A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
George Yancy: Recently, on Aug. 10, you were arrested along with others outside the courthouse in St. Louis because of the collective resistance against continued racial injustice and police brutality. What was the political atmosphere like there?
Fire really means a certain kind of burning in the soul that one can no longer tolerate when one is pushed against a wall.
Cornel West: The black prophetic fire among the younger generation in Ferguson was intense and wonderful. Ferguson is ground zero for the struggle against police brutality and police murder. I just wanted to be a small part of that collective fight back that puts one’s body on the line. It was beautiful because part of the crowd was chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” which echoes W.E.B. DuBois and the older generation’s critique of capitalist civilization and imperialist power. And you also had people chanting, “We gon’ be alright,” which is from rap artist Kendrick Lamar, who is concerned with the black body, decrepit schools, indecent housing. This chant is in many ways emerging as a kind of anthem of the movement for the younger generation. So, we had both the old school and the new school and I try to be a kind of link between these two schools. There was a polyphonic, antiphonal, call and response, all the way down and all the way live.
G.Y.: One of your newest books is entitled “Black Prophetic Fire.” Define what you mean by “black prophetic fire.”
C.W.: Black prophetic fire is the hypersensitivity to the suffering of others that generates a righteous indignation that results in the willingness to live and die for freedom.
I think in many ways we have to begin with the younger generation, the generation of Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island and Oakland. There is not just a rekindling, but a re-invigoration taking place among the younger generation that enacts and enables prophetic fire. We’ve been in an ice age. If you go from the 1960s and 1970s — that’s my generation. But there was also an ice age called the neoliberal epoch, an ice age where it was no longer a beautiful thing to be on fire. It was a beautiful thing to have money. It was a beautiful thing to have status. It was a beautiful thing to have public reputation without a whole lot of commitment to social justice, whereas the younger generation is now catching the fire of the generation of the 1960s and 1970s.
G.Y.: When I think of black prophetic fire, I think of David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Martin L. King, James Baldwin and so many more. In recent weeks, some have favorably compared the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to Baldwin. I know that you publicly criticized this comparison. What was the nature of your critique?
C.W.: In a phone conversation I had with Brother Coates not long ago, I told him that the black prophetic tradition is the collective fightback of sustained compassion in the face of sustained catastrophe. It has the highest standards of excellence, and we all fall short. So a passionate defense of Baldwin — or John Coltrane or Toni Morrison — is crucial in this age of Ferguson.
G.Y.: In what ways do you think the concept of black prophetic fire speaks to — or ought to speak to — events like the tragic murder of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.?
I’m an old Coltrane disciple just like I’m a Christian. You can be full of fire, but that fire has to be lit by a deep love of the people.
C.W.: Charleston is part and parcel of the ugly manifestation of the vicious legacy of white supremacy, and the younger generation — who have been wrestling with arbitrary police power, arbitrary corporate power, gentrification, the land-grabbing, the power-grabbing in and of the black community, and arbitrary cultural power in terms of white supremacist stereotypes promoted on television, radio and so forth — has become what I call the “marvelous new militancy,” and they embody this prophetic fire. The beautiful thing is that this “marvelous new militancy” is true for vanilla brothers and sisters, it’s true for all colors in the younger generation, though it is disproportionately black, disproportionately women and, significantly, disproportionately black, queer women.
G.Y.: Why the metaphor of “fire”?
C.W.: That’s just my tradition, brother. Fire really means a certain kind of burning in the soul that one can no longer tolerate when one is pushed against a wall. So, you straighten your back up, you take your stand, you speak your truth, you bear your witness and, most important, you are willing to live and die. Fire is very much about fruits as opposed to foliage. The ice age was all about foliage: “Look at me, look at me.” It was the peacock syndrome. Fire is about fruits, which is biblical, but also Marxist. It’s about praxis and what kind of life you live, what kind of costs you’re willing to bear, what kind of price you’re willing to pay, what kind of death you’re willing to embrace.
That was a great insight that Marcus Garvey had. Remember, Garvey often began his rallies with a black man or woman carrying a sign that read, “The Negro is not afraid.” Once you break the back of fear, you’re on fire. You need that fire. Even if that Negro carrying that sign is still shaking, the way that the lyrical genius Kanye West was shaking when he talked about George W. Bush not caring about black people, you’re still trying to overcome that fear, work through that fear.
The problem is that during the neoliberal epoch and during the ice age you’ve got the process of “niggerization,” which is designed to keep black people afraid. Keep them scared. Keep them intimidated. Keep them bowing and scraping. And Malcolm X understood this better than anybody, other than Ida B. Wells — they represented two of the highest moments of black prophetic fire in the 20th century. Ida, with a bounty on her head, was still full of fire. And Malcolm, we don’t even have a language for his fire.
G.Y.: Does this process of “niggerization” in American culture partly involve white supremacist myths being internalized by black people?
C.W.: Yes. When you teach black people that they are less beautiful, less moral, less intelligent, and as a result you defer to the white supremacist status quo, you rationalize your accommodation to the status quo, you lose your fire, you become much more tied to producing foliage, what appears to be the case. And, of course, in late capitalist culture, the culture of superficial spectacle, driven by capital, driven by money, driven by the market, it’s all about image and interest, anyway. In other words, principle drops out. Any conception of being a person of integrity is laughed at because what is central is image, what is central is interest. And, of course, interest is tied to money, and image is tied to the peacock projection, of what you appear to be. [continue reading]
Copyright 2015 George Yancy. First published in The New York Times.
Cornel West, center, and other protesters sitting on the steps of the federal courthouse in St. Louis, Mo., on Aug. 10, 2015. Credit Jeff Roberson/Associated Press