THE REDEMPTION OF CORNEL WEST
At the end of Black Prophetic Fire (Boston: Beacon, 2014), Cornel West plants a troubling seed. “The Black prophetic tradition,” he suggests, “has tried to redeem the soul of our fragile democratic experiment. Is it redeemable” (165)? Should you be persuaded by the visceral wit of Charles Simic’s November 26 New York Review of Books blog “ A Thieves’(sic) Thanksgiving,” you hasten to say “No.” With tongue in cheek, Simic, a Serbian American and our fifteenth Poet Laureate, intimates that Wall Street crooks are admired by their peers, by politicians and presidents on the take, and by students in elite universities.
These thieves are admired because they have transcended the rule of law. Simic believes such mega-criminality might lead America to ruin or into becoming “a genuine police state…as the end result of that insatiable greed for profit that has already affected every aspect of American life.” Simic misses the target, or maybe he never aimed for it. It is not greed for profit but greed for power and hegemony that is enshrined in the founding documents of the United States that is killing America. The criminality is systemic. When that recognition is juxtaposed with the question posed by Cornel West, it is clear that America has never had a soul to be redeemed. Puritan lies notwithstanding, God did not create the nation . People who dared to think they were created in God’s image created the nation. A prophetic tradition will not redeem America, but the tradition can redeem Cornel West and a few other people.
Having had a fling with fame, West seems prepared in Black Prophetic Fire to journey home like a sensible prodigal son and to receive the blessings of his intellectual fathers ----David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and W. E. B. DuBois. West seems to have renounced the antics of a populist and returned to speaking like the radical bourgeois thinker he has been since the publication of The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989), which may be his most brilliant work. Black Prophetic Fire is a provocative dialogue with Christa Buschendorf, who also edited the exchange.
Unlike a traditional Socratic dialogue, this one is artfully innovative in its use of shared authority. Buschendorf’s portions of conversation are as bracing as West’s masterful remarks. The conversation is orchestrated to display West’s radical intelligence at its very best as he expounds with specificity about the minds and deeds of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells. The flaw that merits trenchant critique, however, is his embracing the mythology that such an entity as Black America exists. You, echoing the words of Cross Damon in The Outsider, must remind him that like the wind the myth men have gone; the real men, the last men envisioned by Margaret Walker in “For My People” have arrived.
West, of course, has the last words about the prophetic tradition in the Age of Obama. Despite his dwelling a bit too long in the garden of defunct Black American myth, he succeeds in redeeming himself. What he proclaims bravely will not sit well with the majority of his fellow Americans. He shall be castigated, if not crucified, for breathing a truth. West preaches like a Baptist minister who is without sin to an Anglican congregation. If you think of his language as poetry, you find he speaks more like Melvin B. Tolson than like Langston Hughes. Indeed, you could devise a series of seminars by jotting down the names of theorists and artists who have shaped West’s intellect and then reading what these figures have written. It would be especially important to read Anton Chekhov, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, DuBois, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Prophecy, as West clearly reminds us, is not about foretelling a future. Its job is detecting the effective motions of cosmic evil and how those motions operate to destroy the moral elements of humanity. As has long been the case with Black prophetic tradition, what burns in Black Prophetic Fire “has a universal message for all human beings concerned about justice and freedom” (164).
West has the integrity to avoid selling impossible dreams. He is fairly honest about how his beliefs and prejudices are grounded in religion and multiple ideologies. In the context of the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 and the more dreadful tragedies that will be birthed in 2015 and thereafter, West’s prophecies regarding the Age of Obama are as chilling as Alpha Phi Alpha ice. It would spoil your reading of the book to say more than that West has weighed the feathers and found the Obama presidency to be wanting. And all of us in varying degrees can be redeemed by a very critical but very compassionate reading of Black Prophetic Fire.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
November 29, 2014