Cornel West: Race, Tradition, and Struggle
Cornel West is said to be among the most important public intellectuals in America. I’m beginning to believe this. Sherman (Abd al-Hakim) Jackson on separate occasions told me to pay close attention to West. And so I obey. I look for West’s observations but also his method, particularly his pointed annotations that do not genuflect to epicurean pointless patriotism nor the internal expectations of what an African American must say in terms of content and anger. I’m now reading West’s essay entitled “The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society.” A Muslim in America has no choice but see arguments that apply to him or her.
On race and tradition, West says: “In any discussion about race matters it is vital to situate yourself in a tradition, in a larger narrative that links the past to the present. When we think of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida Buelle Wells-Barnett, A. Philip Randolph, Marcus Garvey, Ella Baker, James Baldwin, and so many nameless and anonymous ones, we cannot but be moved by their standards of vision and courage. They are the wind at one’s back. The recovery of tradition always begins at the existential level, with the experience of what it is to be human under a specific set of circumstances and conditions. It is very difficult to engage in a candid and frank critical discussion about race by assuming it is going to be a rational exchange. Race must be addressed in a form that can deal with its complexity and irrationality.”
He says more: “[Du Bois] understood what it meant to be cast as part of a problem people rather than a people with problems. Once the humanity of a people is problematized, they are called into question perennially.”
He says more: “Nurturing spirituality is so difficult today because we are bombarded by a market culture that evolves around buying and selling, promoting and advertising. The market tries to convince us that we are really alive only when we are addicted to stimulation and titillation. Given the fact that so much of American culture revolves around sexual foreplay and orgiastic intensity, for many people the good life might mean being hooked up to an orgasm machine and being perennially titillated. The ultimate logic of a market culture is the gangsterization of culture: I want power now. I want pleasure now. I want property now. Your property. Give it to me.”
He says more: “[What to do?] We need to begin with something profoundly un-American, namely, recalling a sense of history, a very deep, tragic, and comic sense of history, a historical sensibility linked to empathy. Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated on hope.”
Finally he says: “To be part of the democratic tradition is to be a prisoner of hope. And you cannot be a prisoner of hope without engaging in a form of struggle in the present moment that keeps the best of the past alive. To engage in that struggle means that one is always willing to acknowledge that there is no triumph around the corner, but that you persist because you believe it is right and just and moral. As T. S. Eliot said, ‘Ours is in the trying. The rest is not our business.’ We are not going to save each other, ourselves, America, or the world. But we certainly can leave it a little bit better. As my grandmother used to say, ‘If the kingdom of God is within you, then everywhere you go, you ought to leave a little Heaven behind.’”
Encore: I would like to repeat this quote because it is amazingly truthful: “To engage in that struggle means that one is always willing to acknowledge that there is no triumph around the corner, but that you persist because you believe it is right and just and moral.”