By Tommy Airey
The great irony of our time is that in the age of Obama the grand Black prophetic tradition is weak and feeble.
Cornel West, Black Prophetic Fire (2014)
The Union Theological Seminary professor & prominent American public intellectual Dr. Cornel West has teamed up with Christa Buschendorf, the professor and the chair of American Studies at Goethe-Universitat Frankfurt am Main, for the newly released Black Prophetic Fire from Beacon Press, a series of extended conversations on six compelling prophetic leaders: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Ella Baker (above), Malcolm X & Ida B. Wells. It is a well-timed buffet for people of faith & conscience yearning to eat at the table of a nutritious historic tradition that will energize & sustain subversive lifestyles within the context of 21st century American Empire.
The 160-page Black Prophetic Fire is highly readable, impressively footnoted and well-organized. One weakness is that there isn’t a basic introduction to the life of each prophetic leader, but it certainly stimulates interest for the reader to do her own work with the primary sources.
Many of West’s vintage themes and styles are on display: a denunciation of military-industrial, prison-industrial, corporate-media, Wall Street oligarchic complexes; a tendency towards passionate hyperbole (Douglass as “the most eloquent ex-slave in the history of the world”); a critical analysis of Obama himself; a creative commitment to connect prophetic economic & political substance with cultural styles; a thorough display of truth-telling & historical reclamations; and lively dialogue that is both convictional & constructive.
West & Buschendorf present these leaders in the face of three powerfully disastrous shifts leading up to, and encompassing, the Obama years: (1) a shift away from the voices of social movements towards elected officials in the mainstream political system committed to the status quo, (2) a strong pull towards superficial spectacle, celebrity worship, ambition and instant success and (3) a U.S. regime committed to discrediting, delegitimizing and even (character) assassinating leaders who commit themselves to prophetic sensibility and action.
West, of course, does not sugar coat the prophetic task, detailing the massive odds stacked up against us. But as Black Prophetic Fire narrates, the odds were even longer for Martin, Malcolm, Ella, Ida and the rest who, in their unique contexts and characters, were all struggling against the timeless establishment behemoth. The moral integrity, spiritual fortitude & political determination that, according to West, sit at the center of the Black prophetic tradition all have consequences that, sometimes, can even be fatal. But it is imperative to reject fatalism. West prods readers to consider Martin’s mindset:
He used to say, over and over, every day he would put on his cemetery clothes. That was all he could do. And in some ways I think he was right; you just have to be coffin-ready for this bearing of witness and struggle in the midst of a very sick country run by greedy oligarchs and avaricious plutocrats whose interest is very entrenching, whose power is mighty. It’s not almighty. Rebellion could make a difference; civil disobedience could have some impact. But the kind of fundamental rise of a revolutionary social movement is very, very unlikely given the powers that be.
Life is a gamble and the odds are against a world where the lion lies down with the lamb & people of all colors sit down together at the table of brotherhood & sisterhood. Yet, prophetic fire burns in the face of a ruthless status quo. This kind of witness, for West, is always propelled by a theological energy, the great Christian symbol of the cross:
…the catastrophic, the mutilated body of this particular Jew in the face of the Roman Empire, that is tied to a love, connected to a concern for the least of these, and every flag is subordinate to that Cross; every nationalism, every ideology, even, is subordinate to that Cross; and that Cross is nothing but the scandalous, the calamitous, the horrendous, the catastrophic in the human condition, which is suffering. And how do you transfigure that suffering into some voice, some vocation, some vision to empower the least of these (as in the 25th chapter of Matthew)?
Each of these six leaders provide powerful lessons for what West calls “long-distance runners,” those fully committed to devoting their entire lives to the struggle for freedom, peace & justice. Ella Baker was an exemplar of democratic leadership that always put the community of everyday, ordinary people at the very center of the movement; DuBois, although “not wedded to cognitive commitments to God talk” was a secular leader who resonated deeply with virtue, what it means to be human, conceptions of justice, the centrality of love & empathy; Wells’ journalistic integrity was profoundly courageous in the midst of legalized Jim & Jane Crow lynching and intimidation mid-to-late 19th century.
But West also is constructively critical of each, fleshing out their humanity in the whirlwind of obstacles and challenges. Early on, the churchly, middle-class Martin had opportunity to be vocally critical of imperialism & poverty and he struggled to connect with youth culture; Frederick lived a lot longer than Martin and became more assimilated to the establishment Republican party of the 1880s and 90s; Malcolm’s black nationalism had a tendency towards idolatry. As is always the case with Brother West, these critiques are offered in deep love and appreciation for each great leader.
A particular strength of the style of Black Prophetic Fire is the space that is opened up for West to be the riffing jazz exemplar that he is. He invites readers into his own scholarly imagination, crafting up scenarios where Martin King and George Clinton awkwardly meet and moments where Martin & Malcolm rendezvous to passionately fire up prophetic readers:
…when you actually look at what some of the revolutionary solutions are, they seem to be so far-fetched, and usually when people see that, they say: “Let me go back to my careerism; let me go back to my individualism; let me go back to my hedonism; let me go back to my narcissism.” And Martin & Malcolm, with tears flowing as they both, in their sacrificial and magnificently loving ways, say: “No, just because the solutions are far-fetched, it doesn’t mean you sell your soul for a mess of pottage. That’s not the conclusion. This is not only about being successful. This is fundamentally about being faithful to the freedom struggle that has brought us as far as it has.”
Above all else, West is a master bridge builder: between the scholarly & popular, between the historic & contemporary, between the political & spiritual. In fact, all of these flow together in holistic fashion. As Buschendorf points out, West himself is the quintessential “organic intellectual” that Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci popularized: a master at finding the intersection of the seminary, the sanctuary & the street.
The task that West calls radical Christian disciples to (and all people of prophetic brands of faith & conscience) is urgent because we continue to live in the face of terrorism:
And it is important to use the language of American terrorism, because we live in an age where, when people think of terrorism, they usually think of a very small group of islamic brothers and sisters, whereas, of course, terrorism has been integral to the emergence and the sustenance of the American democratic experiment, beginning with indigenous peoples and slavery.
And the Black prophetic tradition, like a leaven in the loaf of America, always refused the way of al Qaeda. These leaders, and the dozens of others that West names in this book, both historic & contemporary, chose the way of deep love & mercy. By & large, they refused to respond to violence and hatred with more violence and hatred. They faced racist & imperialist people & policies with confidence & courage.
Fifty years ago, Malcolm X boldly called for a United Nations commission to investigate human rights violations by the U.S. government against African-Americans. This legacy continues today in the voices of African-American women like Alice Jennings, Monica Lewis-Patrick, Debra Taylor, Tawana Petty, Valerie Burris & Maureen Taylor who have invited a UN delegation to come to Detroit this weekend to hear testimony from dozens of the thousands of African-American residents who have had their water shut-off by the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department, coldly contracting out to a private company to clear the books on the backs of the poor & marginalized. These women exemplify the black prophetic fire that West & Buschendorf chronicle. The spirit of Malcolm has risen in the Motor City! Indeed, the fire continues to burn, even in the drone-dropping, corporate-calcifying age of Obama.
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