Cornel West is back.
And with his newest book, Black Prophetic Fire: In Dialogue With and Edited by Christa Buschendorf—a series of conversations about the exemplars of the black prophetic tradition against racial and economic injustice—West reminds us why he remains one of the best-known, most controversial and most important public intellectuals of our time.
Over the past decade, West has occupied a unique role in American intellectual life. The former Harvard University professor—he now teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City—and best-selling author co-hosted a radio show with PBS’ Tavis Smiley and has, in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 election, emerged as one of the president’s most outspoken critics.
Prophetic Fire articulates West’s fundamental critique of President Obama. “With the black middle class losing nearly 60 percent of its wealth, the black working class devastated with stagnating wages and increasing prices, and the black poor ravaged by massive unemployment, decrepit schools, indecent housing and hyperincarceration in the new Jim Crow, the age of Obama looks bleak through the lens of the black prophetic tradition,” West argues. “This prophetic viewpoint is not a personal attack on a black president; rather it is a wholesale indictment of the system led by a complicitous black president.”
These are words of fire, and West deploys them with a passion and zeal that, at its best, recalls the activist spirit of Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker, Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, the figures profiled in his book.
The more of Prophetic Fire I read, the more I find myself nodding in agreement. West’s past critiques of Obama have, at times, crossed the line of respectful discourse, but he’s on measured ground here.
Avoiding personal attacks, he takes aim squarely at the depressing state of racial and economic injustice in America, a nation he characterizes as being ruled by rich elites that actively crush democratic strivings and censor radical voices and visions.
West defines “moral integrity, political consistency, and systemic analysis” as being integral to the black prophetic tradition. Comparing the bold truth-telling and courageous activism of the past to the milquetoast and quiescent voices of contemporary black leaders, West offers a full-scale attack against an American culture of greed, individualism and denial that, he claims, has gripped much of the black community.
Prophetic Fire is an important and timely cri de coeur that recalls James Baldwin at his controversial and provocative best. Capitalist excess, neoliberalism’s spineless retreat from justice and the black elite’s collaboration with the rich are all, in West’s analysis, part of a larger national decline, one that has virtually crippled the once proud tradition of prophetic black activism.
Large segments of the black community will take issue with West’s conclusions. And many will blanch at West’s assessment that black folk in the Obama age live in “desperation, confusion and capitulation.” These seemingly harsh words offer an unvarnished depiction of black life as it is for millions rather than a fortunate few.
West brilliantly reminds us that the age of Obama is also the age of Ferguson, Mo., drone wars, the new Jim Crow and Wall Street.
The towering figures of the black liberation movement, as West reminds us, spoke truths that powerful leaders didn’t want to hear. Just as important, they shared radical visions of social justice that frightened the very communities they were fighting for. West’s new work, in seeking to resurrect this mode of activism, exemplifies the strength and power of a tradition whose legacies continue to reverberate in our own time.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.