Interview: Cornel West, Author Of 'Black Prophetic Fire' African-American philosopher Cornel West's new book laments the decline of "prophetic" black leadership, lifting up examples of people who were willing to risk their lives in the service of the truth.

Reviving A Grand Tradition Of 'Black Prophetic Fire'

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In a new book, Cornel West tries to look unblinkingly at the power of what he calls black prophetic fire. Six African-American leaders, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Ella Baker, Malcolm X and Ida B. Wells, whom he believes have enlivened America even as their messages have often been blunted, ignored or almost worse - deodorized, as he puts it. Dr. West, who's taught at the Ivy League trifecta - Harvard, Princeton and Yale - and is now at the Union Theological Seminary, engages in dialogue with Christa Buschendorf, a professor at Goethe University in Frankfurt. Their new book is "Black Prophetic Fire." Dr. West joins us from New York.

Thanks for much for being with us.

DR. CORNEL WEST: Thank you so very much, my dear brother Scott.

SIMON: And a prophet's different from a leader?

WEST: Oh indeed, indeed. I think a prophet is someone who is on fire for justice, hypersensitive to the suffering of others, especially the weak, the vulnerable, the widowed, the fatherless the motherless. A leader is somebody who has to jump in the middle of the fray and be prudential, we hope, rather than opportunistic, but a prophetic person tells the truth, exposes lies, bear witness and then usually is pushed to the margins or shot dead.

SIMON: And I don't want to delay this question - how do you think America has Santa Claus-ified Dr. King?

WEST: Well, you know, brother Martin Luther King, Jr., he was an exemplary figure when it comes to prophetic fire and we like to freeze him in 1963. We like to think that somehow he would not engage in what seemed to be un-American critiques when he said my government is the biggest conveyor of violence in the world.

You know, when Martin died 72 percent of Americans disapproved of him and 55 percent of black Americans disapproved of him. He was viewed again as too tied to an anti-war position and he certainly was trying to bring precious poor people of all colors together in Washington.

SIMON: And you also say, I don't think you use the term Santa Claus-ified, but you also say Malcolm X has been transformed. He winds up on a stamp, a stamp you don't particularly like. He winds up in Spike Lee's major movie. What goes on to a prophetic figure?

WEST: Well, I mean I have nothing against the stamp and certainly nothing against brother Spike's movie, but we just have to recognize what Malcolm was trying to do. See, Malcolm X was motivated by a very, very deep love of a hated people, that his commitment to black people was so intense that it scared many black people themselves and Malcolm engaged in what the Greeks called parrhesia which is frank speech, plain speech, un-intimidated speech. So biting it, it pushes you against a wall and I think we need Malcolm's spirit even in 2014, with the Fergusons and with the massive unemployment, the soul murder that takes place too often in our inner-city schools and of course the greed at the top. And we know in the criminal justice system, if poor people get caught with drugs they're taken straight to jail but Wall Street executives are able to engage in market manipulation and insider-trading and a whole host of other crimes, and they sip tea at the White House.

SIMON: I'm so glad you wrote about Ida B. Wells.

WEST: Oh, yes indeed, indeed.

SIMON: Her name is not up there obviously with a lot of others, but this is a very impressive woman.

WEST: Absolutely. I mean, the Ella Baker and Ida B. Wells deserve to be talked about in the same breath as Martin, Malcolm, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Well, what did Ida B. Wells do? She looked American terrorism in the face. She looked lynching in the face. She was run out of Tennessee with bounty on her head and then went to England. She was willing to speak truths at the cost of life. And you see, Du Bois at the time, Booker T. Washington at the time, they did not want to speak as candidly and ended up not speaking as courageously as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, that's why I conclude in many ways she is the most courageous in the sense of looking at terror in the face and being willing to be crushed by it.

SIMON: Yeah. You say a fundamental reason for writing this book is you would like to put black prophetic fire back into the world.

WEST: Yeah. I was just so down and out, feeling as if maybe we were experiencing the relative death of black prophetic fire in the age of Obama, of what I call the re-niggerization of the black professional class, where everybody's looking to black professionals for success but in many ways they are as fearful, intimidated, afraid vis-a-vis their careers and therefore they don't want to tell the truth. They don't want to serve and sacrifice and take a risk, and I wanted to tell them to just lay bare to tradition. Lo and behold, here goes a great tradition of a people who have been hated and despised but still loved, of people who were deceived but still wanted to be honest, as Du Bois, as Douglass, as Ida B. Wells, as Ella Baker, as Martin and Malcolm. Not perfect, but exemplary figures of integrity, honesty and decency, and therefore an example for all of us regardless of color, sexual orientation or nation.

SIMON: Cornel West. His new book, a dialogue with Christa Buschendorf, is "Black Prophetic Fire." Thanks so much for being with us.

WEST: Right on, right on.

SIMON: And not long after we taped our interview with Professor West, he was arrested at a protest in support of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. We called him to ask if he had gone there to help provide black prophetic fire. He said yes and, quote, "to be a part of the younger fire and to stand alongside them, encourage them and to show solidarity."

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