Chris Hedges Interviews Cornel West On Black Prophetic Tradition
Chris Hedges, whose column is published Mondays on Truthdig, spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years. He has written nine books, including “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (2009), “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” (2008) and the best-selling “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” (2008). His book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (2003) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. He has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. He has written 19 books and edited 13 books. He is best known for his classic Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and his new memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. He appears frequently on the Bill Maher Show, Colbert Report, CNN and C-Span as well as on his dear Brother, Tavis Smiley’s PBS TV Show. He can be heard weekly with Tavis Smiley on “Smiley & West”, the national public radio program distributed by Public Radio International (PRI).
CHRIS HEDGES, HOST, DAYS OF REVOLT: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt. The song you’ve been listening to is by Willie King, Willie King and the Liberators, “Terrorized”, written after the events of 9/11 in response to the outcry, mostly by white society, that this was the first attack of terror on American soil. King sings, don’t talk to me of terror, I’ve been terrorized all my days.
I’m here with Dr. Cornel West, that great defender of the black prophetic tradition, I think the most important intellectual tradition in American society. And we’re going to discuss that tradition as he’s laid out in his great book Black Prophetic Fire.
Thank you, Dr. West.
WEST: What a blessing to be here with you, my dear brother. I salute your wonderful new show, Days of Revolt, also your powerful new [incompr.], The Wages of the Rebellion.
HEDGES: Thank you. Well, you’re my first two guests.
WEST: What a blessing. What a blessing.
HEDGES: So let’s talk about this. In the book you profile some of the great figures of the black prophetic tradition, W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, of course, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells. What is, how do you define the black prophetic tradition?
WEST: Well, I think in many ways it’s embodied in that wonderful song by brother Willie King and the Liberators. If the blues is defined as a personal narrative of catastrophe lyrically expressed, then what you really have, you have a catastrophe of white supremacy, slavery, the catastrophe of Jim and Jane Crow senior, the catastrophes of Jim and Jane Crow juniors. And the black prophetic tradition is simply one that says in the face of that catastrophe, we’ve got to analytically understand it, we’ve got to prophetically bear witness, and we’ve got to generate forms of fightback that organize and mobilize, beginning on the chocolate sides of town, but also embracing all freedom fighters of all colors. So a Frederick Douglass working with William Lloyd Garrison and Ida B. Wells working for antiterrorist, antilynching groups, not just here but in Britain as well, all the way up to Malcolm and Martin and Ella Baker, so that in a sense what we’re really saying is that these towering figures who exemplify integrity, honesty, and decency, that they’re trying to get us to come to terms with a people, my own folk, my tradition, who’ve been terrorized, traumatized, and stigmatized for 400 years.
And here’s the best of the response. Black church, prophetic, antiterrorist institutions, black music, prophetic, antiterrorist, anti-trauma. How do you straighten your back up? How do you tell the truth? How do you bear witness? How do you organize? How do you mobilize? How do you generate forms of resistance and resiliency in the face of some very, very ugly forms of terror and trauma and stigma?
WEST: One of the things about the black prophetic tradition which I look at as somebody who writes a lot about empire is that that has been the major intellectual force in American society in terms of its critique and understanding of empire, I think largely because African Americans have suffered internally the effects of empire, so that they understand externally what poor people who are subjugated, often poor people of color, are enduring on the outer reaches of empire.
WEST: There’s no doubt that when you wrestle with the vicious legacy of white supremacy, that you’re going to sooner or later have to engage in a critique of capitalism, of imperialism. You hope that you get the vicious legacies of male supremacy and homophobia. But you’re going to–it’s going to situate you right at the center of the operations of power in wrestling with his legacy of white supremacy.
Now, there are some and too many black figures that want to say, well, the original sin of America was slavery. And that’s a lie. That’s not true. The white supremacist beginnings of this nation really had to do with indigenous peoples, a violation of their humanity, the dispossession of their lands, and so on. But it’s true that enslaved Africans will become the generators of wealth based on exploited labor. That will be the precondition for American democracy, so that when you look at genocidal attacks on the one hand and enslavement of Africans on the other, you’ve got two fundamental pillars which constitute the lens through which you look at the history of this nation. And that’s the best of the black prophetic tradition.
HEDGES: Which is why the black prophetic tradition has traditionally been antimilitarist.
WEST: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
HEDGES: And that’s been, I think–well, I don’t know if you would agree, but I think that’s been one of the most important contributions, because we have very few critiques of imperial power. We did through figures like Debs and through some of the anarchists, but there’s been a consistency with the black prophetic tradition that has warned America, I think, about its adventurism and its notion of exceptionalism and its propensity to use violence, both internally and externally, to promote its supposed virtues.
WEST: Absolutely. Look at somebody like Ella Baker, who deserves so much more attention. She spends so much of her years, her later years, with the Puerto Rican independence movement with Albizu Campos and Oscar López Rivera, still a political prisoner today. She makes the connection between struggling against white supremacy in the States and struggling against U.S. colonialism on the island of Puerto Rico. So that critique of empire, white supremacy, always interwoven, always intermingling in the best sense.
But I think in our day and time, though–and this is what this book is very much about; it’s a love letter to the younger generation in our age of Ferguson and Baltimore and Staten Island and Cleveland and Oakland and so–and Charleston, North Charleston and Charleston. And what I mean by that is to say, young people, you are waking up in a magnificent way from your sleepwalking. But there’s a magnificent tradition that constitutes wind at your back.
You’re not going to get it in corporate media, you’re not going to get it in mainstream discourse. The neoliberals who dominate corporate media, they want to financialize, privatize, and militarize. Lo and behold, the black prophetic tradition says, no, we’re critical of pro-Wall Street policy that generate more capitalist wealth and inequality. When it comes to privatizing, no, we want public life. We want a sense of what we hold in common, including at the workplace vis-à-vis bosses, oftentimes just run amok with corporate greed. And the same would be true in terms of militarize. That’s part of the anti-militarism that you rightly talk about that goes hand-in-hand with anti-imperialism.
And so somebody like Martin King, who of course reaches this point with tremendous eloquence in the last three years of his life, what does he have to do? He has to cut against the grain: 72 percent of Americans disapprove of him; 55 percent of black people disapprove of Martin.
HEDGES: And you write in the book, since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., it is clear that something has died in black America.
WEST: Absolutely. Absolutely.
HEDGES: What’s died?
WEST: What died was a sense of we consciousness. The market mentality took over, the I consciousness, the narcissistic, predatory, careeristic, opportunistic proclivities took over.
HEDGES: How did that happen?
WEST: It, one, was the vicious attack on the black freedom movement, of which they either killed so many of the leaders or they incarcerated so many of the leaders. And what was left–
HEDGES: Which–and I think we should stop there and just say we’re talking about hundreds, hundreds, which I think most people who don’t examine the system of mass incarceration–we still have 150 black revolutionaries–Mumia Abu-Jamal, whom you and I visited–.
WEST: Absolutely, with brother Jim Cone.
HEDGES: You–with brother Jim–great theologian James Cone. But we have–there was a conscious effort by the state to destroy those torchbearers.
HEDGES: And they did.
WEST: Well, they didn’t destroy them. They pushed back.
HEDGES: Or silenced them, let’s say.
WEST: That’s right. They pushed back, because, I mean, Mumia Abu-Jamal is still as strong. We know that. Assata Shakur is still strong in Cuba. There are a number of powerful, grassroot, local activists who are still strong.
But in terms of the national presence of the black prophetic tradition, look at Jeremiah Wright. Vicious attacks trying to demonize him and somehow dampen his spirit as we moved into the culmination of the highly individualistic, narcissistic proclivities of black professional class, which is, of course, the first black president.
HEDGES: Well, and you’re very critical of this class, and you see it as a very destructive force. Would it be fair to say that there are two principal strains, the black prophetic tradition and the Booker T. Washington accommodationist tradition? Would it be too much of a stretch to say that figures like Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, Mr. Coates from The Atlantic, who you have called out, I think, recently, do they veer more towards the Booker T. Washington tradition? Or is it different? They’ve certainly walked away from the black prophetic tradition.
WEST: Yeah, they certainly walked away from the black prophetic. I think what you get, though, the black neoliberal tradition, which would still not necessarily be the same as Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington really goes straight to Clarence Thomas. He’s actually deeply conservative. He did some wonderful things for black people on an individual level, with Tuskegee, with white money, and so on, but he’s deeply conservative. He’s anti-labor, his anti-immigration, and so forth.
HEDGES: Well, he–and he would not announce lynching.
WEST: Edit least publicly he wouldn’t–and therefore Ida B. Wells has to run right into the fire with unbelievable courage.
But, no, the neoliberal one is one that comes out of the civil rights movement, in which you get the formation of a black professional class that acts as if they’re prophetic, who really convince themselves they’re progressive, when in fact they’re so tied to capital–.
HEDGES: Right. The lumpen bourgeoisie.
WEST: The lumpen bourgeoisie. Absolutely.
HEDGES: Is that a Cornel West term?
WEST: No. That comes out of E. Franklin Frazier’s great text The Black Bourgeoisie. You see. Absolutely. It’s a middle-class beneath the American middle class, with less capital, less credit, less power.
HEDGES: But its aspirations–.
WEST: But the aspirations are intense and want to somehow act as if they’re tied to Malcolm. I mean, the peace by brother Coates a few years ago said that brother Barack Obama was part of the culminating expression of Malcolm X, now, that is about as wrong–that’s like saying I come out of the Beach Boys. You know what I mean? And Malcolm’s legacy had nothing to do with Barack Obama.
Barack Obama comes out of a highly cultivated black professional class that’s tied to neoliberal policies of Wall Street domination, drones, which are U.S. war crimes, massive surveillance, so COINTELPRO on steroids, every day, keeping track of what we do and so forth. What that is is in fact a culmination of not just black professional class; it’s a professional class in contemporary monopoly capitalist America, you see. And so it’s pro-imperialist. It acts as if it’s antiracist. And it is antiracist within a very narrow bourgeois liberal order. But when it comes to massive unemployment, massive underemployment, decrepit housing, dealing with this unbelievably–what’s the right word with our educational system? Let’s say soul-murdering educational system, you see. Where is the structural critique? Hardly at all. And when it comes to the Middle East, for example, if you can get a black neoliberal to say that the killing of 500 precious Palestinian babies is a crime against humanity, it would be fascinating to see that take place. It will never take place.
HEDGES: You write that Obama displaces, is part of this process that’s displacing the black prophetic tradition. And one gets a sense from your book that you’re worried that–you know, and you certainly stand up in defense of this tradition, but one gets a sense from the book that you’re worried that these forces are so powerful that they may extinguish it.
WEST: Oh, there’s no doubt about it. That’s why I fight so vehemently. You know, people say, oh, you hate the president. No, no, no. I love black people, I love black freedom, I love the black prophetic tradition. And when you have someone who is displacing it–and this is true for intellectuals as well, neoliberal intellectuals who act as if they’re coming out of the black prophetic tradition, and in fact they are calling it into question, and oftentimes suffocating it, if not destroying it.
And see, for me, that means I’ve got to come out swinging, come out swinging, you see. Why? Because, one, it’s the tradition that produced what I try to do in my life. Black people themselves, especially the black poor, especially the black masses, always connected to other poor, other masses, here and around the world, it’s the only real hope that we have of telling the truth, bearing witness, and making sure that the Jamal and Leticias on the corner are not overlooked as the black professionals that breakdancing at the top as they break glass ceilings day in and day out.
HEDGES: Well, you also write–and I think this is true, that–the primary tradition that has contributed to the renewal and regeneration of American democracy.
WEST: Oh, yes.
HEDGES: And I think that’s right.
WEST: Oh, yeah. Oh, no. The black prophetic tradition, the black freedom struggle is the leaven in the American democratic loaf. You see, when you have a conception of democracy from the vantage point of the slave, then it looks different than Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder. Then it looks different from George Washington, slaveholder. It looks different in Abraham Lincoln, who fought colonization of black people, going to other parts outside of the United States up until 1862.
So when you have that conception, then you’ve got what Du Bois, the great Du Bois, called the reconstruction of freedom, the reconstruction of democracy from the vantage point of those below. And we must also, of course, always embrace our indigenous brothers and sisters and make sure that their land rights, make sure that their humanity and dignity are thoroughly affirmed.
HEDGES: Which makes Du Bois maybe the most important intellectual in American history.
WEST: He is the greatest public intellectual in the history of the American empire. No doubt about it.
HEDGES: Because like the Jews in Europe at the time of fascism, he had that intellectual brilliance, which you carry, but also as a black man stood far enough away from the centers of power, and was certainly by the end of his life a victim of that power, that he understood how power worked in a way that the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr I think finally did not.
WEST: Well, James Cone’s laid bare the truth about Reinhold Niebuhr. There’s a wonderful play by the great Amira Baraka, the last play that he wrote I just saw just a few weeks ago, The Most Dangerous Man in America, is about Du Bois’s trial, February 1951, when he comes in in handcuffs at the age of 83 years old. Hardly anybody would touch him. NAACP has already kicked them out. Why? Because he says, I’m not going to capitulate to the Cold War and become just a domestic liberal; I am a freedom fighter with connections to various freedom movements in Africa and other parts of the world.
HEDGES: Well, and we should be clear, and I can’t remember whether it’s from this book or not, but the NAACP was set up as a counterweight to more radical elements, and in particular the Communist Party.
WEST: After World War II, Gerald Horne and Robin Kelly and the other fine truth telling historians lay it out. And when Paul Robison attends the 31 Grace court in Brooklyn Heights in Brooklyn, the best borough in the world, it’s just the two of them, Paul Robison under house arrest. The most popular Negro in the world in 1939, he’s under house arrest. Du Bois basically under house arrest, passport taken. They’re in dialog. There’s John Killens. There’s Harry Belafonte coming in every once in a while. That’s the Du Bois, that is the Paul Robison that our young folk in Ferguson, young folk in Baltimore, they need to be attune to the vision and courage, because we are catching up with them. The American empire is in deep trouble.
HEDGES: Can I read this passage from “The Souls of White Folks”, from your book, by Du Bois.
WEST: Sure. Yeah. It’s Du Bois’s language. But yes.
HEDGES: It’s Du Bois. It’s Du Bois.
WEST: That’s right. The great Du Bois.
HEDGES: “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 rôle. 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 religion, a world war-cry. . . .”
Now, Muslims in the Middle East would understand that language.
WEST: Oh, absolutely. And that is the terrorism that brother Willie King’s singing about with such power.
HEDGES: But it’s a terrorism that Americans are largely–
WEST: In denial about.
HEDGES: In denial, and certainly the corporate media institutions have blocked from view quite effectively.
WEST: Absolutely. Absolutely. But we’re living at a time in which with this escalating visibility of police terror and police murder, with hardly any police going to jail, no serious accountability, and most importantly with the marvelous new militancy of the young brothers and sisters of all colors, but disproportionately chocolate, who have broken the back of fear–you see, once you break the back of fear and say, I am not afraid any longer, I am willing to bear witness, put my body on the line, go to jail–and this is exactly what we’ve seen.
HEDGES: But that killing’s not new. I mean, for decades black people have been–I mean, American society, maybe because of video that’s been leaked, you know, they’re shocked.
WEST: That’s right.
HEDGES: But black people have been killed at this rate for decades.
WEST: Absolutely. But when you have a wave of resistance–you see, we just had the wonderful march at Newark, my dear brother Larry Hamm, People’s Organization for Progress. We’re going to have a major march here in New York city October 24, brother Carl Dix and myself. And even my dear brother Minister Louis Farrakhan, who is controversial, especially among a lot of progressives who wonder why it is that the minister Louis Farrakhan still has a presence, but he has a strong presence in terms of keeping track of the terrorism coming at black folk. He’s going to have a 20th anniversary of the Million Man March that’s part of all the different, ideologically variegated expressions of how do you keep track of white supremacy and its ugly effects, you see. That’s escalating.
And that’s a beautiful thing, because the system now is just decrepit. You know, the two-party system is as weak as it can be. You’ve got escalating ecological catastrophe. You’ve got increasing nuclear catastrophe. You’ve got the economic catastrophe in terms of the wealth inequality that brother Bernie Sanders and others talk about. You’ve got the moral catastrophe of–.
HEDGES: He won’t talk about empire, though.
WEST: Now, we’ve got to put some pressure on brother Bernie in that regard. And I think that–.
HEDGES: And he won’t talk about the Palestinians, and he won’t take on the military.
WEST: I think he’s more and more open to a critique of the Israeli occupation. I think he at the same time has to somehow walk a tightrope between the liberals who are excited about him. But thank God he’s talking about Wall Street domination.
HEDGES: He’s raising real issues. Yes, he is.
So I want to close this segment. We’re going to talk in the next segment about what’s happened to the black prophetic tradition. But you have a quote in the book where you write about Ella Baker as saying that political change is not primarily politically motivated. And I think one of the strengths of the black prophetic tradition is that it–especially because it has confronted these frightening monolithic forces–white supremacy, lethal violence, terror itself, discrimination in all of its forms, institutional, economic–it sustains itself finally through an element of faith. And I wonder if you could address that.
WEST: Yeah. I think that when you talk about loving poor people, loving black people, loving gay brothers, lesbian sisters, and loving Palestinians vis-à-vis Israeli occupation, or loving Jewish brothers and sisters vis-à-vis a Hitler, that that’s not just a political resistance. That’s a deep moral and spiritual form that highlights power and the operations of power. And there’s no way you can sustain your movements over time based solely on political calculation or motivation. Something deeper–compassion, empathy. And for my tradition, the black tradition, because music has been the privileged form of expression, there’s a sonic dimension to it, you see, so that the Donny Hathaways and the Marvin Gayes and the Nina Simones and the John Coltranes and Max Roaches, they are as much love warriors and freedom fighters as was Malcolm X, as was Martin Luther King, as was Ella Baker.
HEDGES: Which is–and Baldwin, when he writes about Malcolm, he writes about how gentle Malcolm was.
HEDGES: And he was one of the gentlest people he’d ever met.
HEDGES: And I think they gets to the core of it, because when you love those people, you cannot betray them.
WEST: You can’t betray them.
HEDGES: And if you can’t betray them, it doesn’t matter what they throw at you. And that is the power of, I think, your work and is the power of that prophetic tradition.
WEST: Which is the power of the tradition I’m just a small part of. But I’m going to go down fighting defending that tradition, even given the folk who try to lie about it.
HEDGES: Thank God you’re here. Thank you very much.
WEST: Yeah. Well, I’m blessed, I’m blessed, my brother.
HEDGES: So stay tuned. We’re going to come back next week and talk to Dr. West about what’s happened to the black prophetic tradition, the assault that has been carried out to essentially shut down its voice, and why he is one of the very few standardbearers left in that tradition. Thank you very much.