Cornel West and the Fight to Save the Black Prophetic Tradition
There is an insidious and largely unseen effort by the White House to silence the handful of voices that remain true to the black prophetic tradition. This tradition, which stretches back to Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, has consistently named and damned the cruelty of imperialism and white supremacy. It has done so with a clarity and moral force that have eluded most other critics of American capitalism. President Barack Obama first displayed his fear of this tradition when he betrayed his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, abetting the brutal character assassination of one of the church’s most prophetic voices. And he has sustained this assault, largely through black surrogates such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey, in vicious attacks on Cornel West.
“Jeremiah Wright was the canary in the mine,” West said when we met a few days ago in Princeton, N.J. “The black prophetic tradition has been emptied out. Its leaders have either been murdered or incarcerated. … A lot of political prisoners who represent the black prophetic tradition [are] in jail. They have been in there for decades. Or we have leaders who have completely sold out. They have been co-opted. And these are the three major developments. With sold-out leaders you get a pacified followership or people who are scared.”
“The black prophetic tradition has been the leaven in the American democratic loaf,” West said. “What has kept American democracy from going fascist or authoritarian or autocratic has been the legacy of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin King, Fannie Lou Hamer. This is not because black people have a monopoly on truth, goodness or beauty. It is because the black freedom movement puts pressure on the American empire in the name of integrity, decency, honesty and virtue.”
The tradition is sustained by a handful of beleaguered writers and intellectuals, including Glen Ford and his Black Agenda Report, James Cone, Carl Dix, Bruce Dixon, Boyce Watkins, Yvette Carnell, Robin Kelley, Margaret Kimberley, Nellie Bailey, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, Maulana Karenga, Ajamu Baraka and Wright, but none have the public profile of West, who is routinely attacked by Obama’s black supporters as a “race traitor,” the equivalent of a “self-hating Jew” to hard-line supporters of Israel. It is understandable why this tradition frightens Obama. It exposes him as the ideological heir of Booker T. Washington, a black accommodationist whose core message to black people was, in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, “adjustment and submission.” The wide swath of destruction Obama has overseen on behalf of the corporate state includes the eradication of most of our civil liberties and our privacy, the expansion of imperial war, the use of kill lists, abject subservience to Wall Street’s criminal class and the military-industrial complex, the relentless persecution of whistle-blowers, mass incarceration of poor people of color and the failure to ameliorate the increasing distress of the poor and the working class. His message to the black underclass in the midst of the corporate rape of the nation is drawn verbatim from the Booker T. Washington playbook. He tells them to work harder — as if anyone works harder than the working poor in this country — and obey the law.
“Obama is the highest manifestation of the co-optation that took place,” West said. “It shifted to the black political class. The black political class, more and more, found itself unable to tell the truth, or if they began to tell some of the truth they were [put] under surveillance, attacked and demonized. Forty percent of our babies are living in poverty, living without enough food, and Obama comes to us and says quit whining. He doesn’t say that to the Business Roundtable. He doesn’t say that to the corporate elites. He doesn’t say that to AIPAC, the conservative Jewish brothers and sisters who will do anything to support the Israeli occupation against Palestinians. This kind of neglect in policy is coupled with disrespect in his speeches to black folk, which the mainstream calls tough love.”
“He is a shell of a man,” West said of Obama. “There is no deep conviction. There is no connection to something bigger than him. It is a sad spectacle, sad if he were not the head of an empire that is in such decline and so dangerous. This is a nadir. William Trotter and Du Bois, along with Ida B. Wells-Barnett, were going at Book T tooth and nail. Look at the fights between [Marcus] Garvey and Du Bois, or Garvey and A. Philip Randolph. But now if you criticize Obama the way Randolph criticized Garvey, you become a race traitor and an Uncle Tom. A lot of that comes out of the Obama machine, the Obama plantation.”
“The most pernicious development is the incorporation of the black prophetic tradition into the Obama imperial project,” West said. “Obama used [Martin Luther] King’s Bible during his inauguration, but under the National Defense Authorization Act King would be detained without due process. He would be under surveillance every day because of his association with Nelson Mandela, who was the head of a ‘terrorist’ organization, the African National Congress. We see the richest prophetic tradition in America desecrated in the name of a neoliberal worldview, a worldview King would be in direct opposition to. Martin would be against Obama because of his neglect of the poor and the working class and because of the [aerial] drones, because he is a war president, because he draws up kill lists. And Martin King would have nothing to do with that.””We are talking about crimes against humanity — Wall Street crimes, war crimes, the crimes of the criminal justice system in the form of Jim Crow, the crimes against our working poor that have their backs pushed against the wall because of stagnant wages and corporate profits going up,” West said. “Abraham Heschel said that the distinctive feature of any empire in decline is its indifference to criminality. That is a fundamental feature of our time, an indifference to criminality, especially on top, wickedness in high places.”
“This is not personal,” West said. “This was true for [George W.] Bush. It was true for [Bill] Clinton. We are talking about an imperial system, manifest in Obama’s robust effort to bomb Syria. War crimes against Syrian children do not justify U.S. war crimes. We are talking about a corporate state and a massive surveillance and national security state. It operates according to its own logic. Profit on the one hand, and secrecy to hide imperial policy on the other. Jesse [Jackson] was the head house Negro on the Clinton plantation, just as Sharpton is the head house Negro on the Obama plantation. But there is a difference. Jesse was willing to oppose Clinton on a variety of issues. He marched, for example, against the welfare bill. But Sharpton loves the plantation. He will not say a critical word. It is sad and pathetic. We are living in the age of the sellout.”
“Garvey used to say that as long as black people were in America the masses of black people, the poor and the working class, would never be treated with respect, decency or fairness,” West said. “That has always been a skeleton in the closet, the fundamental challenge to the black prophetic tradition. It may very well be that black people will never be free in America. But I believe, and the black prophetic tradition believes, that we proceed because black people are worthy of being free, just as poor people of all colors are worthy of being free, even if they never will be free. That is the existential leap of faith. There is no doubt that with a black president the black masses are still treated unfairly, from stop and frisk to high unemployment, indecent housing and decrepit education.”
“It is a spiritual issue,” West said. “What kind of person do you choose to be? People say, ‘Well, Brother West, since the mass of black folk will never be free then let me just get mine.’ That is the dominant response. ‘I am wasting my time fighting a battle that can’t be won.’ But that is not what the black prophetic tradition is about. History is a mystery. Yes, it doesn’t look good. But the masses of black folk must be respected. Malcolm X used to say as long as they are not respected you could show me all the individual respect you want but I know it’s empty. That is the fundamental divide between the prophetic tradition and the sellouts.”
The tradition has been diminished by what West called the “emaciation” of the black press that once amplified the voices of black radicals. The decline of the black press and the consolidation of the media, especially the electronic media, into the hands of a few corporations means that those who remain faithful to this tradition have been shut out. West does not appear on MSNBC, where the black and white hosts serve as giddy cheerleaders for Obama, and was abruptly dropped as a scheduled guest on an edition of CBS’ “Face the Nation” that aired after the 50 anniversary of the march on Washington. The black prophetic tradition is rarely taught in schools, including primarily African-American schools, and West said that this deterioration threatens to extinguish the tradition.
“It no longer has a legitimacy or significant foothold in the minds of the black masses,” West said. “With corporate media and the narrowing of the imagination of all Americans, including black people, there is an erasure of memory. This is the near death of the black prophetic tradition. It is a grave issue. It is a matter of life and death. It means that the major roadblock to American fascism, which has been the black prophetic tradition, is gone. To imagine America without the black prophetic tradition, from Frederick Douglass to Fannie Lou Hamer, means an American authoritarian regime, American fascism. We already have the infrastructure in place for the police state.”
“Black intelligence and black suspicion is still there among the masses,” West said. “Black people are not stupid. We are not completely duped. We are just scared. We don’t think there is any alternative. This is re-niggerization of the black professional class. They have big money, nice positions, comfort and convenience, but are scared, intimidated, afraid to tell the truth and will not bear witness to justice. Those who are incorporated into the black professional and political class are willing to tolerate disrespect for the black masses and sip their tea and accept their checks and gain access to power. That is what niggerization is — keeping people afraid and intimidated.”