An unflinching look at nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American leaders and their visionary legacies.
In an accessible, conversational format, Cornel West, with distinguished scholar Christa Buschendorf, provides a fresh perspective on six revolutionary African American leaders: Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells. In dialogue with Buschendorf, West examines the impact of these men and women on their own eras and across the decades. He not only rediscovers the integrity and commitment within these passionate advocates but also their fault lines.
West, in these illuminating conversations with the German scholar and thinker Christa Buschendorf, describes Douglass as 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. He calls Du Bois “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.”
By providing new insights that humanize all of these well-known figures, in the engrossing dialogue with Buschendorf, and in his insightful introduction and powerful closing essay, Cornel West takes an important step in rekindling the Black prophetic fire so essential in the age of Obama.
Fearful that we may be "witnessing the death of black prophetic fire in our time," historians West and Buschendorf engage in a book-length conversation about six historic figures Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells. The subtext is a critique of President Obama, whom West calls both "my dear brother" and the "friendly face of the American empire." Along the way, West plays rhetorical catch-as-catch-can: Douglass was "probably the most eloquent ex-slave in the history of the modern world" but "so tied in to the machinations of the Republican Party and willing to make vulgar compromises"; DuBois was "the greatest... black intellectual ever to emerge out of the U.S. empire," but uninterested in "serious wrestling with modernist texts"; "it is not in any way to put down the great Ida to acknowledge her middle-class context." Putting aside West's willfully provocative opinions, his mini-lectures, which frequently run uninterrupted for pages at a time, and Buschendorf's instructive set-ups for them do convey a wealth of information. Sadly, an index is absent and retrieving that information will be burdensome. Readers with a serious interest in history will treasure the full-bodied appendices, including the content-rich notes and extensive bibliography.