Excerpts from Black Prophetic Fire

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By Cornel West

With commentary by Duane Campbell in Italics.

DSA Honorary Chair Cornel West  has produced a new book, Black Prophetic Fire, in dialogue with German philosopher Christa Buschendorf.  The book is a series of interviews, or dialogues with West about six of the major African American prophetic leaders of social  movements.  The following are excerpts from this important work.

“Are we witnessing the death of Back prophetic fire in our time? ...”

Since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., it is clear that something has died in Black America … the fundamental shift from a we-consciousness to an I-consciousness reflected not only a growing sense of Black collective defeat but also a Black embrace of the seductive myth of individualism in American culture …

American society is ruled by big money, and American culture is a way of life obsessed with money. This is true for capitalist societies and cultures around the world. The Black prophetic tradition-- along with the prophetic traditions of other groups-- is a strong counter-force to cupidity, decency cannot be reduced to chicanery, and justice cannot be reduced to market price. The fundamental motivation of this book is to resurrect Black prophetic fire in our day-- especially among the younger generation …

I consider leaders and movements to be inseparable. There is no Frederick Douglass without the Abolitionist movement. There is no W.E.B. Du Bois without the Pan-Africanist international workers’ and Black freedom movements.  There is no Martin Luther King Jr. without the anti-imperialist, workers’ and civil rights movements. There is no Ella Baker without the anti-US-apartheid and Puerto Rican independence movements. There is no Malcolm X without the Black Nationalist and human rights movements.  And there is no Ida. B. Wells without the anti-US-terrorist and Black women’s movements …”

West is open and bold in his descriptions of each of the organizers and leaders described in the book.  About Martin Luther King Jr,. he describes how establishment Negroes and whites and indeed the FBI  turned on King after the “Beyond Vietnam”  speech and his organizing of the War on Poverty.  West says,

“So that the kind of, as you say, sanitized, sterilized Martin, the deoderized  Martin, the Martin that has been Santaclausified, so that Santa Claus that he now becomes, jolly, old, with a smile giving out toys to everybody from right-wing Republicans to centrists to progressives, is opposed to the version of King who took a stand on the side of a class war and of an imperial battle, which is actually closer to the truth.  He really did take a fundamental stand: “I choose to identify with the underprivileged, I choose to identify with the poor.”  That sounds like Eugene Debs; that sounds like Jim Larkin of the Dublin working-class 1913 strike; it sounds like all of the great freedom fighters of the last hundred and fifty years of modern times.

Now that Martin is so scary; that Martin requires so much courage; that Martin requires all of us to pay such a price, that that Martin will live and come back, precisely how is the open question …

I think he is too much for America.  He is too honest; he is too truthful; he is too loving for a culture that is fearful of the truth and is fearful of a genuine love especially for poor people. “

Barack Obama is not included in West’s descriptions of the prophetic leaders in black history.  Instead, of the president he says,

“Obama’s Black face of the American empire has made it more difficult for Black courageous and radical voices to bring critique to bear on the US empire. On the empirical or lived level of Black experience, Black people have suffered more in this age than in the recent past. Empirical indices of infant mortality rates, mass incarceration rates, mass unemployment, and dramatic declines in household wealth reveal this sad reality …

This shift is a part of a larger structural transformation in the history of the mid-twentieth-century capitalism in which neoliberal elites marginalize social movements and prophetic voices in the name of consolidating a rising oligarchy at the top, leaving a devastated working class in the middle, and desperate poor people whose labor is no longer necessary for the system at the bottom.

Second, this neoliberal shift produces a culture of raw ambition and instant success that is seductive to most potential leaders and intellectuals, thereby incorporating them into the neoliberal regime. “

The entire book is well worth a read and careful consideration.

Published by Beacon Press. Boston. 

CornelWestAID.png  Cornel West is an honorary chair of DSA; professor emeritus of African American studies at Princeton and professor of religious philosophy and Christian studies at Union Theological Seminary; and author of 20  books including with Tavis Smiley: The Rich and the Rest of Us (2012), and his latest, Black Prophetic Fire.

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