The Back Room

With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.


cornel west


Brother West, you recently co-wrote a book called Black Prophetic Fire.

I did.  I surely did.  And let me tell you why.  This nation, this dear beloved America of ours is still at odds with its racial legacy.  We’ve got institutional racism, corporate greed, and the re-niggerization of our black brothers and sisters with no identifiable cohesive movement.  What started out as a promise of hope with the first black president has turned into same politics, different skin over eight years.  We could use Brother Martin, Brother Malcolm, Brother DuBois and Douglass in addition to our beautiful black sisters Ida B. Wells and Ella Baker.  These six people in particular represent black prophetic fire at its very best, and if I had an extra name, to round out the sisters, I would wholeheartedly include Miss Fannie Lou Hamer on this list.

We only have a short time to discuss this book but I want to start off by saying you have provided great inspiration to me over the past twenty years.  Not just in drawing my attention to these black figures and their teachings but also with regards to philosophy.  I find further edification in your philosophical approach which has shaped not just my understanding of social justice but also my own ideologies and grasp on existential self-awareness.

Well, with that in mind, what thoughts do you have about the book?

I saw common themes run throughout.  The idea of the charismatic leader, how far we should be willing to go for the movement, the difference between the educated bourgeoisie blacks and the poor uneducated blacks, Communism vs. Capitalism, and non-violent vs. violent confrontation aka the Martin vs. Malcolm debate.  I particularly appreciate your critical investigations of the people rather than merely hero worship.

Well, we must look at the whole person, and not just cherry pick the parts appealing to us.

Exactly, like you said about Martin Luther King Jr., most people will hang onto his I have a dream speech and say, that was who MLK was, and forget he was also the Martin of the fiery anti-Vietnam War speech which had the potential to derail the message of the Civil Rights Movement.

What are your thoughts on that, Brother Davis?

 King wasn’t about one thing.  I think once he saw the Movement taking shape, making real progress, his eyes opened wider in scope, seeing this war as a war of oppression, and another way America as the institution was battling not a war against the North Vietnamese but against poor people, including poor black folk.  You did say he had some trouble connecting with youth at times, not understanding their methods and the struggle to use violence to achieve their means, but I think King saw himself not as a man but the symbol of the Movement and thusly, included everyone when he said “I speak for the poor and the oppressed”.  He was including youth in the discussion.  Unfortunately, the disconnect was too great and many youth identified with Malcolm X.  They could feel his anger.

And that’s what Brother Malcolm was saying when he spoke of “black folk on the stove”.  How can we give concessions while this institutional oppression continues?

It’s the crux of his message, Brother West.  Not a little but a lot.  Not some but all.  You aren’t going to get a pat on the back for allowing us to vote.  Our butts are burning on that stove from back-breaking poverty, unjust incarceration, inadequate healthcare and housing.  We’re not going to ignore that.  We are going to include that.  We are exceptional brothers and sisters.  We are not the niggers you have told us we are.  And fair point but if you had been oppressed for four hundred years, how would you behave?  Black anger is not black revenge.  It’s about telling the truth.

That’s what black prophetic fire is all about.  Men and women telling the truth despite what it may cost.  Some recognize the truth is greater than themselves.

King and Malcolm X surely did.  As you said, they could not be bought.  And Ida B. Wells.  She was simply extraordinary.

Yes.  Yes she was, Brother Davis.  Praise the Lord she was.  She blazed trails for people like W.E.B. DuBois but was so incendiary, so truthful, it cost her dearly.

1892.  As editor of her newspaper, she chronicles the harrowing accounts of 3 black men lynched in Memphis.  Given her bourgeoisie background, I wonder if she believed that there was a war still going on against black people, until the Memphis lynchings.  Or maybe she was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Let’s pick that up next time.

Good talking with you, Brother West.



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This entry was posted on May 5, 2015 by in Books, Race and tagged , , , , , , , .

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