The ‘black prophetic fire’ behind Cornel West’s Ferguson arrest

“There is something beautiful about being on fire for justice,” Dr. Cornel West said during his opening remarks to a sold out crowd at Town Hall on Thursday, leaning into the mic, his hands gripping the podium like a pulpit.

A few days later the 61-year-old public intellectual and activist showed just what he meant at a rainy protest action outside the Ferguson Police Department — where he was eventually knocked to the ground and arrested.

Back at the Town Hall address, West’s cadence vacillated seamlessly between academic lecture, sermon, and back porch at home happy hour.

Over the course of his hour long talk, followed by an extended audience Q&A, he covered a broad gamut of subjects, speaking as fluidly about the novels DuBois wrote in the later years of his life to Jane Austen’s take on patriarchy and the eternal conflict between Israel and Palestine. He referenced everyone from James Baldwin to Beyoncé, with no notes in sight returning to a central thesis of encouraging a sankofa to integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue.

West’s new book “Black Prophetic Fire,” is an in-depth analysis of six famous African American Activists —W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglas, Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. — and a call to action, an invitation to “rekindle” the black prophetic fire.

Dr. West began by speaking about Fredrick Douglass who he characterized as “the most eloquent of ex slaves in the modern world.” He spoke with reverence about the wisdom of Douglass in the midst of all his challenges. “He did it in the face of what? In the face of what every black person in America for the last 400 years has had to come to terms with, which is a history of being terrorized, traumatized, and stigmatized.”

This kind of fire I could relate to easily. It’s the fire that has been the buzzing beneath my skin since the day I turned on the news and heard about Ferguson. Mike Brown was not first. Trayvon Martin was not first. Nor was Sean Bell, James Byrd, Amadou Diallo, Emmett Till…the list is long. Too long and also incomplete because there were so many who were simply disappeared. Still being a citizen of a country where people who look like me can be murdered with no real recourse is something I can’t get used to, no matter how many times it happens.

Residents of Ferguson, MO took to the streets in August after unarmed teenager Mike Brown was shot by police. (Photo by Jamelle Bouie)
Residents of Ferguson, MO took to the streets in August after unarmed teenager Mike Brown was shot by police. (Photo by Jamelle Bouie)

I, like so many others, am on fire with grief, not only for those people and their families, but for my country’s continuous reinvention of and recommitment to the oppression and devaluation of people of color. When does never again really mean never again?

“Isn’t it something,” West remarked, “that in the face of terror Douglass said no, I don’t want to create a black Al-Qaida, I don’t want to terrorize the folks who are terrorizing me. I don’t want to gangsterize the folks who are gangsterizing me, in the face of terror I want love. And justice is what love looks like in public, so I want justice and I want justice for everybody.”

Part of me felt inspired by those words, by the idea that someone might be able to remain that high minded and compassionate.

But the other part of me felt like Voldemort when Harry Potter told him he had something unbeatable in his arsenal. “Is it love again?” Voldemort sneered.

There is an ugly skeptism that lives inside me born of my 35 years of experience with America. Not to speak ill of love and its curative properties, but love is no Kevlar. Love’s political lobby is nothing compared to the NRA. Neither love, nor education, nor wearing pants that weren’t sagging, were enough to prevent yet another homicide, to say nothing of all the smaller ways in which we all die inside when it happens again and we still aren’t safe and there is still no reckoning, no justice, no healing resolution.

As Dr. West spoke, he didn’t sugar coat his words. He named the rage. He spoke on injustice. He demanded that we tell the truth and it is a bitter truth.

“I’m not anti-America,” he proclaimed. “I’m anti injustice in America. I’m anti-injustice in Somalia, in Vietnam. That’s the kind of negro I am, a Jesus loving free black man.”

He spoke about music, about Curtis Mayfield and John Coltrane, and how there would be no Martin Luther King without famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson whispering in his ear to tell us about his “dream.” He spoke about all the external influences he grew up with, the people who loved him, and the music that was the soundtrack to that love. Then he compared it to today in a sentiment often expressed by many of the folks of my mother’s generation.

Cornel West (Photo by Bernd Schwabe)
Cornel West (Photo by Bernd Schwabe)

“You can’t talk about black prophetic fire unless you talk about deep cultural expression beginning with music because music has been the privileged means by which oppressed people, especially black people, get some distance from their. And when that music is thin, you’re going to have thin character, you’re going to have thin leadership, it’s going to be empty, it’s going to corrupt you.”

He asked a question that had the audience laughing. “Can you imagine trying to sustain yourself on the music that has been composed since 2001?”

For me it was a sad laughter that reminded me of a question a friend of mine has asked me recently. She identifies as Afro-American, but grew up in South Africa during her formative years. By the time she got to the states she had a very strong sense of herself.

“I often wonder where is your anchor?” she asked. It was a question about all of us who were born and raised here in the U.S. with what DuBois termed double consciousness. We are implicitly bicultural, not necessarily by choice, but as a survival mechanism. We have had to become fluent in all things white, in addition to the nuances of our own culture.

As Dr. West pointed out, our anchor, our sustaining forces, our center of self-love and worth, our fires are burning low at this day and age. There is a need for what he terms deep “radical love” and a return to the faith that it will somehow be enough to make an impact. What would it be like to take this anger, this bitterness, this fear, and convert into black prophetic fire?

“Of course black people, we have no monopoly on this. Not at all, every culture, every civilization has dished out magnificent figures trying to not only be on fire for justice and freedom, but be on fire for truth and understanding that the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.”

What would it look like to burn with love and compassion for even those who would shoot us and leave our bodies lying in the street for hours? Dr. West left me with a lot to think about, and something I haven’t felt for a while, hope and purpose.

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