RAVEN MACK is a mystic poet-philosopher-artist of the Greater Appalachian unorthodox tradition who publishes zines & physical books & electronic books & music & photography & digital art & just generally whatever feels necessary to survive this deluded earth thru Rojonekku Word Fighting Arts survival systems (Version 69, establish 14 Feb 1973). Comments encouraged.

Monday, September 11

Cornel West Talk About "A Profound Desire for Justice" & Being a Prisoner of Hope

(the good Dr. Cornel West speaking at UVA)

Been trying to shift back into a pro-creative zone lately, despite the buzzing negativity of the developed world around me, which has quieted down my ability to hear my heart’s natural vibrations a little too much. Last week though, I was blessed with a pair of positive influences on the heart buzz, one which really set the energies open to the second.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Brother Ali lately, having shifted away from all the strange rules I put around sound listening on my daily commute, bumping a good amount of earlier stuff but really playing his latest – All the Beauty in This Whole Life – mostly. It’s a beautiful album – nothing that will get any Pitchfork Year End listings likely, because it’s more about the message than the image. But the message is a spiritual one, yet not crappy. It seems like when music moves towards spirituality, it has to compromise quality, and the contrarian response to that is to never show any spiritual spice to your music for fear of being cast into that lot with shitty Christian rap. Brother Ali has a little more freedom from that, being Muslim instead of Christian, but his music is still thick with spirit. As someone who has been helped (and healed) immensely in recent years by Islamic philosophy, All the Beauty in This Whole Life resonates with me pretty strongly, and I find myself wishing there was an entire genre of Brother Ali music. (If you put it into the algorithm boxes, they give you suggestions which have very little actual spirituality, but seem likely to share a progressive event’s stage with Ali. It’s not quite the same, but the post-(meta?)modern algorithm – despite being developed by the noted ancient Baghdad House of Wisdom scholar Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi – lacks real world fluency in its current Yakubian applications.
All this Brother Ali music over the course of the past week primed me for attending a Dr. (Brother) Cornel West talk. This was literally two buildings over from where I work, so once the work day was done, I sat in secret pavilion gardens scribbling sonnet gibberish to kill a little time, then walked over to get near the front of the admission line. This ensured a really great seat just beyond the designated V.I.P. section (of which I have never been invited, in any form, my entire life). I expected a lot from Dr. West, but they opened it up with a piano performance by a Dana Kristina-Joi Morgan, who absolutely pummeled the grand piano into transmission of full lounge, perfectly combining classical training with intuitive ability. The piece was amazing. Then this classically trained singer Terrence Tarver (who was wearing a nice suit… I am a not a suit guy, not even close, but my man looked sharp) who did “We Shall Overcome”. He had a strong style, and I’m not attuned to classical style singing, nor appreciation for the strong style he rocked, but the traditional song was fine, and added layers to the event, and then he and Morgan combined for a duet on the theme of letting your voice be heard, and the shit was so beautiful – despite being outside my preferred modes of musical appreciations – that I couldn’t help but be moved by it. That’s real fuckin’ art, when it hits you not in a blind spot but from an angle you think you’re impervious from, but it gets you anyways.
The experience of the performances had me thinking about what Ta-Nehisi Coates described as the black elegance he saw in his My President Was Black piece from a year ago. Coates has a rambling style that goes too long at times (as if I have any right of all people to complain about that, lol), but that idea definitely bounced around my head (and heart) as I took in the evening. From a social scientific standpoint, I am white, though that label feels awkward and clunky to me a lot of times when lumped into certain concepts of whiteness as applied in this post-(meta?)modern civilization we currently occupy. I’m not really into the idea of having to categorize my upbringing or lay out my own personal history in order for outside people to deem my claims of self-identity true or not, but let me just say, despite my socially scientific whiteness, I do not feel comfortable at a very basic level in many stereotypical white environments. I felt far more comfortable at this event, with its strong element of black elegance, than I do in most. And I don’t mean I felt like it was for me, but it spoke to me in ways most academic or intellectual events don’t. (In fact, I write a daily gambleraku – three lines of seven syllables each – in a little notebook, and as I sat there I wrote “more black intellectuals / more poor intellectuals / less same intellectuals”.)
The good Dr. Brother West worked through so many themes and issues, all at once, and in a meandering story-telling way, that it would do a disservice to his style to try and explain it. If you have a chance to see the man speak, I cannot encourage it enough. But one point he drove home was that the importance of diversity comes from the fact there are more traditions than the one dominant tradition we know (or the two dominant ones – if you think of it politically, or three or seven or thirty-six most dominant traditions). This applies not only to countering the traditional white supremacist (as it has come to be known) tradition of United States imperialism, with African and Latin traditions, as well as indigenous ones, which were the traditional before European colonialism upset the continental balance and created a new “traditional”, but also to even our concepts of whiteness, as white supremacists from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder are essentially tools for the powerful.
But the thing I loved most about Dr. Brother West’s talk was how it was all love. It came from the heart, and that was by design and purpose. When the man entered the auditorium, he was hugging everybody he even barely knew. As he spoke, he called out a number of people he knew, many in the V.I.P. section at first, but as he went, calling out a person here or there out in the commoner crowd, who had met coming in, or talked with briefly somewhere along the way, or I don’t really know. But you could tell that Dr. West loved people, and love The People, and was down for both.
Cornel West was one of the clergy who was in town last month to counter-vigil the August 12th alt-right neo-nazi rally. He’s the most prominent voice who has spoken up since then about how antifa efforts are not morally equivalent to neo-nazis, and how antifa likely saved lives that day (and weekend) that the local police were standing down from helping. So I found it interesting that, as Dr. West expounded upon the hypocrisy of elected officials for holding onto the spirit of what originally moved them to try and help The People, that a vacant seat in the V.I.P. section was filled almost an hour late by a local politician who has been directly complicit in the events that helped create the environment conducive to having the August 12th mayhem happen. Dr. West spoke very directly, before this politician arrived, about alleged servants of The People who say all the right words, but fail in their actions, and are motivated by ego, greed, and worse. It seemed to me, as a bystander of both the night’s presentation as well as the events of August 12th weekend (and the Klan rally the month before), that this local politician probably wouldn’t have been hurt by having Dr. West’s words wash over him. But he was an hour late, and missed the build-up of energy that had already transpired, not only in Dr. West’s portion but in the musical performances directly preceding. A flow of energy had been established, and had caused a number of standing ovations at appropriate parts. How this was lost on the late-arriving attendee was obvious when, after a line by Dr. West, he stood to begin a standing ovation, but no one else stood with him. The energetic levels had been previously established, and we were not at an apex.
Dr. West spoke of people telling him he was an optimist, and he answered, “As a 64-year-old black man in America, I’m not an optimist,” and described his philosophical nature as being “a prisoner of hope.” This, too, emanates from the heart, and echoed his statements throughout his talk about us living in a time of a “spiritual blackout”. (And for me, having just been absorbing all that Brother Ali all week, that was something that vibrated strongly in me.)
After his talk was over, Dr. West opened it up to questions from the crowd, and in true man-who-is-down-for-The-People fashion, he picked from raised hands way up the common sections. A student asked about how to think about Thomas Jefferson’s history, both good and bad, and Dr. West had already talked about how important humility and piety was for everyone, because we were all fallible. He had described himself earlier as a “recovered sinner with gangster proclivities,” and in turn – in acknowledging the enigma of Thomas Jefferson having fathered children with an enslaved woman (who he took over ownership of in patriarchal way as Sally Hemings – the enslaved woman – was inherited by Jefferson’s wife) and denying that branch of family’s rights to him as a forebear, with the scene of Huey Newton having Jefferson’s words read in 1966 when the Black Panthers were making a public claim to self-determination for black communities. You can’t demonize the historical individual entirely, suggested Dr. West, but you also can’t elevate them onto a pedestal and pretend that good side absolves them of their transgressions.
The local politician had his hand raised whenever Dr. West called for another question, but West seemed intent on picking people from further out amongst the masses than down front in the V.I.P. section. He held his hand up, hard and straight, during the second part of one of West’s extemporaneous answers, and I should also mention this local politician had been messaging through his smart phone throughout the short time he was there, even during the beginning of the answer to the question he ended up having his hand raised to ask the next one after. As someone who comes from roundtable oral tradition (drunks standing around a picnic table or old truck, talking shit), there is nothing worse than the person you can see standing there loaded to shoot themselves into the free-form conversation, attached to some moment somewhere upstream of the group stream of thought, and refusing to let it go that they must be heard. It’s a telltale sign of ego.
No worries though, because Dr. West was scanning the higher reaches of the auditorium for the last question before we all had to shut down for the night, AND THE LOCAL POLITICIAN (who had already arrived nearly an hour late) STOOD UP AND FORCED HIS QUESTION INTO THE AIR. Cornel West is a lover though, and he once the local politicians introduced himself and his role locally, West acknowledged him with love. When he had initially asked for questions from the audience, I thought to myself, “Do I have a question?” and I legit couldn’t think of one that I needed answered that didn’t feel like it would’ve just been me forcing myself to be part of the talk. But this local politician’s question sounded very much like somebody attempting to hear themselves say something out loud and be answered by a famous person than someone with a legitimate philosophical inquiry. He asked about how to battle white supremacy while dealing with white fragility, and also whether elected officials can do this through policy (which was obviously a self-serving question for him, and one that had been previously addressed partially during the portion of the talk he missed by being fashionably late).
Dr. West answered the policy part very simply, that no, it cannot be done without The People helping from the outside with their sheer strength of presence. Done on the inside alone, every politician soon becomes indebted to the mechanizations of politics, and the corporate hands that drive those machines. The irony was not lost on me of this answer when considering this local politician had very recently had public meetings overtaken by The People, who were demanding the immediate resignation of himself and all this political compadres for allowing the August 12th weekend to happen the way it did.
But in answering the white supremacy/fragility part, Dr. West went back to that theme that there are more than just the dominant tradition we easily recognize in this post-(meta?)modern world, even when it comes to “white traditions”. Dr. West mentioned Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School, as well as others taught at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, including a white guy sitting three spots to the left of this local politician, and how not everyone is fragile nor oblivious to the larger, obvious truths of an empire and its Yakubian tricks of white supremacy.
And this was where the event ended, and I was thankful for the entire performance because it helped me be okay with being a prisoner of hope and not feel like a fool. And I tried to take the spirituality of it – letting my heart do more thinking for me – to, for lack of a better term, heart, even when it came to the local politician who, so obviously from this essay, bothered the fuck out of me with his oblivious hypocrisy. To be human means to be fallible, and we’re all fucked up and problematic in probably more ways than one. That local politician is no exception, and I’m definitely no exception to that. But we can’t let that stop us from trying to cultivate a more heartfelt society that tends and cares for one another. There’s not really any sign it’s working, or we’re getting any closer to that, and in fact all data seems to suggest that the opposite is a more sensible conclusion. But just for the simple fact that I can’t give up on existence, and can’t give up on the basic pure and beautiful human potential that exists in every one of us who as a collective make up The People, I have to keep being a “prisoner of hope”. So I will, without shame.

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