Dr. Cornel West offers pointed take on racism at Saint
Mary's conference -- 'I don't believe in deodorized discourse'
By Lou Fancher
Perhaps disruptive ensembles like Congress and the Islamic State (ISIS) and deep divisions between Israelis and Palestinians or law enforcement and the black community in America could find peaceful resolution by communicating in song.
Such was the takeaway from a one-day "Prophetic Imagination" conference at Saint Mary's College in Moraga on Oct. 11.
Earmarked to confront "The New Jim Crow and Income Inequality in America," the event was presented by the school's Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action.
College President James Donahue said the day represented the best of Saint Mary's, and that institutes of higher learning must engage in conversations about "things that matter." Social justice, income equality, racial and power dynamics, prophetic witness and more, he said, were essential subjects to discuss.
After a day of breakout sessions exploring worker solidarity, solitary confinement, "raw talk," coalition building and economic injustice, the climax of the day's events was a fiery speech from Union Theological Seminary professor and author Dr. Cornel West. Infused with themes of rage, revelation, resolve and the call to "love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart," the subtext of his "truth to power" message was the profound, unifying power of music.
The SMC Gold Medal Choir, led by director Julie Ford, prepared the sold-out audience of hundreds packing the college's Soda Center for West's keynote speech with selections clearly chosen for their connection to African American history. Donahue spoke of his and West's bonding over jazz music. If the discomfort of mostly white people co-opting African American musical traditions to express solidarity made some uncomfortable -- and it did, as a few conference attendees who did not want to share their names reported after the event -- West wasn't about to cut the tension.
Stepping up to the podium, he said, "I hope I say something that unsettles you, unnerves you, maybe un-houses you." Introducing his family and then, a pastor friend who'd arrived from "the chocolate side of Oakland," he marveled at the improbability of a black man from 122nd street in Harlem coming to speaking on matters of race in Moraga. "I don't believe in deodorized discourse," he said.
Having spoken the truth and allowing that even in his own family "texture, friction and overflowing love" coexisted, West said, "I was a gangster -- until I met Jesus. Now I'm a Christian with gangster proclivities."
Joking aside, West spoke of the need for "tenderness that transform scars into sweetness" and named John Coltrane and a long list of other jazz greats, weaving their music's legacy of hope and love into his "black prophetic fire."
That phrase -- also the title of his new book, an edited dialogue with scholar Christa Buschendorf about six African American leaders -- referenced something West said had been lost. Instead of fleeting superficiality and talk of being "self-made," which he said was a vicious lie because no man or woman achieves greatness in a vacuum, West suggested engaging in language beyond name-calling and applying "the soul of scrutiny" to become a freedom fighter.
The new Jim Crow, West insisted, arrived because of a callousness toward poor people and a "spiritual death" largely caused by white America and amounting to terrorism against black and brown young people.
"This is my challenge to the black middle class. We once had bourgeois Negroes willing to embrace across class," he said, eventually concluding, "You can't have a freedom movement if people aren't willing to speak freely."
In a materialistic society, West said love becomes manipulation and African Americans afraid of losing their jobs put themselves into a 21st century version of slavery -- beholden to bosses, instead of speaking freely; swallowing hatred and self-punishing; and being unwilling to sacrifice for truth. Protesting against "financialization, privatization, militarization, Wall Street's break dance, drones that kill children, national surveillance and Obama not having time to go to Ferguson (Mo.)" for a weekend-long peace rally to protest police brutality and the shooting of Michael Brown on Aug 9, West asked, "Do we have courage to deal with the current catastrophe?"
Nikita Mitchell, a junior attending Mills College in Oakland, said the opportunity to hear West speak was special and timely.
"Due to the political climate and the threat against the black body," Mitchell said, "(West's) insights are authentic and not a part of power politics."
Asked by an audience member about white guilt during a Q and A session, West said, "Guilt is a paralyzing experience. Courage is all about working through fear."