10 Questions with Cornel West

4 minute read

Your new book Black Prophetic Fire has quite a title. Why that name?

I think that we need more fire in our world: people on fire for justice, on fire for freedom. The most fundamental question in the book is how to be men and women of integrity and honesty in a time of such vast mendacity and criminality. And when you look at W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Ida B. Wells and Ella Baker, these are people of integrity and decency.

So a prophet is not the same as a leader?

Usually not. A prophet is a lover, not a leader. A lot of people say, “You’re a leader of black people.” No, no, no. I’m not a leader of black people. I’m a lover of black people. I’m a lover of poor people.

You’re critical of President Obama in the book and publicly. What are his chief failings?

It’s not so much a personal attack. It’s a critique of his priorities. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national-surveillance presidency. When you’re speaking to black young boys in a very paternalistic way but on Wall Street you speak in a very subservient way, or you say your major program for black young boys is going to be one of charity and philanthropy but no public policy, then criticism must be put forward just to be true to the black prophetic tradition. I think he lacks backbone.

Did you vote for Obama in ’12?

I didn’t vote for anybody. I couldn’t vote for a war criminal. He’s tied to war crimes and drones dropping bombs on innocent people. But no way I’d vote for Romney.

Why do you write that many black leaders are for sale?

In the history of black people, those who could be prophetic have either been killed or bought off and co-opted. And we live now in an age of the sellout, no matter what color. I argue in the book that we have witnessed the re-niggerization of the black professional class; they’ve got power, assets and prosperity, but they’re still intimidated. They’re concerned with their careers rather than their callings. Malcolm X specialized in de-niggerizing black people. Folk willing to fight, tell the truth, die. That’s what we need today.

What would you like to see happen in Ferguson, Mo.?

I want justice. The policeman needs to be arrested. They need to have a fair trial. But it’s not just Ferguson. That’s the peak of an iceberg. We need more targeting of our poor young people, make them center stage in our public policy.

Why are you opposed to the idea of the self-made man?

It’s a lie. Everybody’s dependent on somebody. Nobody gave birth to themselves. Everybody gets a language from somewhere else. And so the notion of self-made men, from Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln–even Frederick Douglass went around the country giving lectures on being self-made. It’s an American lie that anybody’s self-made.

Is a prophet always marginalized?

Yes, absolutely.

Have you been marginalized?

I’ve been very blessed. But you know, you got character assassination. You got different lies told on you. That’s a kind of marginalization.

How did you celebrate John Coltrane’s birthday?

We started off class at Union Theological Seminary with “After the Rain” and then ended up in the cemetery. We jumped the fence [at Coltrane’s grave] and tried to make it on in. Coltrane had what this book is also about–a militant tenderness and a subversive sweetness.

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