Prisoners of Hope
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This essay appeared in " The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear," edited by Paul Rogat Loeb.
"He who has never despaired has no need to have lived." -Goethe
A specter of despair haunts late 20th-century America. The quality of our lives and the integrity of our souls are in jeopardy. Wealth inequality and class polarization are escalating – with ugly consequences for the most vulnerable among us. The lethal power of global corporate elites and national managerial bosses is at an all-time high. Spiritual malnutrition and existential emptiness are rampant. The precious systems of caring and nurturing are eroding. Market moralities and mentalities – fueled by economic imperatives to make a profit at nearly any cost – yield unprecedented levels of loneliness, isolation, and sadness. And our public life lies in shambles, shot through with icy cynicism and paralyzing pessimism.
This bleak portrait is accentuated in black America. The fragile black middle class fights a white backlash. The devastated black working class fears further underemployment or unemployment. And the besieged black poor struggle to survive. Over 30 years after the cowardly murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., black America sits on the brink of collective disaster. Yet most of our fellow citizens deny this black despair, downplay this black rage and blind themselves to the omens in our midst. So now, as in the past, we prisoners of hope in desperate times must try to speak our fallible truths, expose the vicious lies and bear our imperfect witness.
In 1946, when the great Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh was produced, he said America was the greatest example of a country that exemplifies the Biblical question, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul?" Artists like Harry Belafonte and Coltrane and Toni Morrison and others have been asking the same question, as the young people say, "How do we keep it real?" When we look closely at jazz, or the blues, for example, we see a profound sense of the tragic linked to human agency. This music does not wallow in a cynicism or a paralyzing pessimism, but it also is realistic enough not to project excessive utopia. It responds in an improvisational, undogmatic, creative way to circumstances, helping people still survive and thrive. How can we be realistic about what this nation is about and still sustain hope, acknowledging that we're up against so much?
When I talk to young people these days, there's a sense in which they're in an anti-idealist mode and mood. They want to keep it real. And keeping it real means, in fact, understanding that the white supremacy you thought you could push back permeates every nook and cranny of this nation so deeply that you ought to wake up and recognize how deep it is.
That to me is a very serious challenge. If we were to go back to 1965, and, say, put a few black faces in high places, and think that somehow the problem was going to be solved, today's young women and men would say to us, "Don't you realize how naive that is?" They wouldn't say that in the form, "We are victims." They'd be saying, "We're going to get around that some way, but it's not going to be the way you think. We're going to get around it the way most American elites have, by hustling, by stepping outside the law, by shaping the law in our interest, and so forth." And people say, "Oh, but that's rather downbeat talk, isn't it? That's not very hopeful." And the young people say, "Well, the level of hope is based on the reality." Now, what do we say back to them? Part of my response has to do with a certain kind of appeal to their moral sense. Part of it has to do with their connection to a tradition, from grandmother to grandfather to father to mother, that has told them that it is often better to be right and moral as opposed to being simply successful in the cheapest sense.
And yet we all know that there must be some victories, some successes, if we're going to keep alive this tradition and the legacy of King, Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson and others. To convince them that what we're talking about is real, what do we say? This is what I struggle with every day. I think that rage is an understandable and appropriate response to an absurd situation, namely, black people facing white supremacist power and hegemony. The question becomes, "How do you channel the rage?" Because it's going to come out. It's going to be manifest in some way. Too often it's manifested in cowardly ways not guided by political consciousness, in self-destructive ways, like physical violence. Malcolm's great insight, among many, was that we need to have some moral channels through which this rage can flow. Malcolm wasn't the only one who pointed this out; he learned it from Elijah Muhammad and Marcus Garvey and others. We also get it from other traditions, from King and A. Philip Randolph. This rage needs some targeting and direction. It has to reflect a broad moral vision, a sharp political analysis of wealth and power. Most important, it's got to be backed up with courage and follow-through.
When there's a paucity of courage and follow-through, you can have the broadest vision and the most sophisticated analysis in the world, and it's still sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. It's empty, if you don't have follow-through. Again this is where young people have so much to teach us. Because when they say, "Make it real," in part they're saying they want to see a sermon, not hear one. They want an example. They want to be able to perceive in palpable concrete form how these channels will allow them to vent their rage constructively and make sure that it will have an impact. What Malcolm, I think, was able to perceive is: Look, we're going to have to deal with black rage one way or another. Let's at least try to channel it.
The country is in deep trouble. We've forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. This is true at the personal level. But there's also a political version, which has to do with what you see when you get up in the morning and look in the mirror and ask yourself whether you are simply wasting your time on the planet or spending it in an enriching manner. We need a moral prophetic minority of all colors who muster the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, and the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, hoping to land on something. That's the history of black folks in the past and present, and of those of us who value history and struggle. Our courage rests on a deep democratic vision of a better world that lures us and a blood-drenched hope that sustains us.
This hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism adopts the role of the spectator who surveys the evidence in order to infer that things are going to get better. Yet we know that the evidence does not look good. The dominant tendencies of our day are unregulated global capitalism, racial balkanization, social breakdown, and individual depression. Hope enacts the stance of the participant who actively struggles against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of wealth inequality, group xenophobia, and personal despair. Only a new wave of vision, courage, and hope can keep us sane – and preserve the decency and dignity requisite to revitalize our organizational energy for the work to be done. To live is to wrestle with despair yet never to allow despair to have the last word.
Adapted from Cornel West, Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America (Beacon Press, 1997), and from West's comments in bell hooks and Cornel West, Breaking Bread (South End Press 1991). Cornel West's newest book is Democracy Matters (Penguin Books).