Black Prophetic Fire: Intersections of Leadership, Faith, and Social Justice
Excerpts from Fall 2014 Bannan Institute Lecture
By Cornel West
Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice,
Union Theological Seminary
It is just magnificent to come on this campus and see the cross. How rare it is to see that symbol of unarmed truth and unconditional love. The Jesuit tradition says that a condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak—and it has the audacity to believe that justice is what love looks like in public.
Yes, indeed, 1851 [the founding year of Santa Clara University] those Jesuit brothers years ago had the vision in this space to say we are to engage in a grand exploration of education, and thank God they didn’t say schooling. There’s a difference between education and schooling. They understood, as my own tradition always reminds me, that the unexamined life is not worth living—line 38A of Plato’s Apology. But also line 24A, where Socrates says that the cause of his unpopularity was parrhesia—frank speech, plain speech, unintimidated speech, speech that is unafraid but still mindful of its own fallibility.
First question: How does integrity face oppression? Integrity, that’s a word we don’t hear too often these days in a market-driven culture obsessed with cupidity and banality, vacuity. Integrity. That’s an old school word. Jesuits understand what I’m talking about. St. Ignatius, St. Francis, Santa Clara. Cutting against the grain. Socrates exemplifies it. I want to begin with W. B. Du Bois. He was 89 years old when he emerges from a courtroom, in handcuffs just a few years before, cast as working for a foreign agent even though he was part of a peace information center trying to wipe out nuclear weapons around the world. But this was 1957, the moment of the Cold War in the history of this country, this fragile democratic experiment, this empire. So he was 89 years old and what does he decide to do? Embark on the writing of three novels. In that first novel, The Ordeal of Mansart, he says, “I’ve been wrestling with four questions all of my life.”
Second query: What does honesty do in the face of deception? The culture of vast mendacity often intertwined with criminality, easily hidden and concealed in the name of respectability. Deodorized, sanitized, sterilized discourses that don’t allow us to keep track of the funk that’s operating on the ground in the lives of precious everyday people—in the language of that genius from Vallejo—“Everyday People,” their decency.
Third question: What does decency do in the face of insult? How does one preserve one’s decency given the bombardment of insult, attack, assault, sometimes mayhem and murder follows there-from.
And the last question: What does virtue do in the face of brute force? I want those four queries to set the backdrop of my reflections on Black Prophetic Fire, as we begin on this Socratic note. What does it really mean to examine ourselves in light of a deep commitment to education, not just market-driven schooling? The Greek actually says, the unexamined life is not the life of the human. Humando, the Latin, means burying. And that’s where our word humanity comes from, that’s where humility comes from. We are those particular organisms transacting with our environment who, often like elephants, bury their dead. Meaning also that we’re all on the way to the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. We’re candidates of the very thing that we enact. That gives it a certain sense of urgency and emergency, even as we’re playful in the short time between mama’s womb and tomb.
So in terms of our present moment, we can’t talk about fire, let alone prophetic fire, unless you’re willing to wrestle with the most terrifying question—what does it mean to be human? What does it really mean to be a featherless, two-legged, linguistically-conscious creature born between urine and feces? Oooh, that’s terrifying. People ask me why I spend so much time around funk-masters like Bootsy Collins and George Clinton. They remind us we all, no matter what color, no matter what sexual orientation, no matter what gender, no matter what culture, we emerge from our mama’s womb. That love push that got us out. And of course the day we’re born, we are old enough to die.
So the question becomes one of a serious wrestling with education—I use the Greek word paideia—P-A-I-D-E-I-A—that formation of attention. How do we attempt to attend to the things that matter, echoes Plato’s Republic, the turning of the soul that must take place at any serious ed-u-ca-tion. Of course, these days we’re bombarded by mass weapons of distraction, consumption, narcissistic indulgence, obsession with money, money, money, as Wu-Tang Clan reminds us—C-R-E-A-M—“cash rules everything around me.” But does it have to rule me? Around me: society, big banks, corporations obsessed with short term gain, obsessed with profit, very little concern with human needs, very little concern with the least of these, especially the children, 22 percent living in poverty, almost 40 percent children of color living in poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world. If that’s not a moral disgrace, I don’t know what is.
Any time I examine a prejudice or prejudgment that I have and I’m willing to give it up, that’s a form of death. And there is no maturation, there’s no growth, there’s no development without death.
But the question is an existential one, before you get to the politics. What kind of human being are you going to choose to be? What kind of virtues? What kind of visions will be enacted and embodied in your short time from mama’s womb to tomb? And it puts at the very center of any talk about leadership, any talk about prophetic fire, talk about faith and justice, wrestling with forms of death.
One of the problems in the history of America’s civilization, at our worst, we have been a death-ducking, death-denying, death-dodging empire and civilization. That’s why it’s so easy to talk about America and hardly say a word about the indigenous peoples who were here before we got here. And all of the forms of attack and assault, a precondition for American democracy.
Why in our U.S. Constitution is there no reference to social death—the American social death—which was U.S. slavery? Twenty-two percent of the inhabitants of the 13 colonies were enslaved human beings. No reference to the institution just a suggestion about slave trade being terminated 1808. Yet their labor was a great precondition of the democracy because their wealth was the foundation, a major part of the foundation, for the possibility of the USA. That is a death dodging Constitution. Wonderful words, I’m not denying, but a pro-slavery document in practice between 1787 and nearly 1860. We don’t like to be reminded. Why? Because you’ve got to come to terms with death.
I hate to pick on Disneyland and Disneyworld, but it’s so quintessentially American. They often brag about nobody dying on their premises. Just fun all the time. Everybody is just feeling so good all the time. Now don’t get me wrong, I felt good when I went too. I’m an American too, this is self-criticism. Where there is no death, there is no life, because paideia itself is predicated on a meditation, a wrestling, with forms of death. I tell the students who come in my classes now for almost 40 years, the minute you come in and sit down with a smile, you have consented to learn how to die in order to learn how to live. Montaigne, the great Catholic philosopher said, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” And even Seneca—we don’t expect too much profundity from the Romans, they were so busy running an empire. Seneca says, “He, she, who learns how to die, unlearns slavery.”
To come to Santa Clara University in the rich tradition of our Jesuit brothers, is to say, “Yes, I’m willing to learn how to die.” Because any time I examine an assumption, a presupposition, any time I examine a prejudice or prejudgment that I have and I’m willing to give it up, that’s a form of death. And there is no maturation, there’s no growth, there’s no development without death. So when the blessed students here graduate in June, if you hadn’t experienced that kind of death in order to be reborn, to grow, to mature, to develop —you’re wasting somebody’s money. And that engagement with death as a critical process also has its structural challenges, and that’s why black prophetic fire is crucial.
It’s impossible in America, 400 years, to be a black person and not be on intimate terms with some form of structural death. I already talked about social death—slavery. Two hundred forty-four years, no social status, just a commodity to be bought and sold. Dishonored, devalued, dead at 26, replaced with slave importation. Two hundred forty-four years. Here comes Jim Crow, 90 years of civic death. Part of the social body, no civil rights that allow you to be part of the public life. American lynching, terrorism, every two and a half days some black woman or child or man swinging from some tree. That strange fruit that they made Billie Holiday sing about. And the Jewish brother, Meeropol, wrote the lyrics. Then there’s the psychic death. You’re taught to hate yourself and told you have the wrong hips and lips and noses and hair texture and skin color. And then the spiritual death. Feeling as if there is no hope, that your history is a curse, your hope is a joke, your sense of freedom is a pipe dream.
Still at work, the new Jim Crow of the day. Still at work in the hood with disgraceful school systems and indecent housing and massive unemployment, and still not full access to healthcare. That’s part of paideia. That’s what the Jesuit brothers understood. If you cannot connect the social and the spiritual, the economic and the existential, the personal and the political, and still link it to something bigger than you, where’s that cross, that unarmed truth, that unconditional love? None of us ever fully grasp or fully approximate this in our living. But we fail and bounce back, like lapsed Christian, Samuel Beckett. Fail again, try again, fail better. Fail again, try again, fail better.
You see, from my tradition of black prophetic fire, Socratic questioning means keeping track of the assumptions, not name-calling and finger-pointing, but beginning with what is inside of one’s own self. When I engage and critique the white supremacy, I’m not just talking about vanilla brothers and sisters. I’m talking about the white supremacy inside of me. It’s impossible to be an American and not be shaped by white supremacy. White supremacy operates in the souls of black people in a very deep way. White brothers and sisters don’t have to be around for white supremacy to operate. They’ve already been shaped and molded by the institutions of the culture. Of course, that’s true for sisters—the male supremacy inside of women. Brothers don’t have to always be around to see male supremacy. Just look inside of the souls of women that have been shaped by patriarchal institutions. The same is true for homophobia, the same is true for class privilege, and it’s certainly true for imperial privilege.
This notion that somehow a baby in Santa Clara has more value and significance than a precious baby in Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia or Ethiopia or Guatemala—only concerned about the nationalist tribe. Jesuit education, each and every one of us is made in the image and likeness of a God who gives no respect to nation, color. Oooh, that sounds revolutionary. It is! It is!
I started on a Socratic note, I’m going to end on a blue note. I started with the notion that forms of death, you can call it catastrophe, ecological catastrophe impending, are closer every day. Nuclear catastrophe still—tens of thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at each other at this very moment. Spiritual catastrophe—empty souls. Moral catastrophe—indifference, callousness for those who suffer. That’s where the blues comes in. What you heard in Coltrane’s music. B.B. King said the blues ain’t nothing but a catastrophe lyrically expressed. Echoing Ralph Waldo Ellison: “nobody loves me but my mama, and she might be jivin’ too.” That’s catastrophic. That’s the blues. Black folk are on intimate terms with catastrophe. But what do you get in B.B.? Standing tall, smile on his face, dignity, style, a little help from Lucille, falling back on the tradition of genius? Isn’t it gutbucket Jim Crow Delta Mississippi that gave him a fire that said: I got to tell the truth, and if I don’t do it, the rocks are going to shout! They’re going to cry out! And if I can lift my voice, maybe some other voices can be lifted. If I can lift my voice, maybe I can touch some souls to speak their truth in the midst of the different kinds of catastrophes coming our way, so that we don’t result in paralysis and feel so debilitated that we sell our souls for a mess of pottage. Or we give up and become so well-adjusted to injustice that we think that black prophetic fire is something in a museum rather than something on the street, in the classroom, in the mosques and synagogues, and temple and churches. That’s the challenge of black prophetic fire. That’s the relation of black prophetic fire to the rich tradition of Jesuit education
Cornel West is Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton. He has also taught at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris. Dr. West has written 20 books and edited 13 books. He is best known for his classics: Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. His latest book, Black Prophetic Fire, co-authored with Christa Buschendorf, highlights six revolutionary African-American leaders and examines the impact they had on their own eras and across the decades. Dr. West appears frequently on the Bill Maher Show, Colbert Report, CNN, and C-Span, as well as Tavis Smiley’s PBS TV show. He can be heard weekly with Tavis Smiley on the national public radio program “Smiley & West.” Cornel West has a passion to communicate to a vast variety of publics to keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—a legacy of telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice.
- Cornel West, “Black Prophetic Fire: Intersections of Leadership, Faith, and Social Justice,” lecture, 2014–2015 Bannan Institute: Ignatian Leadership series, October 3, 2014, Santa Clara University. This essay is an excerpt from the lecture; a video of the full lecture is available online at: scu.edu/ic/publications/videos.cfm
- W. B. DuBois, The Ordeal of Mansart (New York: Mainstream Publishers, 1957), 275.