Cornel West: The Fire of a New Generation
By George Yancy and Cornel West
August 22, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "NYT"
- George Yancy: Recently, on
Aug. 10, you were arrested along with others outside the courthouse
in St. Louis because of the collective resistance against continued
racial injustice and police brutality. What was the political
atmosphere like there?
Fire really means a certain kind of
burning in the soul that one can no longer tolerate when
one is pushed against a wall.
Cornel West: The black
prophetic fire among the younger generation in Ferguson was intense
and wonderful. Ferguson is ground zero for the struggle
against police brutality and police murder. I just wanted to be a
small part of that collective fight back that puts one’s body on the
line. It was beautiful because part of the crowd was chanting, “This
is what democracy looks like,” which echoes W.E.B. DuBois and the
older generation’s critique of capitalist civilization and
imperialist power. And you also had people chanting, “We gon’ be
alright,” which is from rap artist Kendrick Lamar, who is concerned
with the black body, decrepit schools, indecent housing. This chant
is in many ways emerging as a kind of anthem of the movement for the
younger generation. So, we had both the old school and the new
school and I try to be a kind of link between these two schools.
There was a polyphonic, antiphonal, call and response, all the way
down and all the way live.
G.Y.: One of your
newest books is entitled “Black Prophetic Fire.” Define what you
mean by “black prophetic fire.”
C.W.: Black prophetic
fire is the hypersensitivity to the suffering of others that
generates a righteous indignation that results in the willingness to
live and die for freedom.
think in many ways we have to begin with the younger generation, the
generation of Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island and Oakland. There
is not just a rekindling, but a re-invigoration taking place among
the younger generation that enacts and enables prophetic fire. We’ve
been in an ice age. If you go from the 1960s and 1970s — that’s my
generation. But there was also an ice age called the neoliberal
epoch, an ice age where it was no longer a beautiful thing to be on
fire. It was a beautiful thing to have money. It was a beautiful
thing to have status. It was a beautiful thing to have public
reputation without a whole lot of commitment to social justice,
whereas the younger generation is now catching the fire of the
generation of the 1960s and 1970s.
G.Y.: When I think of
black prophetic fire, I think of David Walker, Frederick Douglass,
Sojourner Truth, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Martin L.
King, James Baldwin and so many more. In recent weeks, some have
favorably compared the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to Baldwin. I know
that you publicly criticized this comparison. What was the nature of
C.W.: In a phone
conversation I had with Brother Coates not long ago, I told him that
the black prophetic tradition is the collective fightback of
sustained compassion in the face of sustained catastrophe. It has
the highest standards of excellence, and we all fall short. So a
passionate defense of Baldwin — or John Coltrane or Toni Morrison —
is crucial in this age of Ferguson.
G.Y.: In what ways do
you think the concept of black prophetic fire speaks to — or ought
to speak to — events like the tragic murder of nine people at the
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.?
I’m an old Coltrane disciple just like
I’m a Christian. You can be full of fire, but that fire
has to be lit by a deep love of the people.
C.W.: Charleston is
part and parcel of the ugly manifestation of the vicious legacy of
white supremacy, and the younger generation — who have been
wrestling with arbitrary police power, arbitrary corporate power,
gentrification, the land-grabbing, the power-grabbing in and of the
black community, and arbitrary cultural power in terms of white
supremacist stereotypes promoted on television, radio and so forth —
has become what I call the “marvelous new militancy,” and they
embody this prophetic fire. The beautiful thing is that this
“marvelous new militancy” is true for vanilla brothers and sisters,
it’s true for all colors in the younger generation, though it is
disproportionately black, disproportionately women and,
significantly, disproportionately black, queer women.
G.Y.: Why the metaphor
C.W.: That’s just my
tradition, brother. Fire really means a certain kind of burning in
the soul that one can no longer tolerate when one is pushed against
a wall. So, you straighten your back up, you take your stand, you
speak your truth, you bear your witness and, most important, you are
willing to live and die. Fire is very much about fruits as opposed
to foliage. The ice age was all about foliage: “Look at me, look at
me.” It was the peacock syndrome. Fire is about fruits, which is
biblical, but also Marxist. It’s about praxis and what kind of life
you live, what kind of costs you’re willing to bear, what kind of
price you’re willing to pay, what kind of death you’re willing to
That was a great insight that Marcus Garvey had. Remember, Garvey
often began his rallies with a black man or woman carrying a sign
that read, “The Negro is not afraid.” Once you break the
back of fear, you’re on fire. You need that fire. Even if that Negro
carrying that sign is still shaking, the way that the lyrical genius
Kanye West was shaking when he talked about George W. Bush not
caring about black people, you’re still trying to overcome that
fear, work through that fear.
problem is that during the neoliberal epoch and during the ice age
you’ve got the process of “niggerization,” which is designed to keep
black people afraid. Keep them scared. Keep them intimidated. Keep
them bowing and scraping. And Malcolm X understood this better than
anybody, other than Ida B. Wells — they represented two of the
highest moments of black prophetic fire in the 20th century. Ida,
with a bounty on her head, was still full of fire. And Malcolm, we
don’t even have a language for his fire.
G.Y.: Does this
process of “niggerization” in American culture partly involve white
supremacist myths being internalized by black people?
C.W.: Yes. When you
teach black people that they are less beautiful, less moral, less
intelligent, and as a result you defer to the white supremacist
status quo, you rationalize your accommodation to the status quo,
you lose your fire, you become much more tied to producing foliage,
what appears to be the case. And, of course, in late
capitalist culture, the culture of superficial spectacle, driven by
capital, driven by money, driven by the market, it’s all about image
and interest, anyway. In other words, principle drops out. Any
conception of being a person of integrity is laughed at because what
is central is image, what is central is interest. And, of course,
interest is tied to money, and image is tied to the peacock
projection, of what you appear to be.
When you teach black people they are less
beautiful, less moral, less intelligent, you defer to
the white supremacist status quo.
G.Y.: Can we assume
then that you then would emphasize a form of education that would
critique a certain kind of hyperrealism that is obsessed with images
and nonmarket values?
C.W.: That’s right;
absolutely. It’s the kind of thing that my dear brother Henry Giroux
talks about with such insight. He’s written many books providing
such a powerful critique of neoliberal market models of education.
Stanley Aronowitz, of course, goes right along with Giroux’s
critique in that regard. The notion has to do precisely with that
critical consciousness that the great Paulo Freire talks about, or
the great Myles Horton talked about, or the great bell hooks talks
about in her works. How do you generate that kind of courageous
critical consciousness that cuts against the grain and that
discloses the operations of market interests and images, capitalist
forms of wealth inequality, massive surveillance, imperial policies,
drones dropping bombs on innocent people, ecological catastrophe and
escalating nuclear catastrophe?
of these various issues are very much tied into a kind of market
model of education that reinforces the capitalist civilization, one
that is more and more obsessed with just interest and image.
G.Y.: What do you see
as the foremost challenge in creating a common cause between past
generation and the current generation now “catching fire,” as you
C.W.: For me, it is
the dialectical interplay between the old school and prophetic
thought and action. I’m an old Coltrane disciple just like I’m a
Christian. You can be full of fire, but that fire has to be lit by a
deep love of the people. And if that love is not in it, then the
fire actually becomes just a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal that
doesn’t get at the real moral substance and spiritual content that
keeps anybody going, but especially people who have been hated for
so long and in so many ways, as black people have.
me, the love ethic is at the very center of it. It can be the love
ethic of James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Marvin Gaye,
John Coltrane or Curtis Mayfield, but it has to have that central
focus on loving the people. And when you love people, you hate the
fact that they’re being treated unfairly. You tell the truth. You
sacrifice your popularity for integrity. There is a willingness to
give your life back to the people given that, in the end, they
basically gave it to you, because we are who we are because somebody
loved us anyway.
G.Y.: This idea
relates to the collection of Dr. King’s writings you edited, called
“The Radical King.” Why did you undertake the job of curating and
editing the book?
C.W.: Because Martin
had been so sanitized and sterilized. He has been so Santa
Claus-ified, turned into an old man with a smile, toys in his bag to
give out, and leaving everybody feeling so good. It was like we were
living in Disneyland rather than in the nightmare that the
present-day America is for so many poor working people, especially
poor black working people. So, we needed a kind of crystallization.
there has been a variety of different voices talking about the
radical King. You know my closest friend in the world, James Melvin
Washington, was the only person that the King family allowed to
bring the collection of sermons and writings together. It’s one of
the greatest honors for me to be the second person that the King
family allowed to bring those kinds of writings together across the
board, laying out a framework. You’ve got James Melvin Washington’s
“A Testament of Hope.” You’ve got other wonderful scholars like
James Cone, Lewis Baldwin and others who have done magnificent work
in their own way. But, you know, as I pass off the stage of space
and time, I want to be able to leave these love letters to the
younger generation. I want to tell them that they’re part of a great
tradition, a grand tradition of struggle, critical, intellectual
struggle, of moral and political struggle, and a spiritual struggle
in music and the arts, and so on.
Contrary to when people talk about King every January, there is in
“The Radical King” in fact a particular understanding of this moral
titan, spiritual giant and great crusader for justice. So you get a
sense of who he really was beyond all of the sanitizing and
sterilizing that are trotted out every year in celebration of him. I
consider it the most important book I’ve ever done.
G.Y.: King is well
known for quoting the American reformer and abolitionist Theodore
Parker’s words, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends
toward justice.” What’s your assessment of King’s claim now, in
2015, particularly in the light of the kind of existential plight
and angst that black people and poor people are experiencing? Is
there an arc of the moral universe?
C.W.: I think King had
a very thick metaphysics when it came to history being the canvas
upon which God was in full control. As you know, I don’t have such a
thick metaphysics. I am closer to Anton Chekhov, Samuel Beckett and
a bluesman. I think that King at the end of his life became more of
a bluesman. He began to think: “Lord, have mercy. That arc might be
bending, but it sure is bending the wrong way.” After all, he’s
dealing with white supremacist backlash, patriarchal backlash and
capitalist backlash against working people and the possibility of
ecological catastrophe. He was already wrestling with the possible
non-existence of life on the earth in terms of the nuclear
catastrophe that we were on the brink of. So, he made a leap of
faith grounded in a certain conception of history that was heading
toward justice. I don’t accept that. I just do it because it’s
right. I do it because integrity, honesty and decency are in and of
themselves enough reward that I’d rather go under, trying to do
what’s right, even if it has no chance at all.
G.Y.: I was thinking
about your existentialist sensibilities that would in fact be
critical of the claim that the universe is moral at all. Yet, both
you and King share a blues sensibility that places emphasis on
touching the pain and yet transcending the pain, and also the
importance of the Christian good news.
C.W.: Oh, absolutely,
we are both very similar in terms of never allowing hatred to have
the last word, not allowing despair to have the last word, telling
the truth about structures of domination of various sorts, keeping
track of the variety of forms of oppression so we don’t become
ghettoized and tied to just one single issue. Yet, at the same time,
we’re trying to sustain hope by being a hope. Hope is not simply
something that you have; hope is something that you are. So, when
Curtis Mayfield says “keep on pushing,” that’s not an abstract
conception about optimism in the world. That is an imperative to be
a hope for others in the way Christians in the past used to be
a blessing — not the idea of praying for a blessings, but being
John Coltrane says be a force for good. Don’t just talk
about forces for good, be a force. So it’s an ontological state. So,
in the end, all we have is who we are. If you end up being cowardly,
then you end up losing the best of your world, or your society, or
your community, or yourself. If you’re courageous, you protect, try
and preserve the best of it. Now, you might preserve the best, and
still not be good enough to triumph over evil. Hey, that’s the way
it is. You did the best you could do. T.S. Eliot says, “For us,
there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” T.S. Eliot
was a right-wing brother who was full of wisdom. All you can do is
to try; keep on pushing. That’s all you can do.
G.Y.: When it comes to
race in America in 2015, what is to be done?
C.W.: Well, the first
thing, of course, is you’ve got to shatter denial, avoidance and
evasion. That’s part of my criticism of the president. For seven
years, he just hasn’t or refused to hit it head-on. It looks like
he’s now beginning to find his voice. But in finding his voice, it’s
either too late or he’s lost his moral authority. He can’t drop
drones on hundreds of innocent children and then talk about how
upset he is when innocent people are killed. You can’t reshape the
world in the image of corporate interest and image with
Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and then say that you’re in deep
solidarity with working people and poor people. You can’t engage in
massive surveillance, keeping track of phone calls across the board,
targeting Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and others, and then
turn right back around and say you’re against secrecy, you’re
against clandestine policy.
that, unfortunately, if he had come right in and asserted his moral
authority over against Fox News, over against right-wing,
conservative folk who were coming at him — even if he lost — he
would have let the world know what his deep moral convictions are.
But he came in as a Machiavellian. He came in with political
calculation. That’s why he brought in Machiavellians like Rahm
Emanuel and Larry Summers, and others. So, it was clear it was going
to be political calculation, not moral conviction.
can anyone take your word seriously after seven years about how we
need to put a spotlight on racism when, for seven years, you’ve been
engaged in political calculation about racism? But then you send out
your lieutenants. You send out all your Obama cheerleaders and
bootlickers and they say to his critics that he is president of all
of America, not black America. And we say white supremacy is a
matter of truth. Are you interested in truth? It’s a matter of
justice. Are you interested in justice? It’s a matter of national
security. Are you interested in national security? Well, we talk
about black America. We’re not talking about some ghettoized group
that’s just an interest group that you have to engage in political
calculation about. When you talk about black people, you’re talking
about wrestling with lies and injustice coming at them and their
quest for truth and justice. If you’re not interested in truth and
justice, no politician ought to be in office, and not just the
president. So, we’ve actually had a major setback in seven years; a
G.Y.: But is it really
possible to speak courageous speech while acting as the most
powerful country in the world? Of course, we also have to admit the
history of racism preceded Obama’s tenure and will exceed it. My
point is that there is a deep tension that exists for someone who
desires to embody prophetic fire and yet be in charge of an empire.
C.W.: I think that’s
true for most politicians, actually. Now when it comes to the
intellectuals who rationalize their deference to the politician, so
they want to pose as prophetic even though they are very much
deferential to the powers that be, they need to be criticized in a
very intense way. That’s why I’m very hard on the Obama
cheerleaders, you see, but when it comes to the politicians
themselves, it is very difficult to be a prophetic
politician the way in which Harold Washington was or the way Paul
Wellstone was or the way Shirley Chisholm was, or the way my dear
brother Bernie Sanders actually is. He is a prophetic politician. He
speaks the truth about wealth and equality. He speaks the truth
about Wall Street. He speaks the truth about working and poor people
being afterthoughts in terms of the kind of calculations of the
oligarchs of our day. He shows that it’s possible to be a politician
who speaks the truth.
Once you occupy the White House, you are head of the empire. Then
you have a choice. We’ve had two grand candidates in the history of
the United States. We’ve had Abraham Lincoln and we’ve had Franklin
D. Roosevelt. Both of them are full of flaws, full of faults, full
of many, many blind spots. But they pushed the American experiment
in a progressive way, even given their faults. And that’s what we
thought Obama was going to do. We were looking for Lincoln, and we
got another Clinton, and that is in no way satisfying.
That’s what I mean by, we were looking for a Coltrane and we ended
up getting a Kenny G. You can’t help but be profoundly disappointed.
But also ready for more fightback in post-Obama America!
This interview was conducted by email and edited.
Previous interviews in this series (with Linda Martin Alcoff, Judith
Butler, Noam Chomsky, Charles Mills, Falguni A. Sheth and others)
can be found
George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory
University. He has written, edited and co-edited numerous books,
including “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “Look, a White!” and
“Pursuing Trayvon Martin,” co-edited with Janine Jones.
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