Friday, January 30, 2015

Booknote: Black Prophetic Fire

Cornel West, with Christa Buschendorf, Black Prophetic Fire. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-8070-0352-7.

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: African American studies, U.S. politics and history.
Format: print/hardcover
Source: My local public library.

The book is structured into six chapters. Each chapter is a conversation between Dr. Cornel West and scholar Dr. Christa Buschendorf. The book also includes an introduction and a conclusion, plus a set of notes and a list of works cited. West and Buschendorf six figures of the Black prophetic tradition. The figures discussed in the book are Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X, and Ella Baker. Some of the battles they fought are over, but much inequality and struggle still remains. These were men and women of great merit, but they also had shortcomings, and our via their conversations, our two scholars provide context for them, showing how they remain relevant today. For some readers, they may desire to go back and read some of the works of these men and women. The authors show that we still need to read those works today and heed their lessons.

Note that due to discussions of current events, the conversations are arranged in the order in which they recorded them; the people are not presented in chronological order. Actually, this works well as it may give us a better appreciation of these historical figures and the lessons they offer us for today. As Buschendorf writes, these figures are relevant because they offer us analyses of power mechanisms so we may see the forms such structures take today; their reflections on organizing and mobilizing may provide insights to freedom fighters today, and they provide inspiration (9).

The book also highlights how you need to read past the "usual" texts of these men and women. These men and women evolved in their thinking, and their thinking and lives are more radical than we commonly see given how they get sanitized and/or reviled over time.

The book packs a lot, and it is a book that invites much reflection. Overall, there is a lot to learn and reflect upon. The book will also motivate folks to go back and read the writings of the historical figures featured. It is a book that left me wanting more, and that is always a good thing. Though naturally, you should read it at any time, this book is a good addition to reading lists for Black History Month.

I really liked it, so I am giving it 4 out of 5 stars.

* * *

My reading Notes: 

As West speaks of Frederick Douglass, I find fascinating how West ponders what books Douglass may have read or not to help shape his thinking. It is the kind of small detail that appeals to the reader and librarian in me. If you want to learn more about this, the chapter's notes in the book do expand a bit on those readings, which may have included William Cobbett, William Hazlitt, and John Ruskin among others. As I read, I am also interested in how West applies the idea of the organic intellectual to Douglass.

Douglass was not an academic, but he was certainly an intellectual. West defines the organic intellectual thus:

"An organic intellectual, in contrast to traditional intellectuals who often remain comfortably nested in the academy, attempts to be entrenched in and affiliated with organizations, associations, and possibly movements of grass-roots folks" (172). 

The idea goes back to Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, who I vaguely recall reading when I studied literary and critical theory in graduate school. It may be time to reread a little Gramsci, say his Selections from the Prison Notebooks. On a side note, as I keep working here at Berea, I do note that much of what we do is shaping and encouraging organic intellectuals. Activism is a big thing here, for both students and faculty in a way that I have not seen in other institutions (including some where even hinting you might be an activist could get you fired). Working to grow as an organic intellectual is something that I can explore here.

How West defines a prophet:

". . . to be a prophet is not about predicting an outcome but rather to identify concrete evils. . . " (28).

West critiques President Obama. One reason is that Obama is identifying with Abraham Lincoln, but it is the "team of rivals" guy, not the  real Lincoln who very often was willing to compromise on slavery, much as Obama is often willing to compromise on things that, to be honest, one should not really be compromising on. Much like Lincoln had Douglass to pressure him, Obama needs such a figure to pressure him as well. As I look around, I am not sure such an equivalent figure exists today. West is one of the Black intellectuals who has dared to very publicly criticize President Obama, who sees as:

". . . someone who likes to be liked by everyone, and he likes to be able to create some kind of middle-ground synthesis that brings people together without really coming to terms with the deep conflicts" (33).

This discussion comes up during the conversation about Frederick Douglass who, like other Black prophetic figures, accepted that he would not be liked by everyone. When it came to power conceding, Douglass got it, but in West's eyes, Obama falls short. What Douglass understood:

". . . that you don't find truth in the middle of the road;  you find truth beneath the superficial, mediocre, mainstream dialogue, and the truth is buried, is hidden beneath that, and when you connect with that truth, you have to take a stand. When you take a stand, you're not going to be liked by everybody; people will try to crush you, people will try to lie on you, people will try to kill you" (33).

On Du Bois going through stages in his intellectual development. I can identify with this because as librarians the profession holds onto the illusion of neutrality and the idea that if we provide good information (something which by the way we don't always succeed at for a variety of reasons) then things will be OK. I've learned over time it is not as simple as that. West writes,

"I think in a certain sense the early Du Bois had a naive conception of evil-- evil as ignorance, evil as not knowing the facts-- as opposed to the later Du Bois, who saw evil being tied to interest, evil being tied to power and privilege within various social structures that have to be contested politically, organizationally, collectively" (45-46).

In further discussing Du Bois, West quotes him. The quote, which I will present below, is so relevant to today given all the recent events of police brutality against Black people and also given the recent release of a U.S. government report on the CIA's torture practices. Let's just cut to the chase and say the U.S. comes across as a bullying imperialist oppressor at home and abroad. The quote comes from Du Bois' essay "The Souls of Black Folk."

"It is curious to see America, the United States, looking on herself, first, as a sort of natural peacemaker, then as a moral protagonist in this terrible time. No nation is less fitted for this role. For two or more centuries America has marched proudly in the van of human hatred--making bonfires of human flesh and laughing at them hideously, and making the insulting of millions more than a matter of dislike, -- rather a great a great religion, a world-war cry: Up white, down black; to your tents, O white folks, and world war with black and parti-colored mongrel beasts" (qtd. in 52). 

The man was clearly a prophet. I honestly wonder what he would say now if he was still alive. On further discussing Du Bois as a prophet, West speculates on the possibility that an American Gibbon will arise to document the rise and fall of the American Empire. I found the idea quite interesting. Du Bois certainly tried to warn the American people, but Americans are not exactly known for listening when they should. Maybe they really need to wait a long time and see if they get a Hari Seldon  instead. West argues:

"America slowly but surely moves toward a second-world, maybe even a third-world status, with ruins and relics of its great democratic past being completely trampled by the kind of neoliberal obsession with unregulated markets and indifference toward the poor and polarizing politics of scapegoating the most vulnerable" (55).

Moving on to look at Martin Luther King, Jr., a figure that is more radical than the sanitized version we get today. On this, West says,

"Part of the problem is, I think, the death of Martin in some sense signified that America was in deep need of a revolution. He used the language of revolution, the need of a revolution in priorities, revolution in values, the need for a transfer of power from oligarchs to the people" (68).

On Ella Baker and ideal activist:

"To Baker, the ideal activist was not the charismatic figure of the prophet who mobilizes the masses by mesmerizing speeches but an unassuming person who helps the suppressed the help themselves" (90). 

Ella Baker's legacy offers us lessons on organizing and empowering people. She also questioned the messianic model in leadership. On a side note, I think statements like the one above offer lessons as well to the profession of librarianship where messianism and rock star librarians are often the norm and what is actually recognized, but let's ponder that another time. As for this librarian, I tend to prefer the path of the poet, "con los pobres de la tierra/quiero yo mi suerte echar."

On another side note, and this is mentioned in the book, Baker also gave a speech in defense of Puerto Rican independence in Madison Square Garden in 1978 as part of being involved with the PRSO (Puerto Rican Solidarity Organization). The book has a press citation for the event, so this is something I may want to explore further (a preliminary search has yield very little, which is not surprising given this is a part of U.S. history most Americans could not care less about). Anyhow, this serves as a larger example how these prophetic voices spoke out against larger, broader issues like colonialism and imperialism.

This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:


Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) said...

Hopping over from the Nonfiction Reading Challenge...

The sanitized version of history is something I've been thinking about lately. People are so demanding of the current movement -- where are the leaders? what, exactly, do they want to see changed? why aren't they as organized as the first Civil Rights Movement? Not realizingJ that it's only in hindsight that this sort of movement appears to have leaders, demands, and organization.

Love the Du Bois quote.

A. Rivera said...

Welcome Joy. Yea, West and his colleague go into that a bit. On a side note, when I was doing the Civil Rights Tour the college sponsors here two summers ago, that question came up as well of leadership today, so on. The "old timers" had some of that concern as well, what would happen to the movement when they passed on, and more of them are passing on day by day. But leadership is not always the messianic kind as he points out.

Best, and keep on blogging.