Cornel West: The Fire of a New Generation

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This is the 15th in a series of interviews on race that I am conducting for The Stone. This week’s discussion is with Cornel West, one of the most prominent and provocative intellectuals in public life. He is a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of more than 30 books, including “Black Prophetic Fire” and “The Radical King.” — George Yancy
Published by the New York Times.
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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?

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.