O'Brien's Song

After years of fighting everybody and anybody, now the ornery, annoying civil rights activist has to concentrate on fighting for his life.

And then Lust brings up the NAACP incident. In the spring of 2007, the UH chapter of the civil rights organization invited Students for Fair Trade to take part in a meeting. It was assumed that O'Brien would discuss the hard lot of African coffee workers. Instead, according to Lust, O'Brien "used his platform to launch a diatribe against UH's African American Studies program."

Lust claims that O'Brien went so far as to call UH's African American Studies director Dr. James Conyers "a house nigger." Lust admits on his blog that the incident was murky. He and another grad student interviewed several people who were at the meeting, and one said O'Brien definitely called "someone a house nigger," while another "did not hear O'Brien utter the actual words, but that the message O'Brien conveyed through the context of the rest of his remarks was consistent with him uttering the epithet." A third source claimed that Conyers was heard to say that O'Brien did say it. (Conyers did not respond to a detailed e-mail from the Press about the incident.)

O'Brien denies saying it, though in another context, he will say that he did once call former Houston city councilwoman Ada Edwards a race traitor, albeit "in a nice, academic, middle-class white-guy kinda way." As for the NAACP meeting, O'Brien says he merely gave a PowerPoint presentation lamenting the lack of a degreed African-American studies program and included a portrayal of a "bourgeoisie black" attacking a fiery black leader. O'Brien grants that he did point out what he perceived as Conyers's weak track record as director of the African American Studies program. "He's been there five or six years," O'Brien says. "If the football coach loses every game for five or six years, you might conclude he was part of the problem. So I just pointed that out, but my skin is white and their skin" — meaning that of both Conyers and his supporters at the meeting — "was black."

O'Brien's preschool-age daughter Yuna, seen here riding her dad's shoulders...
Photos courtesy Tim O'Brien
O'Brien's preschool-age daughter Yuna, seen here riding her dad's shoulders...
...and helping hoist a banner, often accompanies him on his protests. She is also a co-plaintiff in one of his lawsuits against UH.
Photos courtesy Tim O'Brien
...and helping hoist a banner, often accompanies him on his protests. She is also a co-plaintiff in one of his lawsuits against UH.

O'Brien says that some members of the school's NAACP branch started "pushing back" in defense of Conyers. That was when Lenwood Johnson jumped in the fray, O'Brien says, and Johnson somehow turned the debate to the merits of their nemesis Jackson Lee, whom he called a "house negro." O'Brien claims he only "echoed" that remark, and that neither he nor Johnson used the "N-word." He says that those who claim he did are out to smear him, some because they resent a white guy critiquing black culture.

O'Brien says he was the lone white person in a room with 50 or 60 black people, and adds that he brought both Johnson and a young black female guest with him. "I shouldn't say I brought her," he says in an aside. "I was trying to get her interested in African-American history and she's more interested in stereotypical things. She is not an activist." Perhaps it was the same girl Lust once observed O'Brien hectoring for not being black enough. Lust says O'Brien even told the girl that he was blacker than her. "You can't do that," Lust says. "O'Brien may have had a rough life and a lot of problems, but in no way could he understand what it's like to be black."

You hear it again and again from people in O'Brien's world. "The guy thinks he's black." O'Brien denies any such thing. "I'm proud of being born white Irish Catholic. I am very interested in Irish history, Northern Ireland, all that kinda stuff, but my chosen discipline is African-American history. I don't want to be anything other than a middle-aged white guy getting a Ph.D. in black history. I am proud of what I am and I always tell people, 'Whatever you are, you should be interested in that.' But there's a lot of stuff on Northern Irish history already."

Lust and others who criticize his tactics and his perceived faux blackness, O'Brien claims, are just trying to divert attention from the issues. "Is it a good or bad thing that there are kids ten years old in the Ivory Coast being forced to pick cocoa beans for our chocolate?" he continues, now fully atop his soapbox. "We're not talkin' about Tim O'Brien and five undergraduates coming to the president's office with a sign. You can tell me all fuckin' day that you don't like my tactics, but I don't care about that. I only care about the issues."

He also says he "considers the source" when evaluating his critics. "If Lenwood Johnson told me, 'Tim, you did X, Y and Z wrong,' I would say thanks and take that criticism constructively and use it in my campaign," he says. On the other hand, those UH muckety-mucks don't know squat, he says. "Those people have not lived it," he says. "So what, you're the whatever title at the University of Houston," he says. "You're taking all this money from this corporate shithole. You're not doing anything with your life. The criticism is not valid."

Lust points out that many who have borne the brunt of O'Brien's wrath are not recipients of largesse, be it from a "corporate shithole" of a university or not. On his blog, Lust wrote that he has seen O'Brien "treat people from the IT department here with quite less than the humanity he demands be paid to coffee growers and slave laborers at sweatshops."

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