the coded and unfair ways officers are promoted to African Americans rethinking how they vote, even when the candidate was black.

The discourse was rough at times, but healthy. However, all of these significant points would be lost, or at least, invisible in the news cycle because Manigault-Newman came like a Game of Thrones winter, night walkers and all.

Omarosa enters. Act 1: Scene 1: She steps in wearing a tasteful flowery dress and with impassioned sorrow, recounts the deaths of her father, brother, and other male relatives to violence occurring on what she describes as “crime ridden” streets of Youngstown, Ohio. Some in the audience roll their eyes, while others silently watch attempting to seem civil. We are waiting for the punchline.

Veteran journalist, Ed Gordon, the plenary’s moderator, attempted to ask Manigault-Newman about how she reconciled her experiences as a staffer for an Administration in which Donald Trump openly encourages police to use excessive force. Then the melodramatic Nollywood movie begins.

Manigault-Newman balked at Gordon’s question then accused him of dismissing her experience. Clearly annoyed, Gordon who was standing behind a podium, walked closer to Manigault-Newman who was sitting, to fact check her accusations. For Manigault-Newman, he was too close. This is where Manigault-Newman caught his biggest flaw in the interview, he became too familiar and too emotional when dealing with a woman who makes Cersei Lannister blush.

Journalists, activists, and students protest Omarosa Manigault at the NABJ W.E.B. DuBois plenary that takes place during their annual conference.

Manigault-Newman used the “damsel in distress” mode. In response, she hurriedly got up and walked halfway across the stage away from Gordon, accusing his behavior as aggressive, thus implying her movements and ultimately suggesting that he was the hostile black man towards a black woman. For the rest of her time, she derided, ridiculed, twisted the narrative, spoke down to folk and kept Gordon futilely chasing her antics.

In this exchange, there are undertones of gender frictions and stereotypes of assertive black women in which Omarosa plays out very well; but it creates much divide and discord as to where you place your cards.

Of course the session erupted in chaos and lost focus, just like she planned. Towards the end, people in the audience, including journalist Jamilah Lemieux and activist Britanny Packnett stood up and turned their backs in protest, while others walked out. In the frenzy, other journalists snapped photos as we all tried to capture as much footage as on our phones to share to the world the moment of truth. The videos and #nabj17 were top trends on social media. Manigault-Newman made us hood famous, as we too were caught up in the real time telenovela. But is that news and is that reporting? I am asking for a friend who is a sausage po-boy sandwich.

At the height of (restrained) bedlam, NABJ president, Sarah Glover, came to the stage to explain how and why Manigault-Newman was invited to such an event. She even reminded the audience that journalists must remain unbiased. A slight to whom, I am not sure. Following Glover’s explanation, she and Gordon “gently,” but openly debated the questions and subjects that Manigault-Newman should have been ready to discuss.

In the tit-for-tat, it came out that Gordon was asked at the last minute to moderate as the original facilitator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times writer, was absent, along with another panelist, Columbia University professor and The New Yorker contributing writer, Jelani Cobb. Clearly, there was some division and at that moment where things fell apart, NABJ looked like it needed to take a time out and go talk through some things in the corner. All the while, Manigault-Newman literally put down her microphone, made a small gesture and quietly left the stage while we burned in fury.

Check mate, bitches.

People may not want to admit it, but Manigault-Newman is brilliant. The way in which she shifted the focus and conversation of the plenary in less than five minutes is that of a mastermind. Nevertheless, a psychopathic, narcissistic mastermind who leeches off of every opportunity like a horsehair parasite, but damn, her cold heart and calculating ways must be respected. Thus, I argue that she is one of the top strategists in the Trump Administration.

I saw in person how she makes great company with the likes of Donald Trump. It is apparent why she has stayed close to him since her appearance on his reality TV show. She feeds his kray kray because she operates two clicks over batshit. However, where she and Trump differ, Manigault-Newman is extremely smart … and can read.

Calling for a “black ban” of Manigault-Newman at conferences or within conversations of black folk in the United States is damaging. We must absolutely hold her feet to the fire and accountable. One panelist during the plenary was on point when he asked her to explain her roles and responsiblities because I too was unsure. But in Manigault’esk actions, at one point, when describing her actionable, she told him and us, to Google her.

Manigault-Newman is our Uncle Ruckus of the family. Unlike Clarence Thomas, Manigault-Newman still wants to come to the cookouts and engage in discussion. She wants acceptance, but not the accountability of her own detrimental movements. However, she shows up to every function with a snack size bag of generic potato chips and a gallon of Boone’s Farm. She stops at every table and talks madness (sometimes laced with truth) while we tell her to shut up with that bullshit. Then she asks for a piece of peach cobbler or a wallop of greens. We dump it onto her plate and tell her to go sit down and continue to drink her gut-busting cheap wine in a China tea cup with the pinkie finger up.

For the Manigaults of the world, it is about knowing how to engage. At this critical time in the nation where this Administration has almost effectively cut of communication with much of the black community and African American press, Manigault-Newman is a channel we must use, though it is stopped up like a high rise government housing community toilet, we must snake our way around the venom she serves.

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