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You When you talk about hope you have to be a long distance runner, you see, and this is again so very difficult in our culture because the quick fix, the overnight solution mitigates being a long distance runner in the moral sense, in the deep ethical sense of fighting sometimes despite the consequences of winning immediately, but because it's right, because it's moral, because it's just, you see, that kind of hope linked to combative spiritual is what I have in mind.
In this half hour, a conversation with Cornell West, I'm Bill Moyers. A world of ideas with Bill Moyers. Funding for this program is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a catalyst for change. Corporate underwriting is provided by General Motors, General Motors, committed to excellence in its products and services, and in support of quality television programming. Cornell West is a scholar who has never let the I.V. grow round his tower. These two are inseparable, but not identical. His life in the academy is busy. He teaches religion at Princeton University and directs the program of Afro-American studies there. He's also taught
philosophy at Yale and at Union Theological Seminary. He's an author too. Prophecy Deliverance traces the roots of liberation theology in the Afro-American church. The American evasion of philosophy explores the democratic ideal in the works of intellectuals like John Dewey. But Cornell West moves in many worlds. He writes about everything from post-modern architecture and rap music to teenage suicide and black politicians. You will find him often speaking to community groups and to kids in public schools, and as a lay preacher in the pulpit of various denominations. We caught up with him at New York's historic Riverside Church. For an intellectual, you've been cited in some very unusual places. The storefronts and streets of Harlem, the shanty towns of South Africa. One of the worst high schools and one of the worst districts of Brooklyn. How come? Those are so far from Princeton, so far from the ivory tower. Yes, well, I understand the vocation of the intellectual as trying to turn easy answers into
critical questions and ask these critical questions to those with power. The quest for truth, the quest for the good, the quest for the beautiful for me, presupposes allowing suffering to speak, allowing victims to be visible and allowing social misery to be put on the agenda of those with power. And so my own sense of pursuing the life of the mind is inextricably linked with struggle for those who have been dehumanized, for those who have been marginalized. What do you find when you go out there? Because there is this idea, this image in America, at large, of a substantial portion of the black community in the inner cities, simply saying yes now to death, violence, and hate. What do you find when you go there? I think I find on the one hand indeed a lot of meaninglessness and hopelessness, but at the same time I find those who are struggling, those who are trying to survive and thrive under excruciating
conditions. And so the question becomes how does one attempt to turn and transform that meaninglessness and hopelessness into a more effective kind of struggle, a more efficacious form of resistance? It's a very, very difficult task, but there are a host of highly courageous people, working people, ordinary people, who are trying to hold on to meaning and value in a society that evolves more and more around market activity. Market activity, market activity, market culture, market mentality, market ethos permeates most every sphere of this society. What do you think that means? What does it do to a community? I think the market makes it very difficult because the markets, especially market these days, is a preoccupation with the now, with the immediate. And what that means then is that people feel that they no longer have to work or sacrifice. You see, why? Because the big money can be achieved
right now. I'll give you an example in the black community in which market activity that it's most pernicious and vicious of form, and that is the drug industry. You see, when young people engage in market activity wanting to make the easy book now, in many ways mirroring what they see in larger society. You see what they see on Wall Street, you see. And it makes it very difficult for them to take not only commitment and caring and sacrificing, but ultimately human life itself, seriously, profits become much more important than human life. And this, again, mirrors our society. So what we see is a very cool, hard-ed-mean-spiritedness throughout these communities. And I think, again, it reflects so much of our own culture and civilization. It's quite frightening, it seems to me. What do you say to these young people? I know you've been making a lot of speeches to young people in the high schools, like those in Brooklyn, where situation is fairly miserable. I say that we live in a society that suffers from historical amnesia,
and finds it very difficult to preserve the memory of those who have resisted and struggled over time for the ideals of freedom and democracy and equality. And then I pose the question to them, you see. To the kids. To the kids. Are you going to be part of this tradition? You see, what's going to happen to this tradition? How do you keep it alive? How do you keep it vital and vibrant? You see, it ends on a query to them. But you're saying to them, suggesting to them that each one of them can signify, each one of them can matter. That's right. And of course, that's what hope is all about. You see, that's what hope is all about. You have to hold on to some notion that the future can be different by means of you sacrificing, by means of you fighting, by means of you struggling. And this is an old message. I mean, I learned this message in the
black church years ago. But is that relevant to these kids whose imaginations, as you talk, must sometimes wonder the prince and Michael Jackson, and what's the latest rap group that's so popular? Public enemies, that's a sonic, yes. Now, I think it can be relevant, but it has to be couched in such a way that they see its relevance. Now, these figures are, in fact, their heroes. And oftentimes, they are their heroes for the wrong reasons. They're the heroes because of what they possess and the visibility they have. But they overlook the sacrifice and talent and work in becoming a Michael Jackson and a prince. And I then try to use that example as a way of linking it much more to struggles for social justice and struggles for freedom and equality. But these two figures, I think, in many ways are exemplary of the kind of sacrifice and discipline needed for them to be the towering figures that they are in our popular culture.
Once upon a time, as you indicated in your own life, the church did provide that space. It did provide that model. It did provide that community. But I saw a poll just recently said that said, in the black community, the church is increasingly not a part of the ambitions or the life of young people. Do you find that so? Well, yes. I mean, one, I think it's important to know that the black church, especially, has had a disproportionate influence on the black community, but the black church has always been a minority movement. But its influence is tremendous. It's turned out teachers and preachers and political leaders and activists, journalists, and scholars. Very much. And it's continuing to produce such figures, but its influence is indeed decreasing as churches are around the country, not in terms of numbers, but in terms of actual influence because of market forces. But I do think that the message of the church remains relevant,
even among those who are not Christians. It's been curious, it's been a curious intrigue to me as to why when blacks were brought to this country, so many of them did adopt Christianity, which was the religion that defended, often defended, the slavery that that imprisoned them. How do you explain that? Why did they turn to Christianity? I don't think none of us fully understand. I want to argue that black people turned to Christian, large numbers of black people turned to Christianity for three basic reasons. The first had to do with issues of meaning and value. Black people, arriving here 371 years ago, had to come to terms with the absurd in the human condition, in America and the absurd, as America, America's Egypt, America as a place of enslavement. So that image of the exodus of the slaves freeing themselves?
God of history who cares and who sides with the oppressed and exploited a God who accents and affirms one's own humanity in a society that is attacking and assaulting black intelligence and black beauty and black moral character, namely white supremacy ideology. That this message spoke very deeply on the at the level of meaning and value, but institutionally it's very important, because you see black people appropriated primarily the left wing of the Reformation. The Baptist, my old Methodist, I'm Baptist myself, and the polity is a much more democratic polity than that of my Catholic friends. And by democratic what I mean is of course that the preachers are accountable immediately to the congregations. And the pew has access to positions of leadership. And the pew has access to issues of leadership so that black humanity at the level of both leadership and followership could be accented. And you were trained, you were trained in the public arts. You remember Bible drill where the teacher would call out the scripture and you
would have to step forward and say, read it. You find it in the Bible very quickly. That's for society. You were trained instinctively there to take a public position. That's right. And then I think politically there was also a reason and that had to do with the fact that black people could indeed not only identify with and oppress people, but that they could engage in a form of critique of slave, critique of Jim Crowism, critique of second-class citizenship while holding on to the humanity of those who they opposed. I mean this is a great lesson of Martin Luther King Jr. and King Jr. is a product of this tradition which we have opponents but we're not enemies. Precisely right. You see so what religion can do at its best is provide us with the vision and the values, but what we need also are analytical tools. And one doesn't look to the Bible to understand the complexity of modern industrial and post-industrial society. We learn certain insights into the human condition. We have certain visions of what we should hope for, what should motivate us to act,
but we need analytical tools. And the analytical tools that is needed is found outside of religious texts. It's found outside of religious sensibilities. We move to the social sciences. We move to the humanities to try to get a handle on understanding mild distribution of resources and wealth, and income, and prestige, and influence in our society. And so all forms of prophetic religion must be linked in some sense with a set of analytical tools as well. You used a compelling term in another occasion. You talked about combative spirituality, combative spirituality. What do you mean by that? Yes, by combative spirituality, I mean a form of spirituality, which is a form of community and communion that preserves meaning by fighting against the bombardments of inferiority claims, the bombardments of deficiency claims against peoples of color, you see. So combative spirituality is a mode of community that sustains persons
in their humanity, but also transcending solely the political. It embraces a political, but it also deals with issues of death, of dread, of despair, of disappointment, of disease. These are the ultimate facts of existence, and they're filtered through our social and political existence, but the ultimate all of us as individuals must confront these. And a combative spirituality accents a political struggle, but goes beyond it by looking death and dread and despair and disappointment and disease in the face, and saying that there is in fact a hope beyond these. When you talk about hope, you have to be a long distance runner, you see. And this is against very difficult in our culture because the quick fix, the overnight solution mitigates against being a long distance runner in the moral sense, in the deep ethical sense, of fighting sometimes despite the consequences of winning immediately, but because it's right,
because it's moral, because it's just, you see. That kind of hope linked to combative spiritual is what I have in mind. So combative spirituality is that sense of subversive joy, you what's called it, subversive joy. What is that? Subversive joy is the ability to transform tears into laughter, a laughter that allows one to acknowledge just how difficult the journey is, but to also acknowledge one's own sense of humanity and folly and humor in the midst of this very serious struggle. So it's a joy that allows one both a space, a distance from the absurd, but also empowers one to engage back in the struggle when the time is necessary. Some of that has come, has it not from from black music, from gospel and jazz and blues with a slightly
different emphasis? What about rap? Does rap have any of that spiritual energy in it? Oh, very much so. Black rap music, I think the most important development in the last ten years is a profound extension of the improvisational character of what I call the Afro-American spiritual blues impulse. What I mean by that is an attempt to hold at bay the demons and devils, which blues and spirituals and others, hold at bay, and then by means of a technical virtuosity and rhetoric, by means of an appropriation of certain rhythmic, syncopating, antifinal, call-and-response forms, which are so central for black music, what rap is done is to allow a kind of marriage between the rhetorical and the musical. And I do think that part of the challenge of
rap music is trying to remain linked to some notion of transcendence. In my transcendence, I don't mean the transcendent, but I mean some critical distance so that some kind of evaluation and judgment can be made on the present. What is the judgment being made? Because you said somewhere that rap music is part and parcel of the subversive energies of the youthful black underclass. What do you mean subversive energies? Yes, that they respond to their sense of being rejected by the society at large, of being invisible by the society at large, by their own critique, subversive critique of the society. That subversive critique has to do with both the description and depiction of the condition under which they're forced to live, as well as a description and depiction of the humanity preserved by those living in such excruciating conditions. It then goes beyond to a larger critique of the
power structures as a whole. It's international in terms of its linked to struggles in South Africa. So that in that sense, it's part of a prophetic tradition, but I should say that what is lacking in rap music is vision and analysis. Now, of course, none of us require from music analysis, but vision. It is just fun. It's fun. It's entertaining. It helps sustain the rituals of a party going on the weekends, but it still lacks vision. And this is where, again, the church plays an important role, you see, because it's quite easy, you see, to channel these energies into very narrow and chauvinistic and xenophobic forms, such forms like vision. You see, you don't have moral content. They don't have any ethical substance, you see. And at times, you do see this kind of vision being put for this sort of narrow vision. And even though there may be an intended or unintended political commentary in it, I don't see it making any difference politically. Almost
every analyst I know says nothing is helping. Neither black, rap music, neither the black church, neither social programs, neither capitalists, economics, nothing is helping this black underclass. And yet you still, you still trump it hope. Yes, I do. I mean, this condition of the black underclass is tragic, but there are still human beings who are getting about. Many are still making sense of the world in terms of holding on to their sense of self and holding on to their sense of vitality and vibrancy. Now, that in no way excuses the structural and institutional forces that are at work, which is to say, the structural unemployment, the failed educational systems, you see, the consumer culture that bombarts them, highly sexualized consumer culture that evolves around orgyastic preoccupation that tilts in hedonistic directions and so forth,
you see, that black underclass has to contend with all of these. In addition to, of course, the larger race is a legacy, but it's not only about race. We know these other factors as well, so that certainly the description of their conditions must include these others. But certainly, I hold up hope. I'm talking about my cousins and friends and relatives who are seemingly locked into this condition and change can indeed come about. The conundrum is that if you are morally outraged today, you're relegated to the margins of society. It's almost considered a form of lunacy to be concerned about social misery, lunacy in the sense of acting out of the character of the times, out of the norm. To be mature today means you're supposed to say, we can't ameliorate certain circumstances in life. But I think the important point there, though Bill, is that we have to understand why this is so. Why has cynicism become so pervasive over the past 10 years for those who accented social
misery, wanted to focus on social misery? I see that cynicism more and more on the wing. I think Eastern Europe is providing us with a very different lesson. You see, up until the last few months, people did not believe that ordinary human beings organized could fundamentally change society. We had scars around the world saying that the very notion of revolution was outdated and antiquated. So all of those assumptions and presuppositions now being called into question, which means that the focus of ordinary people, organizing, mobilizing, having impact on powers that be, once again moves to the center of the agenda. It's a question of sustaining ways of life in which care is manifest by means of bringing power and pressure to bear on status quotes. But power and pressure to bear brought in such a way that we see some changes coming
through and how people conceive it themselves. Namely, people believing they make a difference. You see, and elections don't do that as much as ordinary on the ground, grassroots organization. You said recently that there's a crisis in black leadership in this country. What kind of crisis? Well, one is that so much of the energy and talent of black leaders has been channeled through electoral politics. Now, on the one hand, this is a salutary development, because, of course, to have black governor in Virginia, like mayor in New York and Los Angeles in Atlanta and what have you. It's a sign of progress. This is one shit. No way denied it's one shit. No way downplay this. But at the same time, given the way American society is structured, disproportionate amount of influence of the business community, the degree to which politicians as a whole must in some way, if not cater to, then at least negotiate and compromise with this business community. It's still very clear then that the
black politicians have highly circumscribed powers. This is true for any politician, you see. And therefore, their inability to actually enhance the plight of predicament of black working people and black poor people, working people and poor people as a whole. In fact, women and blacks have achieved morality positions and other positions like that just as the powers have become more circumscribed. That's exactly right, with the tax base eroding and what have you. So that symbolically, cathartically and in some ways politically, black politicians play an important role, but it's highly limited. They know it, we know it, and their constituencies know it. But the problem has been, you see, that black leadership has been focused on intellectual politics, so we no longer have the kings in the Malcolm X's and the Fannie Lou Hamers and the Ella Bakers, namely those who stood on grassroots organizations and brought their prophetic critiques to bear, you see. And in fact, what we need in addition to the black politicians
are black prophetic figures who are less interested in winning office and more interested in speaking the truth with love to power and to organizing and mobilizing black people and other people as well as to what the realities are. Don't you sometimes wish there were leaders and intellectuals who transcended race? Sure, I mean, there has to be. There has to be. But I think it's important that when we talk about transcending race, we don't forget about it. You see, that is to say that I think that we can best understand the whole by acknowledging the various parts. It's true, the whole is more than some of its parts, but the various parts. One part is race. Gender, ecology, labor, and so forth. Certainly, they would have to be a figured, have to be a movement that would speak to all of these. But you see, what often happens, though, Bill, is that precisely because black people and black intellectuals have been so thoroughly ghettoized and marginalized
and confined to the racial terrain that many want to prematurely escape. And that's just as bad as those who want to remain ghettoized. If you remain with contacts with the black community, you are irrelevant to the larger white community. If you move into the larger white community, you're impotent back in the community. That's right. That's exactly right. We need to be able to move back and forth in such a way that you're neither ashamed of talking about the race issue and all of its implications. And you also are willing to. In fact, you insist on talking about the larger situation in light of other elements as well as race, you see. And I think that's what we need in the 1990s. From Riverside Church in New York, this has been a conversation with Cornel West. I'm Bill Moyers. Funding for this program was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation,
a catalyst for change. Corporate underwriting was provided by General Motors, General Motors, committed to excellence in its products and services, and in support of quality television programming. Video cassettes for a world of ideas are available from PBS Video. Call toll free 1-800-424-7963. This is PBS. A book based on this series has been published by Double Day. Bill Moyers' World of Ideas is available in bookstores.
A World of Ideas
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Cornel West
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To practice his unique brand of scholarship, Cornel West moves in many worlds. As an academic, he teaches religion and directs the Afro-American studies program at Princeton University. As an author he has delved into subjects from liberation theology to postmodern architecture, from rap music to black politicians.
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A WORLD OF IDEAS with Bill Moyers aired in 1988 and 1990. The half-hour episodes featured scientists, writers, artists, philosophers, historians -- some well-known, many never before seen on television.
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Chicago: “A World of Ideas; 210; Cornel West,” 1990-04-01, Public Affairs Television & Doctoroff Media Group, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 24, 2024,
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