R. Benjamin: “It’s a beautiful thing to be on fire. It’s a beautiful thing to be on fire!” Is it not? These words are taken from the opening chapter of our brother-scholar, Dr. Cornel West’s, new book Black Prophetic Fire. And from where I stand, you friends, are the beautiful blaze that he must have had in mind with that title.
On behalf of the Princeton University Center for African American Studies, we welcome you to our Annual Conversation Series—A forum that is one part of the Center’s broader commitment to modeling a form of engagement that enriches public discussion on a range of topics.
And today we focus on Black Thought in the Hour of Chaos, and we are joined by three of my favorite people—brilliant scholars, but also incredible human beings whose intellectual fire warms up the academy for the rest of us:
Professor Imani Perry, Professor Eddie Glaude, and Dr. Cornel West who are here to help us think through the difficult question: “What do we need to do now, in the face of crisis?” Crisis as it relates to employment, incarceration, and police violence—Yes. But also as it relates to a civic crisis in the paucity of courageous voices we currently see engaged in public debate.
As brother West so poignantly describes in the conclusion of this important text: “To be a highly successful Black professional or politician is too often to be well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference…” He goes on to say that,
“The Black prophetic tradition has never been confined to the interests and situations of Black people. It is rooted in principles and visions that embrace these interests and confront the situations, but its message is for the country and the world. The Black prophetic tradition has been the leaven in the American democratic loaf. When the Black prophetic tradition is strong, poor and working people of all colors benefit. When the Black prophetic tradition is weak, poor and working class people are overlooked. On the international level, when the Black prophetic tradition is vital and vibrant, anti-imperial critiques are intense, and the plight of the wretched of the earth is elevated. What does it profit a people for a symbolic figure to gain presidential power if we turn our backs from the suffering of poor and working people, and thereby lose our souls? The Black prophetic tradition has tried to redeem the soul of our fragile democratic experiment. Is it redeemable?”
To help us reflect together about that question, I can think of no better: Brilliant, engaged, and loving human beings… who really need no introduction. But for the benefit of those who stumble upon a recording of this conversation at some later date, let me just say a few words about each:
Dr. Imani Perry is Professor of African American studies at Princeton University—and the interdisciplinary range of her expertise is just breathtaking—from law, to literary and cultural studies, to music, and the social sciences. She’s published numerous articles and books in the areas of cultural studies, African American studies, and law and is the author, most recently, of the book More Beautiful, More Terrible, in which she notes that “in the contemporary United States we routinely fail to acknowledge how terrible things actually are with respect to race. It is indeed more terrible than what we say. And so, this is a sober book. But it is a hopeful one, because in the midst of all that is terrible, there is still beautiful possibility.” Indeed, it is a beautiful thing to be on fire.
Dr. Eddie Glaude, in turn, is Professor of African American studies and Religion at Princeton University, and is the author of numerous publications related to American pragmatism, African American religious history, and its place in American public life. Among his many works is the book, In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America in which he cautions us, “We live in a different time, a moment made possible by the extraordinary efforts of past generations. But our task is different because the conditions have changed. We must imagine a politics that esteems the democratic virtue of free and open debate, and insists on the capacities of everyday, ordinary folk to engage fully in what the rap artist Talib Kweli so brilliantly calls the beautiful struggle.” Yet again, it is a beautiful thing to be on fire.
And finally, our special guest tonight, Dr. Cornel West: Prior to his current position as Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Dr. West taught at Princeton’s Center for African American Studies since its founding in 2006 until 2012. In addition to his numerous contributions as a scholar and public intellectual, West made headlines recently with an arrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where he had traveled to join with local activists in protesting the shooting death of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown. West described this experience saying, “I wanted to stand alongside the young leaders emerging there… I didn’t want to replace them; I wanted them to be center stage. But I also wanted to let them know that there’s a great tradition they are apart of, that they can learn from.”
And it’s precisely this intergenerational conversation that Professor West brings to life in his new book Black Prophetic Fire, and which frames our discussion tonight. With that, please join me in welcoming our three esteemed guests.
Perry: Okay, so I first want to thank the Professor for such a beautiful introduction and also say how incredibly fortunate we are to have you as a member of our community and our faculty, and then just get right into it. We are living in a moment where the murder of black young people by police is a quotidian event, literally daily. We have over 2 million people in prison in this country. Black Americans are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We have over the past 6 years a massive loss of black wealth, unprecedented. We have crises in numerous realms, like public health, education. We could go on and on.
The first question I wanted to ask you is, given all of that and given how much of that has to do with material conditions, why does what we do as intellectuals and scholars matter?
West: Do you want to take that?
Glaude Jr: No, that’s you.
West: First I just want to say that it’s a sweet thing to be back to Princeton just to be on the stage with these two intellectual giants of their generation. I was blessed to meet both of them in 1991. Professor Perry was kind enough to work with Breaking Bread, which is what I was blessed to write with another giant named bell hooks. And, of course, Brother Eddie, Professor Glaude, I met in 1991 as well. To be able to come back for me is a moment of unadulterated joy. I want to just register that. Oh my God. I’m so glad to be at Princeton. Give it up for Professor Taylor.
Male: I don’t think your mic is on
West: Oh, it’s still not on? Oh, mine’s not on at all? You missed all of that? Testing, testing. Oh, wow. What I was saying was is that, and Brother Tommy knows this, that I am who I am because somebody loved me and somebody cared for me. Somebody attended to me. I am blessed to be part of a great tradition. Yes, it is a black prophetic tradition, but it’s also a prophetic tradition that has to do with all human beings who muster the courage to attempt to tell the truth, and the condition of truth is always to allow suffering to speak and to understand the connection between that truth telling on the one hand and the witness bearing on the other.
When I think of where we are now, I say to myself, “Well, these multi-level catastrophes is nothing new for black people in the history of the American empire. Like Sankofa, I always want to look back first before I move forward. I want to highlight the landmarks and the landmarks, I’ll be very brief, are first at the existential level, which is you have to have persons who are willing to muster the courage.
Now, unfortunately, in late capitalist society, most economies are much more concerned with producing smart people rather than courageous ones. The smartness is tied to dollars, rather than courageous ones tied to truth telling. That looks like Jeff Stout out there, too. He know what I’m talking about. Good God Almighty. I got so many friends here, I don’t even know if by dear brother Robbie George is in the house. Tell that brother I love him, too, but Jeff, it’s so good to see you. So good to see you.
Yet… At this existential level, what kind of human beings are we going to be? We can’t talk about dealing with the chaos, which comes … Oh, yeah. That’s good. It’s on. Can you hear me all right? You can’t talk about the chaos that results from the multilevel catastrophes without saying, “We are going to be hypersensitive to the suffering of the vulnerable and the weak and therefore we’re not going to be so obsessed with being smart. We’re going to let the phones be smart. We’re going to be courageous. We’re going to be compassionate and we’re going to be wise.”
Already, you’re cutting against the grain in a society ruled by money, by stupidity, by big money, big banks, big corporations. It means then you have to get connected. That’s the second level. You have to be connected with persons who are in conversation and concerned with the narratives and analysis of power that keep track of indigenous peoples, poor peoples, chocolate peoples, gay, lesbian sisters, elderly, all of those who are left out. The black prophetic tradition always begins with black people. It begins on the chocolate side of town. Why? Because so often they’re the most hated, treated with the most contempt, despised with impunity.
Police shooting young folk hardly any go to jail. No accountability. No answerability. No responsibility whatsoever, just business as usual. We just had a meeting in New York City just a year ago. Twenty-five families of mothers sitting on the front row, all of their sons killed by the New York Police Department. Not one policeman going to jail. Then they wonder, how come you all full of rage, Brother West? Hey, who do you think I am? What kind of home training do you think I got? I love black people. When you love folk, you can’t stand the fact they’re being treated unjustly. You hate the fact they’re being treated unfairly. You got to respond in some way.
Existential level? Courage. Analytical level? Some analysis we’ll get into, but then there’s a political level. What kind of organizing, mobilizing? What kind of coming together? I was so glad Professor Benjamin read that latter part, because oftentimes in America when people talk about blackness, they think it’s just concern about black folk. That has never been the case.
Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, A. Philip Randolph, Martin King, Malcolm X at the end, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, they always start with the black catastrophe. There’s no such thing as a Negro problem. There’s a catastrophe visited on black people, slavery, Jim Crow and Jane Crow. It spills over. I think in the analysis of where we are today from Ferguson and other, and I know my dear brother’s heading out to Ferguson … You and Brother Jones are headed to Ferguson tomorrow, right?
I’m praying for you all, because you know the verdict’s supposed to come down tomorrow morning, on Monday morning. You’re walking right into, not just chaos, but more than chaos, police state, militarized police, and I’m pulling for you. As a Christian, I’m praying for you, but as a Christian, my prayers don’t often get answered in the way that I like, but I keep praying anyway. Let me stop there and then turn it over to my brother
Glaude Jr: Thank you, Professor Benjamin, for that wonderful introduction. We are so blessed to have you and Professor Taylor and Professor Murakawa and Professor Nishikawa join us in the Center for African American Studies. Can we give a hand to these wonderful folk…
Glaude Jr: People say that you sound shrill these days. You’ve given us an account of the existential, the analytical and the political. You begin with the catastrophe, the catastrophic. You have witnessed over the course of your career a journey in how you have been received, embraced, criticized, and in some ways downright vilified. This has taken on a particular resonance since 2008, given your criticism of President Obama.
You talk about the moment. Looking back on it, how do you manage how you’re often talked about in this current moment? I could give you a typology about how you’re often talked about.
West: I don’t really follow it that closely, because I’ve got so many things I’m trying to do in life. It’s very important. I do believe in being Socratic, you have to listen very closely to your critics. Nietzsche used to say, “You’re only as strong as your critics.” Now, your demonizers are different than your criticizers. You see, if they’re demonizing you, then I don’t listen. If they talk about my momma, I’m a Christian, not a pacifist. I’ll throw down on them quick. I’ll kick they so-and-so. I’m not like Martin in that sense. I’m not nonviolence all the way down. No, no. Not me. Uh-uh.
It is true that I’ve been vilified for a long time. I think my dear brother Larry Summers had his own species of vilification almost 13 years ago. It was before that as well. It’s not just white brothers and sisters. It’s black and brown and others, but I think it intensified in 2008 because the national spectacle of this brilliant charismatic black brother on his way to the White House with a brilliant charismatic black sister, Princeton grad …
Yeah, give it up. Give it up. Give it up for Sister Michelle. Oh yeah. That’s the Princeton legacy. That’s part of the Princeton legacy… And two magnificent children had a national spectacle. After the 65 events that I did with him, I said in every event that I’m going to do everything I can to show who he is, and try to bring an end to the age of Reaganism with the financializing and privatizing and militarizing. We could do it looks like with a progressive, but I did say that afternoon I would breakdance and celebrate, but the next morning, I would emerge as his major critic. I simply try to be true to my word.
The reason why I wanted to emerge as a major critic is because I knew he’s dealing with an empire. He’s dealing with a neoliberal capitalist regime. Wealth inequality. Income inequality. Privatizing of schools. Closing down of public schools. He’s dealing with a massive surveillance state that violates rights and liberties. I didn’t think he would assassinate four Americans with no due process, no judicial review. I didn’t think he’d go that far, but my God, any President who does that, I’m going to raise my voice, and it may sound shrill, because it’s wrong.
Not only that, but I remember Bobby Hutton, shot down by FBI agents. I remember Fred Hampton in Chicago, shot down by FBI agents facilitated by the police. I had my whole host of freedom fighters on the left. You see, I believe, of course, that people have a right to be wrong. I’m a radical libertarian when it comes to freedom of expression and opinion and so forth. That’s why Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and so many others are heroes for me in terms of trying to make a transparency or relative transparency into what’s going on in the shadow government. I would like to know what’s going on even more among the shadow economic activities of Wall Street.
If we had known that in 2006 and 2007, we’d have a very different situation. In some ways, we’re right back to where we were before. It’s that kind of transparency… When people say, “Well, you’re shrill.” No, I’m trying to be consistently on fire. That’s …
Glaude Jr: You once said … I think her mic works now, correct?
Glaude Jr: I just want to follow up. You once told me that this wasn’t a time for polite speech.
West: Oh, that’s true.
Glaude Jr: It wasn’t a moment for polite speech.
West: At least not in public. I believe in being polite in terms of private manners. I believe in tenderness and sweetness and gentleness, but I don’t believe in being polite in public when precious children are being shot down, or workers are being pushed against a wall, or sisters are being brutalized in domestic violence in private spaces. I don’t believe …
When drones are dropping bombs on innocent children in Somalia and Yemen and Pakistan, I don’t believe being polite in the face of rights and liberties being violated, in terms of keeping track of all of our phone calls and thinking that somehow we are going to be potentially connected or at least associated forces with terrorists, especially given the fact that Nelson Mandela was on the terrorist list of the United States until 2006. To me, the government can get things wrong as to who’s a terrorist and who’s not. They can get them right, too. ISIS gangsters, thugs, genocidal, fascists, yes. ANC? African National Congress? No, No. We can go on and on in other examples.
Perry: You talked about having… We know that you were just in Ferguson. One of the things… It was meaningful to me, because one of the things that people, I think, often fail to understand is how present you are in many places, so that you go behind prison walls. You’re in small towns. Small churches. That’s a different conception of the public work of an intellectual than simply being on television. I would like us to think a little bit about the significance of being present, physically, an embodied presence in different spaces. You’ve said multiple times this question that people can be wrong.
Perry: One of the first lessons I recall you teaching me as a graduate student, because I had been trained to think in relativistic ways, and you said, “Somebody’s got to be right and somebody’s got to be wrong.” Is there something about being present in places to witness that enables a deeper understanding? Does it matter to go there, to be in the space?
West: To be in that space, though? Yeah. I don’t think that there’s ever one model or one monolithic way of intellectuals or academicians to do their work. It depends on what your calling is. It depends on being true to who you are. Some people who are very soft spoken and timid and going to the library and write magnificent work that has unbelievable implications for people in other context, that’s a beautiful thing. Everybody’s who they are and not somebody else.
I would never think that, for example, those who are in the street have any monopoly on activism. There’s a whole lot of different kinds of activism. For me, Toni Morrison was one of the great activists in terms of the creative, unbelievable deployment of language that cuts to the core of who I am. John Coltrane was an unbelievable activist because he blew his horn for 16 hours and went to bed with the horn in his mouth and woke up blowing. That was his way of being true to himself and true to his calling. I have to be honest about what my calling is, and my calling is in fact being in a variety of different contexts, so on] Friday nights, I’m there at Rahway with my 150 students, I’m still grading papers.
I’ve got 1500 pages I’ve got to read. Each one wrote a 10-page paper and I’ve got 150 students. You all pray for me, but that’s part of my calling, to be with the brothers and engage them with Plato and Beckett and Du Bois and Toni Morrison. The same is true with the young folk Ferguson. I went there, one, to let them know that they are loved, that I love them, that I’m old school, they’re new school, and they should not think that all old schoolers are represented by Al Sharpton. They need to know that. They need to know that.
I say that out of love for Al Sharpton. The Negro’s just wrong a lot of times. The Negro’s just wrong. He’s center stage all the time. Get out of the spotlight. You don’t have to be ontologically addicted to the camera. When I went down there, I said, “I’m not going to have one interview unless Ashley Yates is with me, unless Tef Poe is with me, unless Alexis Templeton is with me. Unless Tory Russell is with me. They sit right next to me, and I have them speak. Why? Because I just got there. I’ve been in New York and Princeton all this time. I don’t know what’s going on in Ferguson.
The corporate media, as superficial as they are, concerned about ratings and market driven, you think they’re fundamentally committed to the complexity of the truth? Get off the crack pipe. It’s all about money, money, money. They want the visible ones, those who stimulate and titillate. Their audience is sitting on the couch to be stimulated and titillated. No. I’m committed to the truth, capital T. No one ever possesses capital T. Small “t” with an “s”, yes. Somebody’s wrong, somebody’s right, relative to the best evidence.
The same is true with two sides of the story. The police have their side and the black folk have their side. Yes. I believe in fueling the conversation. I believe in a fair trial, but I also know the history of these two sides. Sometimes, it’s like the earth is flat and the earth is round. We need two sides. No, no, no we don’t. No, no, we don’t. No, we don’t. No, the creationists are wrong. The earth is not flat. It looks that way, but it’s just not.
The same is true about the viscous legacy of white supremacy. If the voices of those precious black folk are rarely allowed to speak with power in all of their variety and all you hear are the talking heads who are selected by a white power structure of a corporate media, run by oligarchs and plutocrats, most of them vanilla, and even the chocolate ones have been socialized into their vanilla culture, so the only way they move to the top is remain silent when it comes to precious Jamal and Leticia catching hell.
Can you imagine what America would be like if one out of three precious white brothers were on parole, probation or in prison? It’d be a different country, wouldn’t it? For black folk, it is. Can you imagine if 4% of all the babies in America lived in utter poverty, in the richest nation in the history of the world? We’d have a different response to the crisis, wouldn’t we? That’s what it is for brown and red and black babies. Hence, the righteous indignation, the moral outrage and so forth, and then the need for some analysis.
Why is it that 1% of the population have 42% of the wealth? Or the top 1% got 100% of the income wealth in the last 5 years? It’s not just the black President. It’s not just Obama administration. These are structural forces at work that Obama was unable to courageously hit head on. They can say, “Well, he tried. He did everything. The Republicans kicked it.” No, the Republican are not that powerful. The Republicans are obstructionists, cold-hearted, mean-spirited too often when it comes to poor people? Yes. But Democrats? Milk toast, spineless, always moving to the center. Always moving to the center.
Then you got the politicians when it comes to issues of public health, where they punt on second down rather than fourth down. They give up the struggle too soon. They don’t push it to the edge. Sometimes, you do lose, but at least push it to the edge. You don’t compromise too early. Then, the saddest thing is the young people. Of course, this book that my dear sister was so kind to mention is a love letter to the younger generation. The last thing young folk need to hear is to be so polite and cautious when it comes to the murder, the soul murder in public schools, when it comes to massive employment.
Can you imagine what we would be if those who loved us in the past were always just polite and conscious in the face of the white power structure? Shoot, we’d still be Jim Crow to the core, Sr. We’re still Jim Crow, Jr., to the core. We’d still be in Jim Crow. There’s been a re-niggarization of the black professional class. Just give me some position, wealth and status, and they’re still scared to tell the truth. They’re still scared to take a risk. They’re still scared to cut against the grain. Just give them a TV show. Just give them some visibility and all of a sudden, they just move to the center.
You say, “What’s going on? What happened to the truth?” “Well, that’s played out. I’ve got my career now.” “Oh, oh, I see.” I’m going on too long, but you see where I’m going with this.
Glaude Jr: Absolutely. Why don’t we…
West: The wonderful thing is, young folk are hungry and thirsty for it. Things are shifting. There’s no doubt about it. Princeton’s a part of it. Princeton usually comes in… Princeton will come in kicking and screaming. Never has any Ivy league institution with all of its greatnesses and all of its blindnesses been on the cutting-edge of the struggle for justice. They catch up. They catch up. I see Brother Daniels sitting there. He knows what I’m talking about, written that magnificent historical graphical work.
They catch up, because it takes a while for an institution with such longevity and white supremacy and anti-Semitism and anti-Arab and anti-Catholicism, like Princeton, given the vision of those grand Presbyterians that founded this place. I salute them because I’m part of their tradition, but I’ve just got my revisions. It takes a while for the institution as a whole to shift.
What’s happening in Ferguson, and you all are going to see it tomorrow and thereafter, there’s no way that people can remain in the streets now for almost 80 days. That’s a long time, under police surveillance, all by themselves. That kind of fire is hard to put out and that becomes contagious. Believe me you, that if things do become explosive in Ferguson, there’s a very good chance that it’s not going to be exclusively Ferguson.
Glaude Jr: Let me shift just a bit. Professor Perry talked about your presence in places that don’t necessarily align with your celebrity, how your celebrity is read. I want to talk a little bit about your habits of buying, your habits of reading, how you imagine yourself as a particular kind of intellectual and what you try to model in the very ways in which you read widely and deeply. Who are your resources, your walking partners, that inform the fire? There are a lot of different kinds of logs that stoke who you are as a human being.
I want to think about that practice, habits of mind, the craft of what it means to be an intellectual, in light of the distinction you made very quickly between intellectual and academics in the context of a neoliberal academy. Could you talk about the state of black letters? The state of black intellectual life in light of your own conception of what it means to live the life of the mind?
West: Yes, I think one, when we look at the difference between an intellectual and an academic, an academic is one who finds great pleasure in being in conversation with sophisticated voices, usually in the context of specialization tied within the disciplinary division of knowledge in the academy. You’re majoring in X. You’re majoring in Y and so forth. That’s very important. You do have to be conversant.
The intellectual tends to have much more a sense of the whole, synecdochic imagination, the relation of the parts to the whole and willing to communicate that sense of the whole to a larger audience. Now, if you don’t have serious conversation with the academics due to a specialized knowledge, then your sense of the whole could be rather empty and superficial and vacuous.
On the other hand, if all you have are academics concerned about highly specialized forms of knowledge, then the larger public still oftentimes is too far removed and doesn’t benefit in the way in which it should with the knowledge that is being produced. Now, I came along in the 1960s and ‘70s when we had figures like Martin King and Malcolm and Ella Baker and Stokely Carmichael and others where we felt that whatever calling we had, intellectual or academic, it had to be connected, some organic link with struggles, organized struggles.
As soon as I got to Harvard, I was so glad to get there because I needed to get distance from California. The earth was quaking a little bit too much for me. The breakfast program. I couldn’t be a member of the Black Panther Party, the Christian … The Jesus-Loving Free Black Men. I said, “Fine, come on in, Brother West. Fine with me. You all atheists? Beautiful. Wrong, but that’s fine with me.” “No, you wrong.” Okay, that’s dialogue, but in the same context as struggle. The same is true with Princeton. I had to have something outside of the academic bubble, as wonderful as the academic bubble was, and so all those years, I was connected with prison and the breakfast program.
On the other hand, your wonderful question about habits of mine, I was bit by the bug of sheer joy of reading. I became somebody who just couldn’t get through the day without at least reading 2 hours or 3 hours every day, even if I had to just steal away at night, turn off my Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone and just start reading. I’ve been like that every day of my life. I just love it. It’s just a joy. It’s reading everything.
This book I was reading last night was the meaning of human existence by Edward Wilson. It’s a wonderful book. It’s a powerful book. It crystalizes his whole career. What’s it call for? “We need unity of humanity. We need fights against tribalism. We need courageous persons because we’re a dysfunctional species.” That’s what the social biologist says. I say, “I wholeheartedly agree.”
After his study of ants, and whole lot of other things that he does. That’s his conclusion. Hey, I agree. Grandma agree, too, even though she’s got Christian values and he’s got some deeply secular scientific ones. He says in the end, we might not even have intellectual, spiritual or moral resources as a species to deal with the catastrophes that are facing us. Yeah, I’ve read blurbs about that, too, human beings who are finite and fallen, we might not have a capacity to actually generate possibilities of freedom and democracy in human history.
“What do you do, Mr. Wilson?” “Well, I look to science.” Well, science may not provide what’s necessary. Maybe you need to just be committed to integrity, honesty and decency, regardless of the consequences because that is the kind of human being you’ve chosen to be before the worms get you. Period. That’s my tradition, because the black folk have always had a utilitarian calculus. Whatever we do is going to generate some black freedom no matter what. Get ready for the crack house. Get ready for the addiction.
This is not about short-term utilitarian calculus when you’re talking about the freedom of poor people or black people or anybody else. It’s about what kind of human being you want to be, what they going to say about you when you in the coffin. What kind of words will be used in describing you in the coffin? It more than likely won’t have too much to do with how much money you had and how big your house is and how superficially beautiful your spouse was on the outside as opposed to a deep relationship.
They’re not concerned about your moments when you said, “Say my name. Say my name.” They’re going to wonder whether “Did you try?” Did you try a little tenderness the way Otis Redding sang it. That’s what they going to say when you in that coffin. That hit you a little bit, dear brother? I don’t want to offend nobody. I’m just trying to describe some of the tendencies in late capitalist culture.
Perry: Okay, on that note of tendencies of late capitalist culture, there is something though about… I understand what you’re saying about everybody has their own practice, but there is something about the pursuit of meaning that you’re talking about or meaningful life, and I think that the habit of reading, with a habit of study… Given the landscape in which or the neoliberal context in which we are in constant competition, in which attention is a commodity, in which people are endlessly trying to navigate getting access… There’s something about thought, retreat, contemplation, not simply for its own sake, but for the purpose of actually doing something meaningful in this world. I think it’s not just important, but it’s actually a radical intervention in this moment.
West: That’s true. That’s so very true. I think it’s also true, though, that … Richard Hofstadter wrote his classic in ’63, Anti-Intellectualism in America, and talked about how difficult it was for intellectuals to find a role, a meaningful role, in a business civilization, a civilization obsessed with buying and selling, obsessed with pecuniary gain, driven by cupidity as opposed to fraternity as Hofstadter puts it.
Looking now 50 years later, it is so much worse. It is so much worse, but this is, of course, again the crucial role of that larger historical backdrop. Now, of course, if their little response often is, “Well, you get anti-intellectual intellectuals.”
Glaude Jr: Anti-intellectual intellectuals?
West: Yes. You get those who pose as if …
Perry: Parlor intellectuals.
West: Yes. That’s it. That’s it. They don’t want to linger with the complexity. They don’t want to linger with the subtlety. They want to pose as if they’re intellectuals, but at the same time, they don’t want to be disciplined and do the work necessary to then be able to straighten their backs up and lay bare the truth as they understand it, and then connect it to bearing the witness, which usually means, of course, paying a cost. How you doing, my dear sister? Good to see you.
Of course, let’s be honest. We’re black folk. Anybody, any sister or brother who publically talks about the viscous legacy of white supremacy with frank, plain, unintimidated speech usually means you live under death threat. As you know, when I was in Boston, they showed up at my crib with shotguns and put a gun to my wife’s head and so forth.
That’s not a plaything at all. When you get the calls after you’re on television, that we’re going to put a thing in your nigger brain and so forth or call your family up and your mother and so forth, that does something to you. Then, you have to decide what are you really made of?
How do you respond with something other than hatred and revenge when you get treated in that way. There’s over 900 white supremacist militia groups in America and many of us have the names at the top. It become a very different kind of context in that way. We’re just talking about white supremacy. We’re not even talking about making a connection to white supremacy and empire, empirical practices.
When you take a stand, for example, in the Middle East with Palestinian brothers and sisters vis-à-vis a viscous Israeli occupation. “Oh, Brother West, you anti-Semitic.” No, I love Jewish brothers and sisters. I just want them to love the truth and justice, too. That applies to Palestinian babies like it applies to Israeli babies. Each baby has the same value.
“Oh, Brother West, that’s still a sign of anti-Semitism.” Well, you’ve got to redefine your conception of anti-Semitism then, because I know a whole lot of Jewish brothers and sisters with integrity who understand how viscous that Israeli occupation is, but when you do that, what happens? There’s a cost.
You just make sure there’s no anti-Jewish hatred or anti-Jewish prejudice in your formulation. That it’s based on principle, but that doesn’t mean you lose sight of the precious Palestinians in that particular context, or the previous Jewish babies being killed by rockets on the other side with Hamas. You just have to be unpopular.
Glaude Jr: Let me talk about this unpopularity for a second. That’s a really powerful formulation on a certain level. There was once a moment where you were at the height of popularity, Race Matters, and you’ve narrated a particular story for me before in our private conversations about what does it mean to be the darling of white liberals? Then, what does it mean to no longer be the darling of white liberals?
You’ve told me a story about three particular folks that you now are among them in some ways. Why don’t you say a little bit more about what does it mean to be projected on the one hand in a certain way and then find yourself in this moment? This is a subset of the first question in terms of how people read you, the notion of unpopularity, how people read your accounts and the like, but from Amiri Baraka to Ishmael Reed, that story you’ve told me.
West: Yeah. Do I get a chance to ask you all questions? Do I get to just ask you all some questions? I can ask you all some questions. Is that all right? I’m going to answer this real quick and then I’m going to turn the tide on you. There are giants far, far greater than I could ever be, Paul Robeson of Princeton. He was the most popular Negro in the world, with a talent beyond description. He ended his life under house arrest in Philadelphia, and his best friend, W.E.B. Du Bois in Brooklyn. Both of them pushed to the margins. There’s James Baldwin, the darling of white liberals.
The death of Martin and Malcolm and Medgar changed him into much more explicit, more shrill-like militant, but the subtlety was still there. He’s pushed to the side. Gwendolyn Brooks wins the Yale prize given by the inimitable W.H. Arden in 1950, embraced by all of the literati. Here comes the black arts movement. Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez… She says, “I am in solidarity with them.” She is pushed to the side. What are some of the results? No reviews of your books in any of the mainstream journals whatsoever, banished, almost the way brother Noam Chomsky is banished by corporate media for his truth telling.
Ishmael Reed would be another. Of course, there’s Leroy Jones/Amiri Baracka. Darling of white liberals, bohemia, Greenwich Village, Allen Ginsberg and a host of others, moves up to Harlem, founds the National Arts Theater, changes his name and is demonized for almost 35 years. He’s not always right and not always wrong, but that is one of the consequences.
Now, my plight is in no way comparable to theirs. I don’t think so. You think maybe so? Let me ask you all a question though because just to be able to function now, not just here at this grand place, Princeton, but in the intellectual environment in which you find yourself. How would you contrast that to the kinds of things we talked about 20 years ago when you were my teachings assistants at Harvard? Is that a fair query, you think?
West: Yeah. Then, the same one to you, brother.
Perry: One of the things that’s fascinating to me is that, because now we live in the digital age. We live in the information age. We live in the age where things go viral. We live in the age where everything is public. One of the things that’s fascinating is that when people say, “Oh, you weren’t making a critique of the US presidency 20 years ago.” Actually, yes, that was taking place in a robust fashion, but there wasn’t this hypervisibility. I actually think there’s something incredibly important about being in deep conversation over a long period of time on issues of social import and figuring out what that means for the calling.
I think now, again, I go back to the cycle of attention, but the seduction is so powerful. What that means is that I think, particularly for young scholars and activists, and artists that there’s a tendency to want to come out before one is cooked.
Glaude Jr: Say that again?
Perry: A tendency to want to come out before one is fully cooked. Before you actually know what you think, people start talking in public. I think that what’s difficult about that then means that your driver is to talk, not to be right. I think the seduction is present all across the board, even for those of us who were having a different conversation 20 years ago, to constantly have to ask oneself, why am I doing what I’m doing? What are the stakes of it? Where do my commitments lie? If I decide to say this, what are the consequences? Is it worth it? Why is it worth it? To not get this? To not get that. It’s a difficult landscape, but it also demands a constant confrontation with the question of integrity.
Glaude Jr: I’m thinking about it and 20 years ago, we were thinking in the context of the height of Black Studies in some ways. We saw various debates, PhD program at Temple, Skip and Molefi Asante going at it. Then, of course, the PhD program at Harvard. Then, of course, in the middle of that, the British wave comes in, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, black British cultural studies. We were in the midst of an intense ferment in which people were really grappling with ideas at the very moment in which Black Studies was achieving a level of institutional presence in the academy that it had never had before, in my mind.
Within that were these various currents, various ways in which people were imagining themselves and positioning themselves as folk who inhabit this space, this newly found secured institutional space. What’s interesting about today is that I see a lot of what I took to be the underside of what was happening 20 years ago to be the dominant tendency. There was a moment when everyone would say about Skip, “He’s brilliant. He’s ingenious, but he has this entrepreneurial approach to the academy.” What is the life of that tendency?
There’s a moment in the period where you emerged as a particular figure. Folk know you by Race Matters, but what about The American Evasion, Faith Matters, Ethical Dimensions of Marxism … We could just go down the line with the books, but Race Matters hits, boom, pop, explosion! You become the face of black public intellectuals. Suddenly, you get all of these B-movies, people trying to be the public intellectual… What is the tendency? That trend emerged and now what is the dominant tendency?
The idea of craft, of sitting still… I remember, you used to tell me all the time, “Brother, you got to get your reading done.” “Brother, you’re not doing your reading.” Or you would say, when somebody’s talking, “They not reading.” Jeff, you know what I’m talking about? “They not reading.” There was an attention to craft that has almost been overwhelmed by the speed of ascendance, by the demand of a certain kind of publicity, by the…
Perry: Content production.
Glaude Jr: I don’t want to have a then-now narrative. I don’t want to talk about a decline in that sense, but what I’m thinking about are the effects, the implications of the institutionalization of a particular kind of practice and what has happened to a tradition of black letters? What does it mean to model a certain kind of excellence in what we do?
West: Yes. No, see both of you all, you’re really pushing me here because of the truths that I hear you saying, I feel very deeply. I would use the language of decline. I would. To go from Aretha to Beyoncé is decline.
Perry: Be prepared for the outrage.
West: Oh yeah. I’m telling the truth now. No, I love Beyoncé, but she knows in terms of mastery of craft and technique, of moving the soul, of stirring your bones, being part of a tradition you’re rooted in that’s different than superficial spectacle on the stage, shaking your thing-thing, as you sang it, with a powerful voice. She’s a great entertainer. Aretha Franklin is a rare artist of any genre. It’s just a fact. It’s just a fact.
There is a decline when you have groups that took time to learn how to sing in tune and bring their voices together like the Delfonics and the Temptations and Miracles and Emotions and the Jones Girls. We can on and on. Where is that now? Where is it now? The oligarchs and plutocrats who control the recording, radio and video industries are not interested in that kind of craft.
They want to make big money. They want stimulatory music. They want thin stuff. They don’t want soul-stirrers like Sam Cooke and Johnny Taylor and Lou Rawls. They want body stimulators. They don’t want songs that are thick in story and narrative, the way Smokey Robinson wrote them or the way Linda Creed and Tom Bell wrote them for the Stylistics and Delfonics and so forth.
There is a shift and it is a decline. It’s called the predatory capitalist move to an intense commodification that puts money, money, money and profit, profit, profit at the center. It includes the university. Princeton is much more commodified now than it was before. We end up with these superficial politicians getting professorships. You say, “Hey, what’s going on? How come they here?” “Well, they got connections.”
I don’t give a damn about their connections. I want sophisticated formulations. You get big money, people from all around the world who give money for chairs and name it after themselves. Or you get the Hutchinson Center for Afro-American Studies at Harvard rather than Du Bois Center for Afro-American Studies, because Hutchinson is a white hedge fund brother who got big money and Du Bois just wanted to love poor people and black people and was willing to give his life doing it. His name goes off the building.
Du Bois said there’s four issues he was wrestling with. How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does honesty do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force? That’s what Du Bois says in 1957 in his first novel, The Ordeal of Mansart. He wrote it when he was 86 years old. That was the beginning of his trilogy. The brother’s 86 years old, just embarking on a trilogy, after he had been put in handcuffs by the US government 5 years earlier, in February of 1951.
Integrity, honesty, decency, virtue. Anybody who’s obsessed with those four will be profoundly countercultural in a highly commodified culture, which means you’re not going to get a lot of payoff, but you’ll have a sense of a higher moral, and as a Christian, I would say a higher moral and spiritual standing. That’s the kind of people who raised me. Irene Clifton, my grandparents, Shiloh Baptist Church.
All they said to me was, “When we send you off to Harvard and we send you off to Princeton and you’re going to meet some wonderful folks… These will be folk who, in taking you seriously, they will push you and challenge you, but you got something to bring, too. You come out of a tradition, too.” Part of what you bring with them is that same finite, fallible commitment to integrity, honesty, decency and a sense of virtue. Those who opt for that road these days is the road less taken, but always miles to go before we sleep. Always.
The issues of integrity that you all were talking about become even more and more difficult. That’s why I used the word decline, but see, when I say that about the young folk, they say, “Oh, Brother West, you so hard on the young people.” No, no, no. It’s out of love. I respect the young folk, but you still got Jill Scott and Angie Stone. You still got Anthony Hamilton. Everybody’s just not singing it just to make money. Some of them are really singing in tune, in the right pitch, because they’re artists in the deepest sense. They’re just not entrepreneurial in the narrow sense.
The same is true with folk in the academy. You’ve still got the Jeff Stouts and Anthony Graftons and Daniel Rogers’ and yourselves and others, fully committed to intellectual integrity. You do, but they got to cut against the grain of the commodifying sectors of the university that need big, big, big money. I thank God for Brother Harry Shapiro and Sister Shirley Tilghman who brought me here, especially when I was in trouble. It took a lot of courage to bring a brother like me to Princeton when I was in trouble like that.
Shirley just stepped up, “Come on. I know we’re going to get a lot of letters every time you’re on television,” which they did, hundreds of them. “He ain’t nothing but a communist. How could he be at Princeton?” “Woodrow Wilson’s turning over in his grave.” They’d go on and on and on. They stood with me.
Glaude Jr: Maybe we should turn it out to the audience. You guys can begin to ask some questions. You guys have a mic out there? We have mics here, so we can begin. Any questions?
Perry: We also need to take some of the online questions.
West: Oh, the online questions.
Glaude Jr: Let’s take a couple of questions and then we have an online community as well who’ve sent in some questions as well. Please, let’s ask a question.
Perry: No statements.
Glaude Jr: All right? Have an economy of formulation.
Male: Good evening. My name is Khallid Love. I am a senior in the math department and I’m also getting a certificate in African American studies. I had a question for you, Dr. West. You talked a little bit about black studies. In my class with Imani Perry, Diversity in America, we talk about the social existence of blackness. Looking by historical association, blackness and black studies bears a certain kind of intimacy with Western civilization. My question to you is, what is the role of black studies in terms of critiquing Western civilization? Is there a distinction between the object of black studies and then the aim of black studies?
Glaude Jr: Wonderful question. Wonderful question. Oh, you all. You see, what I love about black studies, and this is true for all the great humanistic disciplines, you don’t just train, but you educate. You don’t just school, but you educate. That question came out of education, because we need a seminar to answer the question. No, Western civilization, of course, is like any civilization. There’s some magnificent insights and arguments and visions. There’s some ugly ones tied to barbarism, bestiality and brutality. I don’t know of a civilization of humankind that doesn’t have some grand insights on the one hand and ugly forms of barbarism on the other.
Myself, I come out of a particular set of traditions, including the language of Shakespeare and Milton and Toni Morrison and others, the English language. I’m in the American empire. The American empire’s fundamentally shaped by certain streams and strands of Western civilization. Therefore, if I’m trying to make sense of it, I’m going to have to try to mobilize certain kinds of analytical insight, certain kinds of narratives for motivation from both the West but open to the non-West. That’s also part of Western civilization.
Western civilization’s always been obsessed with other civilizations because there’s no such thing as an autotelic autonomous civilization. All these civilizations are hybrids. They’ve pulled from a variety of other cultures and civilizations in that way. Now for me, the fundamental question always is, what does it mean to be human? That has been the fundamental question for the black prophetic tradition.
When you talk about integrity, honesty, decency and virtue, you’re talking about what it means to be human, of any civilization. It could be the high civilizations of the East. It could be our indigenous brothers and sisters. It could be the great African civilizations, wrestling with what it means to be human. That little move from momma’s womb to tomb. What goes into that move? It’s quick. There’s not a lot of time. The choices you make, the decisions you make, and so forth. For me to be able to be in conversation with the younger generation, it’s part of trying to keep these questions alive.
We had a wonderful dialogue with our dear sister, Brianna Payton. Is Brianna here?
West: Yeah, give it up for Sister Brianna. Oh, we had a wonderful dialogue. Same issue as it relates to both Afro American studies in particular, humanity in general. Part of the problem has been that most people think when you follow the line of humanity, it stops, and then Negros kick in. That’s why when you read the New York Times, Toni Morrison will write a novel. They’ll say, “Oh, she’s written a wonderful novel about black identity and the black experience,” when you read a review of a play by the great Eugene O’Neil: “Oh, what insight into the human condition he has.” No, he’s talking about Irish brothers and sisters. Everybody’s got a particularity through which they are wrestling with, universality and humanity.
No, when it comes to black folk, brown folk, red folk, they just wrestling with identity. They’ve got to come to terms with their identity. We’ve got to be sensitive to their wrestling with identity. Everybody else on the vanilla side is wrestling with the human condition. No. That’s a lie. That’s a lie.
Humanity cuts all the way across, all the way across. Especially when it comes to black sisters and brown sisters and red sisters. We haven’t even begun to delve into the ugliness, the ways in which the patriarchy gets tied into white supremacy when it comes to poor women of color, class and empire, all of these issues become crucial. The answer to your question, little brother, is Western civilization is indispensable and inadequate.
Glaude Jr: Other questions? Yes? Where’s the mic? Please, right here.
Male: Okay. Hello? Hello? Okay. Hi, I’m Covey. I’m a senior in the Woodrow Wilson School. My question, I was particular touched and concerned by a comment that Professor Perry brought up on the concept of young people today speaking before we know what we’re talking about, speaking before we know what we think. I think it’s an issue that we need to address because young people want to get engaged in the conversation. We want to get engaged. We want to go into the streets. We want to get active and be activists in these different affairs, be it writing or on the streets or speaking.
A lot of students and myself actually have started a project where we write about race here at Princeton. We published it. It’s on a blog. It’s all about the digital age. When we started, we viewed this as, “Oh, these are opportunities to get our voice out there,” but now we are starting to see having such easy access to putting our thoughts out there might not be the best thing right now. I’m wondering, how do we navigate this concern of one, doing our reading. We should do our reading and learning, but also voicing it. Getting the young generation active. I don’t really want to sit back and wait until we’re in academia to finally start voicing our concerns.
Perry: Yeah. I want to be clear, I was speaking specifically of the world of academic production in that instance, but I do think it’s important to draw the distinction between getting one’s voice out and participation. Those are two different things. It’s actually the logic of both the hypermedia landscape and neoliberalism that makes one think that saying something is the same thing as participation. You can actually be involved.
Actually, my ideal is that from the age of being small children that we are nurturing people to be involved, to be in conversation, to be critically engaged with the world as it is, to think that they have something meaningful to offer to that conversation, which is very different, I think, than simply branding oneself as an expert on something, as a go to person.
I absolutely think it’s incredibly meaningful and important and, in fact, oftentimes it is younger people who have the courage that we need to push the conversation forward, but we have to draw a distinction between that and wanting to build a brand.
Glaude Jr: Let’s take another before we go. Yes? Right here. You’re going to have to help me on this side because I have this big thing.
Male: Hi, my name is Shree. I’m a freshman, undecided. I’m strongly considering an African American studies major. In your book, More Beautiful and More Terrible, I know a lot of the other texts …
West: Could you bring the mic up a little bit more?
Male: Sorry. You speak of the nature with which negative social narratives can perpetuate post-intentional racism and discrimination. Even if you’re not African American, what can we do to help rewrite those social narratives? If it’s okay, I’d like all of you guys’ inputs.
Glaude Jr: Why don’t we start with the author of that wonderful book?
Perry: Yeah. One of the things I talk about in the book is the work of shifting the narratives, so that we are so shaped by racial narratives that it actually dictates … There’s a cumulative effect of these dominant racial narratives where it shapes how we interact with people. People talk about institutional and structural racism, but institutions are actually sustained by human beings. We sustain the institutions in ways that disadvantage along the lines of race, along the lines of gender, along the lines of sexuality, etc., etc., because we are taught to do so and we accept those lessons and we perpetuate them.
Shifting the narratives actually, I think, is an important move. Part of narrative shifting actually has to do with, I think, the project of discovery. The analytical project, understanding how power relations work. I use this example in the book: If you drive through the hood and you see dirt all over the place and trash in the streets and you say, “Oh, see? These are people who don’t care about their community.” That’s one read. Or you could see how frequently the street cleaners come to that part of town. Right. Right. Then, to actually tell a different kind of story as a result of that.
I also think narrative shifting occurs by virtue of what you do with your life. I use an example in the book of kids in Baltimore… Baltimore is a city, like many others, that has been plagued with educational inequality. I use an example of young people there going to the state house from underfunded schools and demanding educational equality. That act shifts the narratives of “Poor black kids don’t care about education.” I do think that the way that we choose to live our lives can actually confront racial narratives in pretty profound ways.
Glaude Jr: We have a question from online. I’d love to read it. This is to us. How do we incorporate the anger and despair of our new young generation of blacks into a crisis that has persisted for nearly a century? How do we incorporate the anger and despair of a young generation of black folk into a crisis that has persisted for nearly a century?
West: Yeah. I think anytime we’re talking about white supremacy, it’s not just a black affair. It’s indigenous peoples. It’s Latinos. It’s Asians, but it is black rage which constitutes the major threat to the status quo. Red rage, yellow rage, brown rage has never put fear in the hearts and minds and souls of the rulers as black rage. That’s one of the reasons why the concern about black people has been at the center of, of course, the Civil War, the most barbaric of civil wars of modern times, over what is the status of these new world Africans? These black peoples?
One of the challenges of the black prophetic tradition has always been never to deny the rage, because if you deny the rage, it just devours black people. That’s in part what’s been going on for the last 30 years with the class war against poor working people, is that black people have turned on themselves, each other and inside of their own souls, hearts and minds and bodies.
The question is when that rage emerges, as it may well again in the next few days in Ferguson, as I said before, how do you channel it through love and justice? The hatred and revenge just reinforces the cycle of domination, of hatred, of oppression and revenge. There’s no accident that Marcus Garvey used to always have a black man or woman in the front of every rally. They’d always say, “The Negro is not afraid,” even if they were sitting there shaking, like Kanye West when you talk about “G-G-G-George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” You got smooth flow on the stage. That Negro was scared, because his whole career was at stake. He knew that.
The Negro is not afraid. How do you shatter the fear, allow the righteous indignation to come forward and then move it to love and justice with coalescing with others? There’s rage inside of young white brothers and sisters and brown and red and others, because they’re concerned about integrity, honesty, decency and virtue. They’re concerned about taking a moral stand and a spiritual stand. As this anger and rage becomes more and more salient and public, more and more of us are going to have to speak in a drumbeat-like way of the centrality of love and justice.
Black rage could bring down the curtain on the American democratic experience. We got to be honest about that. When Brother Martin was shot and there were 200 cities who had rebellions, it shook the foundation of this nation. They brought out the National Guard. You all know the story. Oh no, maybe the young folk don’t know, but you all need to know this.
They brought out the National Guard to defend the White House because there was a chance that they were going to burn that White House down. That’s how deep Martin was loved. That’s how deep the connection was. Black people knew deep down in their minds when Martin was in that paddywagon, that jail on wheels, on the way to Reidsville prison in 1960 with a German shepherd and him.
The only two animals in that wagon for 4-1/2 hours, the German and Martin. When he got out, it looked like he had a nervous breakdown, but all he could say was, “This is the cross we must bear for the freedom of our people.” That’s love. That’s courage. That’s integrity. When he’s shot down like a dog, bring down the curtain on America. Let it go. That’s what Stokely said. Stokely spoke on behalf of a whole lot of black people. Is that right, Brother Tommy?
Male: That’s right.
West: You understand.
Male: Yes, I do.
West: Something died in black people when Martin was killed. Something died in me. It was gone. How do I accent the best of not just him, but what went into him? All of that love and concern and sensitivity? That can happen again, y’all, but believe me, here in 1968 and 200 rebellions … 2014, for a socially neglected, economically abandoned group of young black folk who are tied to the new Jim Crow in the prison industrial complex with schools producing social murder every day of their souls … What kind of rage is that going to be?
I talked to the brothers in the prison locked down after 37 years. There’s a qualitative shift in the brothers in prison now than there was when I started teaching 37 years ago, qualitative shift. It’s colder, hardened, more unloved, more uncared for, allow that rage to come out! And then America said, “Oh, maybe we should’ve dealt with this a little earlier.” You don’t say? How much do you think they could take? How much would you take in that was your child, in your neighborhood, in your schools, in your level of unemployment, in your level of being disrespected in that way?
That’s a serious question. That’s a serious set of questions. In that sense, I’ve always said that white America, when they see black people, they ought to just give them a standing ovation, because when you have that level of terror, trauma and stigma coming at you for 400 years and black folk still decide not to create a black Al Qaeda… Who could put up with 400 years of terror like that, especially when you’re poor and working classes? We still keep dishing out John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, still keep dishing out the Stevie Wonder and still keep dishing out all this talk about love and justice rather than just being gangsters, like the folk who’s gangsterizing us.
That’s the natural response. When you’re terrorized, you counter terrorize. That’s not Douglass. That’s not Harriet Tubman. That’s not Sojourner Truth. In the face of terror, they talking about justice. That might not always be the case. When you reach that point, then it’s basically over. The democratic experiment is over. It’s gone police state. It’s gone crypto-fascist. It’s like Sinclair Lewis. It can happen here in 1934, America goes fascist. There is a possibility.
It depends on the younger generation. Keep it as free, keep it as democratic, very much what my dear sister and brother up on this stage and their magnificent works have been talking about now for … What is it now, 20 years? Your career? Now 20 years?
Perry: Not quite that long.
West: About 15.
West: Your career is 20 years? Wow. Wow. I know we’ve got some other questions.
Glaude Jr: Questions? Yes?
Female: Hello, again. My name is Ozo I’m a politics major with a certificate in GSS. My question is, when thinking about blackness, there’s always a conversation about space and temporality. In this context, how should we, or is there even space for moving from attempting to fill emptiness, silence in dominant discourse and begin to move, push our communities towards creating, building space in which we can begin to breathe without pain?
Glaude Jr: Wow, wow. No, that’s you.
West: Thank you so much. These questions are powerful. Breathe without pain. My God. You can see why we created the blues and jazz, too. It’s hard to provide a direct answer to that question. It’s such a complicated question about spaciality and temporality about space and time.
Historically, black people in the United States have been much more a people of time than of space because we’ve been oftentimes landless. When we had access to land, it could be taken by force or fraud, so that time became crucial. So oftentimes, with our bodies, we’d sterilize those bodies through time, the way you walk and talk and sing and relate to each other, as a way of providing some space.
The great August Wilson used to say that black people authorize an alternative reality through performance. It’s in performance where you have most freedom, in the speaking, in the singing, even the performance in the boxing ring of Mohammad Ali, who was both a great performer as well as a magnificent athlete. You can enact the freedom in performance, which is a foretaste of the freedom you want in the larger society, but for so long, living in this larger society was the structure of un‑freedom and unfairness. Within temporality, there’s a certain kind of freedom.
Now, things have changed in the last 30 or 40 years because we’ve been able to gain access, especially our middle classes and a few slices of our upper classes, gain access to the mainstream. There, the question always is, are we able through time, able to preserve our sense of what went into the best of the making of a people.
In the age of Obama, I’ve never seen so many black people waving the flag. See, I’m not a flag waver. I’m a cross bearer. For me the cross signifies unarmed truth and unconditional love. When that flag conforms to truth and love, I’ll wave it. When it doesn’t, I’ll put it down. I can’t sing the national anthem that well anyway. I make an effort to keep track of the best of America, but when black folk become flag wavers and the cross bearers become few and in between, then there’s fewer concerned with truth, fewer concerned with love.
What does that flag signify in its dominant form in America? Liberty for all? No, no, no, no. What does it signify? Power. Black folk want power. Yes, we want power. Under what conditions? What’s the ethical content of it? Do you want power in such a way that you still just want to be a member of an empire that mistreats other folk around the world?
Oh, we weren’t serious about truth and justice. Your concern’s just about your interests. Say so. That’s not part of the black freedom struggle. That’s part of the black attempt to become assimilated into a mainstream that turns its back on poor and working people. You just have to not be poor and working at the moment. We don’t know how long it’s going to last. This issue of access to more space, which has happened in the last 30 or 40 years, has to be analyzed in terms of under what conditions?
Glaude Jr: I think we are coming to an end.
West: One last question? I think we’ve got a lot of one last questions.
Glaude Jr: One last question?
West: You all have been very patient. Very patient.
Glaude Jr: Oh, we’ve got to go to the balcony. I’m sorry. One from the balcony.
West: Indeed. We had gender balance, too, in the questions though didn’t we?
Male: We did.
West: Yeah, that’s cool.
Female: I’m going to yell. My question is about the form – what the possible revolution of culture could look like. You all talk about the speed of ascendance and the commodification of attention and how that is mediating the importance of this time. I’m thinking about the ways in which media exists in two bodies today – our cyber extensions and our physical bodies, and how young people are way more likely to express the pain that they’re experiencing in their physical bodies through their cyber bodies and obviously that is problematic because of the extreme disconnect.
My question is about in a world where our structure and even our parents, and why we are here, is about quick ascendance. We have parents who dream about their kids having money and feeling comfortable. That’s what they want from us. How do you teach people the importance of integrity? The importance of craft and time and the role of the revolution and structural change rather than immediate results in numbers?
West: Just the eloquence with which you asked that question is such a sign of hope. This is true for every question across the board. One could feel your spirit and your hunger for that something more, what we would call an integrity. Absolutely.
For me, I’m still old school in the sense that I believe in radical democracy. How do you get democratic accountability of banks, big banks who make big deals? They don’t produce any big products the way the old corporations used to, just big deals. Why? Because we can’t talk seriously about the kind of fundamental change that’s needed without distribution of resources. Same is true with privatizing.
Of course, the private sphere is very important. I would even say it’s sacred in many ways in terms of rights and liberties, but when it’s privatized by big entities for aims of profits short term, not even long term these days, rather than public life, public good, then democratic accountability requires it. The same is true with militarizing. Outsourcing military activities. How do we get some democratic accountability and transparency? I’m still in some ways old school enough to be tied to radical notions of democracy here, very radical notions.
That’s not in any way an answer. Democracy is a proximate solution to insoluble problems, as Reinhold Niebuhr used to say, because you still have human beings who have fears, anxieties and insecurities. You have to speak to them on very psychic and spiritual level as well to be certain kinds of human beings. Even radical democracy won’t necessarily provide enough resources, even though it at least will tip the society much more toward public service, public life, public conversation of high quality as it preserves very sacrosanct private spaces. That’s just the beginning of an answer to your very profound question. You all want to end with a response to that?
Perry: I just have a quick thought. I think it’s an incredibly difficult question. It’s difficult not simply because of expectations upon you, but because we all have to make a living. We have to navigate the world as it is on its terms. I do think that there’s a piece of maturity at best right when we become mature, we create space for insurgency. By that, I mean a sense of a possibility that comes from inside. An insurgence that is not simply what you’ve been socialized to do, what you’ve been trained to do, but actually about that pursuit of meaning. I don’t know how one can be doctrinal about that. How do we dictate that happening?
I do think that part of coming into the fullness of who you are as a person is making those decisions. What does it mean for me to have a meaningful life? What would that consist of? How do I produce a life that is meaningful, given the constraints which I’m confronted with?
Also, how do I create communities that enable me to have some support and some connection as I try to do that. I think we have to be careful about the cyberself, but it does allow for some communication and it allows for some democratization. We can’t romanticize that because they are corporations that create the digital space, so often. The question is, is there a way to do that, to create the communities for the possibility of that transformation?
Glaude Jr: For me, just really quickly, by way of answering your brilliant question, we have to constantly grapple with this question: Who do I take myself to be? Wherever I am, understanding that I’m going to fall short. I always know that I’m Juanita’s child. When I say that, I have a center of gravity, to bring myself back into alignment. I’m constantly asking myself the question and trying to answer that question. What kind of human being, who do I take myself to be?
It seems to me that as we engage in that lifelong work of trying to come up with an answer to that question, that is the groundwork of the formation of attention that holds off all of those forces that are aimed at deforming our attention. Does that make sense? Can we thank Dr. West and Dr. Perry?
West: Thank you.