Cornel West [From The Du Bois Institute's


It's very difficult for a civilization that tends to be immature and infantile, the Peter Pan mentality and Hollywood sensibility, to talk about race. Because race is not a race problem. The suffering. We tend to justify suffering, the same way class is, the same way gender is, the same way sexual orientation is. It's about unnecessary misery and we as a people have never been good at coming to terms with evil, unjustified suffering and unmerited beating. We'd rather come up with the most ingenious strategies of denial and evasion and avoidance and go on our Peter Pan-like way.

That's becoming a tendency in America. I don't say this to put America down. I'm describing us. That's why I think any serious discussion about race really ought to begin with our great artists because even though we march a lot, even though we push them to the periphery they ultimately are the most challenging truth tellers and whistle blowers, as it were.

Melville told us about this a long time ago. Do we have the resources to engage in not a conversation, but a real encounter? That's what I find even a bit strange. It's how do you have a conversation about suffering? You don't have a conversation about suffering, not unless, Malcolm X used to say you don't stab a man in the back nine inches and pull it out six inches and say let's have a conversation. [APPLAUSE]

You start off with dilapidated housing, you start with decrepit school systems, you start with inadequate health care, you start with jobs that don't pay a living wage. You start with people who have been taught to despise themselves and hate themselves and think that they are less than other people as human beings and their whole civilization was created around that kind of treatment of these people.

From 1976 to 1965, America came up with a whole host of ingenious ways of insuring that pervasive unjustified suffering and black suffering even though we're disproportionately black. It was red, it was brown, it was white working class,it was white poor, it was women, gays and lesbians and so forth. This is not cheap PC chit chat. We're talking about American history at the deepest levels. Twain reminds us, Brother Styron with Nat Turner courageous reminds us. Who will have enough courage to take that kind of risk to be vulnerable to say, I want to wrestle with this evil not over there but in me and its connection to what's over there, the white supremacy of each and every one of us, no matter what color. That's not a conversation on race. That's tears flowing, that's scars and bruises. That's honesty, that's candor, that's art, that's religion at its best. And it's only when we can forge enough Americans who are willing to take that kind of risk and be vulnerable - we used to call it social movements because that's the best that America's been able to do when it comes to that kind of evil. And they usually don't last long because the [UNINTEL] people snuff them out just like they put a bullet in Martin Luther King's head and they'll do it to the next one too more than likely so they only last for a short time. The question is, how do you create conditions under which enough Americans can say, this is not just a conversation, we have a state of emergency.

There is a sense of urgency here. We don't have a conversation when Kuwait was invaded.[LAUGHTER] We had action, we had a war. We don't have a conversation with some of these corporate elites who make decisions such that their entity is about to go under. They want action now and have a little dialogue and scholarship after. That's what happened. But when you have a state of emergency, 52% of black children not just living in material poverty but psychic emptiness. Can you imagine what that would be like, if 52% of all of America's children lived like that? We'd have a war against child poverty and child psychic pain. Look what's going on in South Boston this very moment among Irish brothers and sisters below 21 years old. 70 attempted suicides in the last five months and eight were tragically and sadly successful. This doesn't solicit a conversation. It's a dialogue led to some kind of assault, attack in the evil. Europe having a conversation about Nazi and they ain't no damn conversation. We needed to fight.

We need leadership, need cadre, need an organization and mobilization. That's the vantage point from the folk who are catching the hell rather than from the vantage point of oh, we want to talk about how we'd like to help. [LAUGHTER] A qualitatively different way of looking at it, it seems to me.

I end with the query of the greatest American playwright, Eugene O'Neil. You all might recall in 1946 he returned from California about to put on the most profound American play ever written, The Iceman Cometh. Not as lyrical as Long Day's Journey but much more profound in many ways about American civilization. They said, Mr. O'Neil, what is the play about? He said, it's about the question, what is the problem when a nation conquers the world and loses its soul? And it's not just rhetoric. To talk about race is fundamentally to wrestle with what kind of people are we really? What kind of nation are we really? Not just how many material toys we have, not just whether the economy's OK for a certain slice of the population, stock market and budget people and so forth and so on. What kind of people are we really? And that's why I say to my friend and brother and fellow citizen, President Clinton, that the budget deal is the conversation on race. [APPLAUSE]

 

 

 
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