Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Report on a Cornel West Lecture

Dr. Cornel West Lays It Out in the Cultural Capital of Black America
by Tom Stephens
On Wednesday, September 14, Dr. Cornel West spoke to an overflow crowd at the Detroit Public Library. The Sacramento, California-born author of "Race Matters" (1993), the new "Democracy Matters," and a popular CD of "danceable education" entitled "Sketches of My Culture," Dr. West declared himself glad to be in "the cultural capital of Black America."

Throughout Dr. West’s talk/performance, he made repeated references to African American cultural giants: Detroit’s Stevie Wonder ("the fusion of southern Black culture with industry"), John Coltrane, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. The effect was not unlike listening to a great jazz recording, as the tempo, rhythm and melodies shift chaotically to express thematic ideas. All his cultural references related directly to the key political and sociological topics of the talk, especially the "democratic tradition" he seeks to reinvigorate against all odds. It all came out in a fierce, down-to-earth, and uniquely personal rush of spoken words and eloquent gestures.

You could hear and feel the heated audience response as Dr. West began by stating that we were meeting in "one of the bleakest moments in the history of this nation." He called out a national culture of supposed efficiency, opportunity and prosperity, and contrasted that myth with the images of death, suffering and abandonment during the previous weeks in the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina.

"It’s not a big move from the stinking hold of the slave ship,” declared West, “To the stinking hell of the Superdome." His thesis focused on a call to "democratic awakening to come to terms with the underside of America." Expressing amazement at the amazement of Americans who "discovered" poverty in the images of the poorest abandoned hurricane victims, Dr. West said "There are human beings here. It’s not just ‘PC chit chat’ to talk about them."

He framed his argument within Bush’s axiom: "You’re on your own." Dr. West called this a modern version of Social Darwinism; "survival of the slickest." He contrasted this dominant perspective with that of the 20,000 people in the New Orleans Superdome; "decent people enduring that hell who somehow insured that hundreds didn’t die," while helicopters picked up doctors and nurses and left patients to die in the city’s public hospital. The bottom line: "You folks don’t count. Fight our wars. Clean our kitchens. Make our cars. But in a crisis you are an exilic people. Refugees." It’s true on the South side of Chicago, in South Central LA, Detroit, Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. The people of these communities are exiles. "By the waters of Babylon," indeed.

For West, to live the ideal democratic tradition is the ability to fly, in spite of the "death of US democracy, corporate greed, complacency, and young folks’ disregard for the democratic tradition." This democratic tradition emerged from African American life in slavery. Though "the Union won the war,” West explained, “racism won the peace," The experience of "Jim Crow terrorism" demonstrates that "Terrorism is not alien to the United States. Ask Native Americans and Filipinos about Manifest Destiny, America civilizing Brown People." Suddenly on 9/11 "The whole US realized what it was like to be Black in America for 400 years: N***erization of the whole country."

Dr. West segued from racial and economic injustice to the dominant gangster hypocrisy of the political system. Examples of such hypocrisy include Donald Rumsfeld and Ronald Reagan’s support for Saddam Hussein, and the CIA’s support for Osama bin Laden. More recently, US-supported death squads overthrew the democratically elected President of Haiti, and the US government supported a failed violent coup against the democratically elected president of Venezuela. In light of the recent tragedies for the poorest people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, it is hypocrisy that there were no references to poverty in the last presidential election, between the "coldhearted GOP and the spineless Democrats." The consequences of this hypocrisy can’t really be over-stated. "Afraid to tell the truth, leadership gets ever weaker, and there are no examples of greatness for youth. Youth see only success, never greatness … Young people are looking for political courage," of the kind displayed in previous eras by Detroit’s Ken Cockrel and the League of Revolutionary Workers, by Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, and Detroit’s Grace Lee Boggs (who was present in the auditorium). This essential kind of courage requires us to "think critically, hope, and go against the grain."

In the wake of the fiasco response to Hurricane Katrina, rapper Kanye West famously declared "George Bush doesn’t care about Black people." He merely stated the obvious, but the dominant white supremacist corporate patriarchal system treated it as a controversy.

The people in Detroit were picking up on the real deal from Dr. Cornel West. We heard a potentially history-making and world-shaking message of democratic reality. As Cornel West’s peer in social criticism, Noam Chomsky, has often ended his talks and articles, the rest is up to us

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