I went with the family – Taku and Amy (we left the girls at home) – to hear Cornel West talk to a packed house last night at San Francisco’s Nourse Auditorium. It was, for me, a thrilling experience. It’s rare these days that people get up and talk in public and I find myself in agreement 100% of the time. OK, so maybe thrilling is overstating it, but I was quite taken with his rhetorical skill. Really quite bowled over with the power of his language. Not just the words. The smack-down power of his frank assessment of American shame.
Amy thought it was worth hearing what he had to say, but in talking about him later, at an 11 p.m. Thai dinner after the show, she began her comments with some reservations. Taku found the entire experience a disappointment.
It was clear we were all processing the evening differently, and I was surprised that they would be anything but bowled over, like I was, so I decided it was time to just sit and listen.
At some point West made a comparison between Beyoncé and Aretha Franklin. He had made much about the gradual decay of the black community and the fact that they were so easy to co-opt and his implication was clear that it had to do with the loss of soul – spirituality – and its replacement by sensuality. Joy, he said, was what it is about. Not pleasure. Aretha, not Beyoncé. I took to the comparison instantly. Amy found something wrong with the patriarchal tendency to make pronouncements on women who are acceptable and women who are not. She didn’t disagree with what he said. She was just resonating with the feminist in the audience who challenged him on the comparison.
Taku was disappointed for a number of reasons, not at all impressed with the fire and laser-beam intensity and the skill to rattle off thousands of bits of information with no notes in sight. If you know Cornel West at all, you know he fills his talks with references to the world of jazz, the blues and black musical greats of all stripes. He has an encyclopedic knowledge and apparently a photographic memory and can run down lists of names, dates, song titles, event venues, tossing out references by the dozens. If you stand outside that musical tradition, your head spins. I think that talent of his makes your head spin if you’re inside the tradition even more, actually, but the key is whether or not you are lifted up by inclusion or left out and wondering what it’s all about.
That was a talk by a black man to a black audience. Primarily. Not entirely. He addressed the state of black men, particularly young black men in America and every American is affected by the social decay he describes. But if you are not intimately familiar with the black cultural tradition, where music, according to West, has always been the only way to hang on to your last bit of integrity when all your dignity has been removed – by not being allowed to bury your dead, for example (he doesn’t shy away from the legacy of slavery) – then you cannot connect as well with his message. Taku complained, too, that there was so much applause he couldn’t hear the second half of half of West’s sentences. Or so it seemed to him. I was more interested in noting that he was used to this and always made his points clear by the time the applause started. He really is a master orator.
I too lack the musical knowledge he assumes his audience has, but I have a native speaker’s love of the language he uses to tell his story. I can tell the difference between a clanging cymbal of a preacher and a man like West who has the rhetorical skills to lift you out of your seat because you are hearing somebody tell it like it is. It doesn’t bother me that he is not quietly analytical, or that he doesn’t produce a how-to manual in response to the dilemmas he ticks off. West once said somewhere, “In these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis,” and last night was much more a pep-talk than a lecture, as I suspect most of West’s speeches are.
Even so, his speech was riddled with words like catastrophe, decay and destruction. Thoughtful people have a right to say that we don’t need more dwelling on the obvious – we live with serious social and political decay – what we need are solutions. But sometimes thoughtful people miss the woods for the trees. I think what Taku was missing was that West wasn’t teaching his audience the answers. He was creating a space where the answers would be most likely to stick, once they were eventually identified. And the answers are hard to swallow, because they involve personal transformation, the most difficult of all responses to any situation. The answers are spiritual ones, and we live in a far too cynical age to know what to do with spiritual answers when we hear them.
West didn’t need to set up the surface problems. His audience knew we spend more money on incarcerating black youth than we do on educating them, that we spend more money killing people in foreign countries than we do creating jobs in America, that we have a policy of dividing and conquering those on the bottom of the ladder, that we can silence the would-be opposition to national policy by setting the poor against each other, persuading part of us that the rest of us are freeloaders. He went right to work on underlying problems, using W.E.B. DuBois four questions:
1. How does integrity face oppression?
2. What does honesty do in the face of deception?
3. What does decency do in the face of insult?
4. How does virtue meet brute force?
This is a well-rehearsed show. He has had years to put it together. Call it a dog and pony show, if you want to be cynical. I call it a rare moment of telling it like it is. You can get a sense of the talk by clicking here, where he gives you some of the content. Only the smallest taste of the fire of last night’s performance, however. Watching him deliver his message to a select TV audience is like watching a movie on a small screen that belongs on a large one, the large screen analogy being a black audience who magnifies the rhetoric with call/response.
"Justice is what love looks like in public spaces; tenderness is what love is like when you are alone."
That and other quotes by Cornel West are available here.
The word thrilling came to mind to describe my response to West’s address last night not merely because he is a stirring speaker and because his topics are justice, truth and love – although that’s a large part of it. I was drawn in because I feel we are currently beset with devastatingly overwhelming challenges. Racism, America’s national curse, has been exposed in the police killings of black men now being captured on our mobile phones, but also in the efforts of political leaders to take voting rights away from black folk so hard fought a generation ago. Our culture is rotten to the core. We are programmed to think the individual is all, and that leaves us prey to those who would buy us out. Money now buys the media, it buys the Supreme Court, Congress, the White House. Only those with real bucks can participate in the political process with any hope of having any effect. And I think when all is said and done, how we answer W.E.B. DuBois’ four questions is all we really have left to work with. Even if the will to repair could be found, the mechanisms of repair seem to have slipped out of our hands.
I think we are treading water. Waiting for a time when we may some day find the courage to distribute the wealth of the nation in a way that builds us all up. Find the money for repairs to bridges and roads and the rest of the nation's infrastructure, find the will and the money to create free education from pre-school through university, with serious attention to those coming from gutted out places of illiteracy and despair. Recognize that when our money goes into drones that kill children on the other side of the world we bear responsibility for it. That when we think the mega-rich are entitled to their billions because they earned it on their own, we are wrong.
Some day we will do more than talk about these things till the cows come home. For now, we preach to the choir. Not because the choir is going to get things done. But because the choir will have to keep the songs alive until we figure out how to stop the violence we inflict on the world. And begin to see ourselves as others see us.