Monday, September 12, 2005


The inimitable Cornel West, professor of African American Studies and Religion at Princeton University, pulls few punches in his post-Katrina interview with Joanna Walters in the Observer newspaper ('Exiles from a city and from a nation'). My introduction to his work was the classic Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, penned in his 20s. He's also the only theologian I know who's recorded a hip-hop album. There are downloads on his home page. In today's piece, he declares:

"If I had been of Martin Luther King's generation I would never have gone to Harvard or Princeton. They shot brother Martin dead like a dog in 1968 when the mobilisation of the black poor was just getting started. At least one of his surviving legacies was the quadrupling in the size of the black middle class. But Oprah [Winfrey] the billionaire and the black judges and chief executives and movie stars do not mean equality, or even equality of opportunity yet. Black faces in high places does not mean racism is over. Condoleezza Rice has sold her soul. Now the black bourgeoisie have an even heavier obligation to fight for the 33 per cent of black children living in poverty - and to alleviate the spiritual crisis of hopelessness among young black men.

"[President George W. ] Bush talks about God, but he has forgotten the point of prophetic Christianity is compassion and justice for those who have least. Hip-hop has the anger that comes out of post-industrial, free-market America, but it lacks the progressiveness that produces organisations that will threaten the status quo. There has not been a giant since King, someone prepared to ... create an insurgency where many are prepared to die to upset the corporate elite. The Democrats are spineless."

I caught Cornel West in action myself at a public meeting in Brixton (Railton Road Methodist Church, where I had an office in the late '80s) a few years ago. Stirring and sharp, he was, in an oddly predictable way, every inch a black Pentecostal preacher - but one who effortlessly dropped in words like 'hegemony' and 'hermeneutics' in between street anecodes, biblical quotations and impassioned pleas for justice... all to loud choruses of 'amen!' and 'hallellujah!' It was quite an evening.

Then there are those cameo appearances in The Matrix and The Matrix unloaded. Really. Of course West has attracted much criticism for grandstanding, not all of it illegitimate. But he integrates critical faith and progressive politics in a unique, infuriating and inspiring way.

Clarence Shole Johnson explores his conceptions of pragmatism, existentialism, post-Marxism, prophetic Christianity, black-Jewish relations, affirmative action, and the role of black intellectuals in Cornel West and Philosophy (Africana Thought), published by Routledge in 2002. See also the PBS programme, This Far by Faith.

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