Cornel West’s Black Prophetic Fire is both a new look at six revolutionary African American leaders and a rousing call for more “fire” in what West calls the Black prophetic tradition, a reframing of the social order in terms of radical justice. As Dr. West writes in the introduction,
The deep hope shot through this dialogue is that Black prophetic fire never dies, that the Black prophetic tradition forever flourishes, and that a new wave of young brothers and sisters of all colors see and feel that it is a beautiful thing to be on fire for justice and that there is no greater joy than inspiring and empowering others—especially the least of these, the precious and priceless wretched of the earth!
In an accessible, conversational format, Dr. West, with distinguished scholar Christa Buschendorf, provides a fresh perspective on Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells. For West, Douglass is a complex man who is both “the towering Black freedom fighter of the nineteenth century” and a product of his time who lost sight of the fight for civil rights after the emancipation. Du Bois is “undeniably the most important Black intellectual of the twentieth century” and explores the more radical aspects of his thinking in order to understand his uncompromising critique of the United States, which has been omitted from the American collective memory. West argues that our selective memory has sanitized and even “Santaclausified” Martin Luther King Jr., rendering him less radical, and has marginalized Ella Baker, who embodies the grassroots organizing of the civil rights movement. The controversial Malcolm X, who is often seen as a proponent of reverse racism, hatred, and violence, has been demonized in a false opposition with King, while the appeal of his rhetoric and sincerity to students has been sidelined. Ida B. Wells, West argues, shares Malcolm X’s radical spirit and fearless speech, but has “often become the victim of public amnesia.”
West recently appeared on DemocracyNow! to talk about book and make the case for reinvigorating the Black prophetic tradition:
Black prophetic fire is really about a deep love for Black people, a love of justice, but it’s connected to the four questions that Du Bois wrestles with. How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? And how does virtue meet brute force. So, in the face of terror, in the face of trauma, in the face of stigma, 400 years of Black people wrestling with all three, what do we produce? This caravan of love, this love train—love of justice, love of poor people, love of working people.
And in a series of video interviews for TIME, Dr. West expands upon his thoughts about President Obama’s failure to carry the prophetic torch, reflects on first seeing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and advocates for putting Ella Baker back on the Black prophetic pedestal where she belongs.
Black Prophetic Fire is available now wherever books are sold!