A conversation with Cornel West

Itabari Njeri: How does the notion of healing fit into this multilayered strategy for social change that you and Lerner articulate? And where do blacks and Jews fit into it?

Cornel West: For me, this dialogue was just a very small first step in the healing. To me, healing means you have to recognize there is a wound and you try to understand what the sources of the wound are, which means you try to tell a story about how it came to be. So you have to engage in some historical interpretation. Your question to me is raised at the end of the text because the text is just the beginning of an acknowledgment of the wound, as opposed to laying bare what the dynamics of the healing actually are. I have much to learn [in that regard].

Njeri: Over the years, as I have talked to people involved in conflict resolution and efforts to make social change, I’ve always asked, what conceptual framework do you have for your work? Often, they can’t articulate one. When I talk to social scientists who have looked at the literature on group conflict, they note there’s relatively little literature on intra-minority group conflict. There is about dominant vs. subordinate groups but not between historical oppressed people like blacks and Jews.

West: That’s true.


Njeri: But I recall a particularly enlightening interview with a scholar at the University of Oklahoma, Young Yun Kim. She looked at all the literature about conflict resolution and said basically what comes out of it is a three-part model. You look at inter-ethnic conflict and find there are the structural elements that are at the root of it, the cause of the nihilism and despair both you and Lerner lament.

West: Right.

Njeri: But that you can’t really get to change the structural issues until you break through the nihilism and despair.

West: Right.


Njeri: She points out that the structural issues can broadly be divided into issues of economic inequality and social inequality, but there are psychological issues that form the the third part of this model: seeing those outside one’s group as dangerous and hated “others,” low individual and group esteem based on internalizing negative stereotypes generated by an oppressive dominant culture. It appears that you have to address those psychological issues in order to deal successfully with the structural issues, at least in any sustained way. But people involved in conflict resolution usually go after the structural issues. You emphasize that, too. You’re talking about a redistribution of wealth.

West: Right. Right.

Njeri: That requires sophisticated political analysis and organization. How do you get to deal with those structural issues if you can’t break through the pain, nihilism and despair you and Lerner describe in varying ways?

West: I have some notions that have people conceiving of themselves as capable of changing the world. That’s why, for me, the issues of self-love, self-respect and self-regard are preconditions for human agency and especially black agency, given the fact that we have been and are such a hated and despised people. I mean, it’s no accident that most of the great black spokespersons and leaders understood the centrality of self-affirmation, self-respect and self-love. Now, that’s not a conceptual model per se. These are just particular categories that I think have to be talked about. The nihilism essay in Race Matters addresses how do you convince folk to generate levels of self confidence so that they can, in fact, shape the conditions of their destiny?


Njeri: You see the black church as being instrumental in part of that, correct?

West: At its best. At its worst, it’s gotten in the way.

Njeri: How has it gotten in the way?

West: The black church often has reinforced certain self images that are damaging to black peoples’ beauty, black peoples’ confidence. At its best, it’s been able to accent black humanity and thereby affirm black beauty, black intelligence, black character. The wonderful thing about the black church for me is that it forces you to come to terms with the centrality of love in the world. Even if they don’t hit it head-on. When they talk about love ye one another with no qualifications, it means you got to love yourself. That becomes an act of black self-love, which at its best is genuinely subversive in a white supremacist society. The most dangerous thing in American society is a self-respecting and self-loving black person, because they’re on the road to freedom and that means they’re gonna run up against the powers that be.


Njeri: I’ve looked at the efforts of some black churches to incorporate psychotherapy--turning Bible classes into support groups and providing trained psychotherapists for the congregants. St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn is one. The church and it’s pastor, the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, were the subjects of a book a few years ago called “Upon this Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church,” by Samuel Freedman. The church is rife with sexism. But Youngblood seemed to understand that if a Lazarus was going to rise from the slums of America, he’d need a mighty spirit to raise him in the first place and, in the crucible of American life, some counseling to keep him upright.

Members of this psychologically rejuvenated congregation were taught political organizing skills by the Industrial Areas Foundations, which many believe is the best group of community organizers in the nation. In coalition with others, the church improved housing and health care in their blighted community. In other words, the healing at St. Paul was linked to social change efforts. This idea comes more easily for Lerner since he is a psychotherapist. But are you as comfortable with the idea that we need to have psychotherapy in our institutions and link it directly to efforts to make social change?

West: It depends on what we mean by psychotherapy. See, my problem is that psychotherapy itself not only has a history but one shaped by the experiences of those in Europe who have particular conceptions of spirituality vis-a-vis the secular. Whereas for me, when I think of black psychotherapy, I think first and foremost of black music, which is to say the attempt of black people to soothe and caress scars and bruises. Music is the very cement that has not just held the black community together but holds black selves together in a fundamental sense.

Njeri: That’s an oblique approach. It’s similar to the spiritual renewal that the church itself provides. I know, growing up, my mother was a lapsed Catholic and--though my father was a Marxist--I would stumble upon him crying when he heard Mahalia Jackson sing.


West: See, [something profound was] goin’ on there.

Njeri: I know. In the absence of formal religion, music became religion for me. It was my connection to God.

West: That’s how it is for most black folk.

Njeri: It was and it is. But I don’t think that’s enough.


West: No. But I don’t think psychotherapy is enough either.

Njeri: Well, I’m not suggesting it’s enough by itself.

West: Or--I mean in one sense, nothin’s ever enough. (Laughter).

Njeri: Right.


West: That’s why sometime you just need to be silent, have a drink and crack a smile or somethin’, because the human condition, in general, is just overwhelming in so many ways.

Njeri: I’m not suggesting that healing--the need for psychological and spiritual renewal--take place out of a political context.

West: No, I’m with you. But each one has its specificity.

Njeri: Right.


West: And the specific features of the psychological are quite interesting. I just picked up a book by Aaron Gressen called “The Recovery of Race in America.” He’s got a psychotherapeutic and rhetorical model for understanding race in America. I haven’t read it yet but my good friend, Jim Washington, who wrote “Conversations With God,” told me to read this. Because Jim has always argued that there has to be a psychotherapeutic dimension to the black church that goes beyond spiritual rejuvenation, as you rightly put it. I hadn’t thought enough about the psychotherapeutic and psychospiritual dimension.

Njeri: Is it because you recognize that the structural issues of social and economic inequality are what ultimately have to be addressed, and so you emphasize that?

West: Emmmm. No. (He laughs.) It’s a defect. You know. It’s just a defect, basically.

Njeri: What was your analysis of the reception you and Michael Lerner received at Howard University and Esowon Books in Los Angeles, places where blacks, according to media reports, were particularly hostile?


West: What we had was a very honest dialogue. You had some black brothers and sisters, mainly black nationalist brothers and sisters, who are deeply suspicious of premature coalitions and alliances between blacks and anybody when our black folk haven’t worked their stuff through. I had one deep question raised by a very young, eloquent sister at Esowon Books who said: “Brother West, I think that you’re asking us to overstretch. How are we going to both undergo a healing process among ourselves and then also try to heal between blacks and Jews given the the recent history?” And that to me is a very profound question.

Njeri: You’re reply was what?

West: That I do believe that healing takes place on a number of different levels and that in fact black healing can be deepened by trying to heal across as well as within. But it could be that to call for black and Jewish healing without acknowledging the need for intra-black healing puts the cart before the horse.

Njeri: What are the internal obstacles to healing among black people?


West: Machismo identity is killing the brothers. I think it’s suffocating so much of black male potential. And a lot of it has to do with this notion of being authentically black.

Njeri: Who supposedly fits into the authentic conception of the black male?

West: Among the younger generation, it’s a lotta the so-called street brothers. See, I don’t like to say street brothers, ‘cause the street is a diverse place. You know the street’s got all kinda brothers. When I grew up on the street, you had brothers readin’, brothers arguin’, brothers singin’, brothers fightin’. So I don’t like to use street in just a pejorative way. The street is as diverse as any other sector, but in peoples’ mind it gets appropriated as a black man who’s tough. Trying to make it through by staying hard and phallocentric. To me, that is just an impoverished conception of what it is to be a black male. It doesn’t do justice to my grandfather, my father, my brother--or just the black men I grew up with.

Njeri: So that’s one significant intra-group impediment.


West: That to me is significant. And it has a lot to do with patriarchy and sexist self-perception. If the brothers had a less machismo identity, we’d have not just more women in leadership but a different kind of men. Because a lot of those brothers ain’t in the machismo thing. Why not have a division of labor among the leadership? You don’t have to have one phallocentric, messianic figure always up there, who presents a certain image that resonates with the larger patriarchal community.

[Ironically,] the . . . whole model of being outlaw, cowboy-like, John Wayne-like comes out of the worst of American history. [It is the] result of the gunfighter nation’s conception of itself as being male and phallocentric.

Njeri: Which is why I wondered, in your nihilism essay, why you say that spiritual nihilism was a phenomenon only recently surfacing in the general culture compared to the African American subculture. A society--a gunfighter nation--that assassinates nonviolent Christian martyrs, Presidents and rock stars with numbing regularity seems to be the spiritual pump for the nihilism infecting everybody else.

West: True, but I think the difference is that, in terms of the experiences of the vast majority of Americans, there has been institutional, countervailing forces in play vis-a-vis the market. Let’s just say, for instance, the history of very strong families, most of them patriarchal, of course. Strong communities, most of them ethnically and racially defined. And the various churches and temples and mosques that go into sustaining that community. Whereas what we’re seeing now, with the commodification of society, is the shattering of even those countervailing forces.


That’s why the religious right is so strong. They’re nostalgic about something that was actually very real--though deeply shaped by white supremacy and male supremacy.

Njeri: The world of “Father Knows Best”?

West: Exactly. I think the other major obstacle within the black community is a shift I discern in the degree to which black children are no longer the subjects of love, affirmation and affection [but are] becoming more and more objects of distraction. I think this is most frightening, because what has kept us going is a profound love of our children. So, in addition to the machismo identity, there is a certain erosion of the profound sense of love, sacrifice toward black children.

Njeri: Have you figured out the source of that erosion?


West: I’m writing a book on this called “The Roots of Violence: America’s Children and Market Values.” One of the reasons why too many black kids disrespect older black people, which is also relatively new, is because the kids haven’t been respected by the older people. Some of us may have been downright physically abused. I wasn’t. But I’ve seen some whippin’s that went far beyond the call of duty. But there was still that sense of a child being taken seriously by a parent. Whereas, when you’re indifferent--do anything you want, 13-year-olds spendin’ the night over a girl’s house. What’s goin’ on? Indifference. That’s disrespect on a deep level. And of course, you listen to hip-hop culture and rap music and hear all of this language among the young brothers and sisters being called names.

Tennessee Williams was probably my favorite playwright in the country, other than August Wilson. He says in “The Rose Tattoo”: “Everybody’s a nobody until they’re loved.”?? Black folk are nobody in America until they’re affirmed and loved. And then they get that kind of bombardment and don’t respect nobody--mama, daddy, teacher, professor, preacher. Nobody, other than the gang leader because of force and a certain kind of admiration because of that force.”??

Njeri: What are the other obstacles within the black community?

West: The third thing would be deep color conflicts. Colorism [the preferential or prejudicial treatment of same-race people, based on skin color] to me has to do primarily with the fact that when you live in a society in which black beauty in all of its forms are so viciously attacked every day, then there’s no accident that people are gonna internalize certain conceptions of beauty and try to act on it.


Njeri: How, concretely, do you see these three issues affecting black people’s ability to form progressive internal coalitions?

West: Well, the level of distrust of one another makes it difficult to forge bonds of trust between young and old, men and women, and between the men and the men and the women and the women. You’ve got political competition, sexual competition, social competition within the black world that is simply shot through with these tensions that make it difficult to organize.

Marcus Garvey used to say the major problem facing black folk is disorganization. I take that quite seriously. What are the conditions under which black folk could organize more effectively? Those three impediments standing right there.

I don’t think we’ll ever completely eliminate these things, because I think all of them [stem from the evils of various forms of oppression]. And of course as a Christian, I don’t believe in the elimination of evil. But I believe in fightin’ against evil. And I think we can alleviate some forms of it. But they’ll probably always be around now, especially in the modern world. White supremacy is so deep-seated at this point that it’s hard to see it eliminated. But we could definitely push it back.