It is a testament to Cornel West's determination to root his theorizing in the
everyday that he prefaces his exciting new collection of essays, "Race
Matters," with a revealing anecdote. Attired in the black, preacherly,
three-piece suit that has become his signature, West (BA from Harvard and PhD
from Princeton, whose Afro-American Studies program he now heads) vainly tries
to hail a cab - ten of them, to be exact. Indeed race does matter, and through
West's critical eyes we see the various, often unfortunate, ways in which race
has become America's national obsession.
Positioning himself at the intersection between the academy, the black church
and the world at large, West has attracted considerable attention for his
ability to discern synthesis where others see only chaos and inspire hope in the
face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Nowhere has his work as a public
intellectual been more illuminating than on the issue of race, a debate he has
helped re-energize by including issues of class, gender and citizenship in the
discussion. As he writes about the state of race relations in the aftermath of
the L.A. riots - the book's publication coincides with the event's first
anniversary this Thursday - West argues that "we need to begin with a frank
acknowledgment of the basic humanness and Americanness of each of us . . . If we
go down, we go down together."
By analyzing social issues through a humanistic and often spiritual lense,
West transforms discussions of the fine points of affirmative action or the
failings of black leadership into wide-ranging inquiries on the human condition.
West's thinking consistently challenges the conventional wisdom. Black leaders
should have been honest, he writes, about the fact that Clarence Thomas and
Anita Hill were "two black Republican conservative supporters of some of the
most vicious policies to besiege black working and poor communities since Jim
and Jane Crow segregation." Black sexuality is a taboo subject in America
principally because it is a form of black power over which whites have little
control, he argues in one essay. And West faults both blacks and Jews for
failing "to define the moral character of their Jewish and black identities."
Although politically a progressive, West isn't a cheerleader for any cause -
every reader will find some sacred belief questioned.
In posing these difficult questions, West takes his place alongside such
figures as Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph in a tradition of principled
black self-criticism. He challenges, for instance, what he calls "the increasing
closing-ranks mentality in black America" that was so cynically exploited by
George Bush when he nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. West is at
his best when separating the wheat from the chaff: Afrocentrism is valuable
because it puts "black sufferings and doings" at its center, but misguided
because it reinforces a narrow idea of race; black conservatives are correct to
point out the weaknesses of liberalism but are naive to assume that without
affirmative action white Americans will automatically make choices according to
At times, West tries too hard to be evenhanded, acting more as a facilitator
of dialogue than as a polemicist. But more often his ethically informed
criticism confronts the reader with profound and unsettling insights, as when
West responds to social questions with existential answers, implying that many
of America's most serious problems require that people undergo radical spiritual
tranformation before commonplace solutions to those problems can take effect.
Such is the case with the nihilism that he argues threatens black America's very
existence - evidenced by the fact that young blacks lead the nation in suicides.
To meet the challenge of such nihilism, West prescribes a "politics of
conversion . . . a chance for people to believe that there is hope for the
future and a meaning to struggle."
If West's rhetoric sometimes sounds odd, it may be because we have so few
thinkers who question the narrow political vocabulary framing our debates, and
even fewer who then go on to fashion an alternative. Using notions such as
"prophetic leaders," "the love ethic," "conversion" and "transcendence," West
brings his theological sensibility to bear on secular problems. But always
lurking behind these formulations is the radical question "What is to be done?"
- a call to action which makes Cornel West's "Race Matters" necessary reading.
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