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The problem in America is, America’s been in denial about its problems. And that’s a problem.
America doesn’t have a race problem, in reality there’s been catastrophes visited upon Black people. Catastrophes visited on Indigenous brothers and sisters. Catastrophes visited on Latino brothers and sisters. Catastrophes visited on working people. Catastrophes visited on women of all colors. We can go on and on.
This week on Making Contact, we bring you a talk from noted author, scholar, and self-described intellectual freedom fighter, Dr. Cornel West speaking at the Guild Theater in Sacramento, California in 2023. In his discussion, West uses America’s music legacy as a way to explore catastrophic conditions brought on by our denial of the funk, seen through the impacts of racism on the nation’s health.
Featuring: Episode Credits: Music:
Dr. Cornel West: Our system is, in too many ways, broken. The way we see the world shapes the way that we treat it. This is making contact.
What is the blues about? It’s about catastrophe. Nobody loves me but my mama and she might be driving too. That’s B. B. King. That’s the B side of the thrillers gone.
Anita Johnson: That’s noted author, scholar, and self described intellectual freedom fighter, Dr. Cornel West, speaking at the Guild Theater in Sacramento, California in 2023.
In his talk, West uses America’s musical legacy as a way to explore the plight of people of color, which he attributes to our denial of the funk, or more specifically, America’s race problem. But that’s where you start. See, the problem in America is, America’s been in denial about its problems. But there’s never been a race problem in America.
There’s been catastrophes visited upon black people. Catastrophes visited on indigenous brothers and sisters. Catastrophes visited on Latino brothers and sisters. Catastrophes visited on working people. Catastrophes visited on women of all colors. We can go on and on. But as soon as you shift from the catastrophic to the problematic, you’ve already deodorized the funk.
Like going from Pat Boone to Curtis Mayfield. Or from Kenny G to John Coltrane.
Anita Johnson: I’m Anita Johnson, and on today’s episode of Making Contact, we bring you Revolutionary Blues and America’s Problems.
West’s talk, steeped in a Southern Black Christian oratorical style, delivered provocative religious, philosophical, and political insights, occasionally challenging the audience intentionally with keen observations about racial bias in America, white supremacy represented by the continued legacy of racial injustice in the nation.
Dr. Cornel West: I’m a Christian. So the blues begins with the funk. Y’all see where I’m, what I’m saying? White supremacy is sick, is pathological, is obscene, is barbaric. What will be the response of a people? 400 years of being bombarded every day, every week, every year, told you less than, Human, you’re less beautiful, you’re less intelligent, you’re less moral and keeping black folks so scared and intimidated and afraid and laughing when it ain’t funny and scratching when it don’t itch.
That’s how you niggerize the people. But all, given all of that catastrophe, here come the blues artists. My brother Hurth El knows what I’m talking about, married to my magnificent sister Cynthia. Brian knows what I’m talking about with my magnificent sister, Cheryl. And we know what I’m talking about.
Because Irene West and Clifton West set such high standards. That’s my mama and my daddy. That they in the face of white supremacy, just like the blues artists, just like the jazz musicians, just like the rhythm and blues, just like the hip hop artists, the musicians always the vanguard of the movement, the vanguard of the species.
Because they are the freest. If our politicians were one third as free as our musicians, we would have been free a long time ago.
That’s why we always go to the music. Because the language is inadequate. The words are, fail us. As Toni Morrison say, we need a sound that breaks the back of sentences. The history of black people. Lift every, sing! Doesn’t say lift every echo. Problem of so much of black leadership these days, we got echoes.
That express silos. We don’t have voices that are tied to the suffering of the people and especially the least of these. I take the 25th chapter of Matthew very, very seriously. What you do on to the least of these you do on to who are the least of these, my brothers and sisters. I grew up with in Glenelg.
I’ll never forget them. Never sell them down the river. No matter how high I find myself, Harvard, Yale, University of Paris, whatever it is, I’ll never forget Roosevelt and Ricky Peoples and Linda Knox and all the brothers and sisters who shaped me when we were out there doing our thing at Camellia School.
Now, I might have got kicked out, but that’s alright. I was just trying to bear witness. But it’s the same tradition. It’s the same flow in the river of resistance and resilience. There has never, ever been a people who have been so chronically hated for 400 years that taught the world so much about love.
Never ever. In most instances, there would have been a black version of the Ku Klux Klan a long time ago for other people’s tradition that didn’t put love at the center of it.
And that’s not a function of skin pigmentation. Because we all know we got a lot of black gangsters and thugs in our tradition, too. I love them, too. I got a lot of gangster in me.
I used to have a student on the front row in House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in National Black United Front, 415 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. His name was Tupac Shakur. Sitting next to his precious mama, Finney, was a member of the Black Panther Party, just like Markeen and the other right here in Old Park.
She adjoined it, and I could see Tupac’s beautiful eyes. I could see the history. I didn’t know he was the genius that he turned out to be. But all I could do is do precisely what Mr. Peters, my baseball coach in Glenelda, did for me and Cliff. He poured in us love and integrity and courage. I got to be true to that love, true to that courage, true to that integrity.
I got the same thing right here at Shiloh Baptist Church with Willie P. Cook. Oh yes, Sarah Ray, my vacation Bible school teacher. And Deacon Hinton, pouring the love, pouring in the courage, pouring in the integrity. And the question becomes, how can I empty myself? How can I serve others by being the best of myself so that I could put a smile on Irene and Clifton’s face from the grave, so they could be glad, proud, not of my success.
They never were talking about success. I remember when Dad dropped me off at Harvard. He said, Son, I’m so proud of you making it here, and I know all you got to do is make three C’s and a D.
To stay in. Oh, no, that’s the, that’s the wisdom of a black man who loves a black son. Is that right, Cliff? But he went on to say, Like Coltrane with Ascension just going up the ladder of love. Or like the Isley brothers with the caravan of love. Or the OJs with the love train. See, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.
So it’s a lyrical response to the monstrous. It’s like the first sentence of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Gregor Sampson wakes up from an uneasy dream. Finds himself transformed in bed to a huge vile vermin. That’s catastrophic. That’s catastrophic. Situation of poor people’s catastrophic. Black people had slavery.
Jim Crow, Jane Crow. Catastrophic. What was their response? It wasn’t counter terroristic. In the face of slavery, Frederick Douglass said what? With a smile and wounds, we want freedom for everybody. We don’t want to enslave others just because we’re enslaved. Jim Crow. We have no rights and liberties. We’re civically dead.
We want rights and liberties for everybody, right? We don’t want to Jim Crow somebody else. The blues responds to the catastrophic with compassion, without drinking from the cup of bitterness. Not with revenge, but with justice. That’s the best of the blues, you see.
Keep your soul intact. Because life is not about how high you achieve in terms of your worldly success, it’s about the quest for moral and spiritual greatness. And somewhere I read, he or she is greatest among you, would be your servant, it would be the quality of your love, it would be the depth of your service to the least of these, it would be touching every life with every grin, with every means that you have, putting on that full arm of the sixth chapter of Ephesians.
Putting on the breastplate, putting on the shield, making sure you’re ever ready for battle because folk will be coming at you and trying to get you to sell out and cave in, trying to get you to become well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference and make you think so highly of yourself, you walk around like a peacock.
Look at me, look at me, I’m so X, I’m so Y. I got so much money, I got so much mansion. I can hear my grandmama saying, Peacock strut because they can’t fly. Oh!
The best of black folk, the best of humanity Are like eagles, they move with style With nobility and royalty And they look real low The folk in mass incarceration sites, the folk in the hoods, in the barrios, on the reservation, the post folk who are overlooked, the working people who are pushed against the wall with all that greed at the top, and all that arrogance at the top, and all that haughtiness at the top, and think they can get away with it.
No! Be like an eagle! You and I know. This is why politics is such a treacherous terrain.
Most of these politicians are on the gravy train, not the love train.
Brother West, you’re so harsh. I’m trying to speak the truth in love. But when you love folk, you protect respect and correct. And let me tell you this, I don’t love anybody, but I especially don’t love black people. In order for black people to love me back. I love black folk from the bottom of my heart like I do my mama and my daddy in Ain’t Pain.
But I love them because they’re worthy of being loved. They can talk about me like a dog. They can put me down. I’m gonna love them anyway. Now, I got one exception. They talk about my mama and I lose my Holy Ghost. I make Muhammad Ali look slow. You talk about my mama. Pray for me. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
I’m just keeping it real now. Am I right, Brother Corn? Am I right, little brother? Ain’t nobody gonna talk about fellas, right? Hey, no, no, no, no, no, no.
As for forgiveness, quick. But the beautiful thing is, that’s because of a deep love, too. And that’s what we need. In the last 50 years, we’ve seen a decline and decay of love in the country, love in the community. And keep in mind that means justice, because justice ain’t nothing but what love looks like in public.
Making, making, making contact, making contact.
Anita Johnson: You’ve been listening to a talk featuring Dr. Cornel West on Making Contact. To learn more about us and access other episodes for free, visit radioproject. org. Now back to the show.
Dr. Cornel West: All the talk about progress, especially when it comes to black folk, oh we got black professors. We got black mayors. I do love Brother Johnson. I love that brother very much. I support him twice. Black president. I support Obama twice, but I was hard on that brother. I support him because he was better than the alternative.
But when it comes to poverty, when it comes to new Jim Crow, when it comes to mass incarceration, when it comes to ensuring you empower working people, whether they’re Wall Street, when it comes dropping drones on innocent people, I don’t care where they are when it comes to being the. The major deporter of those trying to make it in.
I said, brother, in the name of Martin Luther King Jr., in the name of Fannie Lou Hamer, in the name of Ella Baker, in the name of my own tradition, I got to bring loving critique to bear. Oh, yes. A lot of people say, oh, brother West, you must be crazy trying to call into question somebody so popular. I’m not in this for popularity.
I am talking about integrity. I’m not talking about reputation in the superficial sense. I’m talking about an allegiance to a tradition of a great people. Malcolm X died with $151 in his pocket, but nobody remembers the richest man in 1965 in Harlem. They remember mile. He’s a Muslim. I’m a Christian. I don’t exist without Malcolm X.
It’s like I don’t exist without Muhammad Ali. I’m just a Jesus loving free black man. They’re Allah loving free black men. Meaning what? Meaning that we have to be willing to be jazz like. And if you’re jazz like, you’re improvisational. You’re flexible. You can learn from Buddhists like bell hooks. You can learn from agnostics like James Baldwin.
And Baldwin’s a loving man, isn’t he? Love forces us to take off the mask we know we cannot live within, but fear we cannot live without. That’s the genius from Harlem. You can’t find your voice if you’re not open to the voices of others. That’s what makes Mary Lou Williams band so deep. That’s what makes James Brown’s band so funky with Bootsy and Catfish and Clyde Steppenfield on the drummer’s song, and J Ball raising their voices.
These are ways of being in the world. This is not just cheap entertainment. But it has everything to do, and I’m gonna bring this to a close. The ways in which in the face of white supremacy, in the face of predatory capitalist processes, in which greedy bosses at the top so often exploit workers, are indifferent to the plight of our precious, precious homeless brothers and sisters.
One of the sickest sites in the American empire. Is to see the richest nation in the history of the world have so many precious brothers and sisters of all colors who don’t have a place to stay, who don’t have food, who don’t have quality connection. Marvin, what is going on? Keep sweat. Something, something just ain’t right.
Somebody got to tell the truth. Somebody got to be free enough to pay a cost. Somebody got to bear a burden. And then, somebody got to be willing to die.
There is no freedom movement if you don’t have folk who love deep enough that they’re willing to die for it. Because black fear has always been a major impediment of the movement for freedom. And if you’re not willing to pay a cost, then all they got to do is dangle something out there for you. And the next thing you know, your fire has turned to ice.
And we see it all the time, not just with our leaders, but also our fellow citizens of all colors. They’re running around scared. Brother Martin Luther King used to say, I’d rather be dead than afraid. That’s why he said he put on his cemetery clothes every day. He was coffin ready.
That’s why I wear my black suit every day. And people come up to me, Oh, that’s your, that’s your brand. That ain’t my mother hucking brand.
I ain’t got no brand. I got a cause. A cause is something you live and die for. A brand is just your market strategy. That ain’t my brand.
That’s a cause. And what breaks the back of fear? Love. That’s what breaks the back of fear. When you love deep enough, when you love authentically enough, when you love profoundly, then all of a sudden what was once fearful becomes not an impediment, but your launching pad. And when that happens, then you got the next wave of a movement.
And this campaign ain’t nothing but just a moment in a movement. Because can’t no one politician do it all by themselves. Not even one party can do it all by themselves. If you don’t have the people fired up, organized, and mobilized, and bringing power and pressure to bear on the status quo, then you’re not going to be able to follow through.
You’re not going to be able to execute. That’s why I went to Mississippi, Emmett Till. You all know Emmett Till. Oh, we’ll never forget our dear brother. August, 1955. Murdered Lynch by cowardly white terrorists. Dropped his body in the Tallahatchie River. And then here come Mamie Teal. Echoes of Harriet Tubman.
Echoes of Sojourner Truth. Echoes of Ida B. Wells, Barton, and Nets. Echoes of all of those freedom fighters of the past. She took the precious body and took it back to Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ on the west side of Chicago, and what did she do? Keep the casket, and John Johnson took a picture of it, didn’t he?
Put it in every Negro barber shop and beauty salon and church and temple and mosque and synagogue so that the whole nation and the whole world could see America at its worst. And then she stepped up to the lectern and said what, I don’t have a minute to hate, I will pursue justice for the rest of my life.
What kind of spiritual and moral armor do you need in order to say that when you’re looking at your precious baby, his head is three times the size of his ordinary head, tears are flowing and you still got love in your heart. Teach the world something about love, black people. That’s what she did.
Precisely what, and she ain’t the only one. I was sitting next to Mary Jenkins. You all know the two brothers in Mississippi who’ve been brutalized by the police with the, with the bullet going through the tongue, through the neck. And I’m sitting next to Miss Sister Jenkins. Is that right though, baby? She sits there with such dignity.
Such nobility. But unbelievable spiritual royalty. Why? Because she comes from a great people who will never allow catastrophe to have the last word. That that black love, and that black joy, and that black freedom, and that black style, that black sophistication will have the last word. Either in sound or in life.
And the question becomes, how do we keep that tradition open? In 1955, Emmett Till led directly to Rosa Parks, my old brother Howard, one of the great freedom fighters in Mississippi, went on a national tour. November 27th, 1955, he went to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and there was a new preacher there who had just arrived.
His name was Martin Luther King Jr. from Boston. Vernon Johns had just left, and he invited Howard to speak. And who’s on the front row? Rosa Parks. November 27th, 1955. Four days later, she sits down on a bus in order to stand up for justice. And that was the beginning of The collapse of the barbaric system of American apartheid, of American terrorism, of American Jane Crow and Jim Crow.
Now we still got Jim Crow and Jane Crow Jr. today. White supremacy undergoes all kinds of changes and transformations, but we broke the back of that form of it. Because we conquered fear. No longer we’re afraid to speak our minds and raise our voices the way Stevie Wonder could sing love in need of love.
What you mean Stevie? Listen to the song. Not just the words, but the melody and the harmonies and the dissonances and the resonances of it. That’s what we need today. We’ve got to have examples of people. Who in their own humility and tenacity can convey to the people by means of example that they love the people enough to tell the truth, to pursue justice, and even be willing to die.
To step out on nothing and land on something. That’s the history of black people, that’s the history of oppressed people. And it’s always an open question. We don’t know what’s coming. Could be character assassination. You know that’s coming. Could be literal assassination. If all they can do is kill you, then it shows how weak they really are.
Because there’ll be thousands and thousands who will come after that will have a memory of those who bore witness at the highest level of moral and spiritual greatness. Because none of us gon make it through space and time alive anyway. We all have a death sentence in space and time. The question is not whether we gon die.
The question is how we gon die. How you gon use your life and use your death for something bigger than you. That’s the question. And what I learned at Shiloh Baptist Church, that if the kingdom of God is within you, then everywhere you go, you ought to leave a little heaven behind. What kind of heaven behind?
What kind of justice? What kind of love? What kind of joy? What kind of touch? What kind of melody? What kind of painting? What kind of friendship? What kind of family? What kind of life are you leaving behind? Let us always be mindful of the greatness of the past operating in the present so we pass it on to our precious children, not just on the chocolate side, but vanilla side and every side.
But for me, it begins on the chocolate side because I’m not one of those black folk who love everybody but black people. No, not at all. It starts with Jamal and Letitia. Babe, bruh. Ray Ray. I’m just talking about family members. I ain’t got to the neighborhood yet. Is that right? So thank you all so very much.
Stay strong in what you do. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Anita Johnson: You’ve been listening to a talk featuring Dr. Cornel West. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please write and review us twice on Apple Podcasts, and then please share with your friends and family via Facebook and on Instagram. We’re making contact project to learn more about us and access other episodes for free visit radio project.org.
The Making Contact team includes the Executive Director, Jina Chung, Salima Himurani, Amy Gastelum, Lucy Kang, and I’m Anita Johnson. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.