Cornel West-scholar, activist, writer, preacher, teacher-sat down with me in New Orleans this summer at The Essence Music Festival, which we have held in the city’s Superdome and Convention Center over the July Fourth weekend for 11 years. Dr. West and I spoke about sisters’ and brothers’ pressing need to love one another more fully. We had our conversation in a place where Black love would be all that would hold us together after the city and the Gulf were deluged and left with mass devastation, death and despair.
The horror the world watched unfold in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was, as Brother West wrote in The Observer, “the most naked manifestation of conservative social policy towards the poor, where the message for decades has been: ‘You’re on your own.’ ” Poor Black people’s humanity, he added, has been rendered invisible, so they were not a high priority once the affluent had gotten out and the helicopters came for the few; most of the people stuck on rooftops and in shelters and left to die on the side of the road were poor and Black. “From slave ships to the Superdome was not that big a journey,” he observed. The Black middle class now has an even greater obligation, Professor West said, to actively love the 33 percent of Black children living in poverty and to fight for them. And “now that the aid is pouring in, vital as it is,” he cautioned, “do not confuse charity with justice. I’m not asking for a revolution. I am asking for reform. A Marshall Plan for the South could be the first step.”
Here, our conversation at the Convention Center about how we sisters and brothers can love one another more strongly and stand together on solid ground:
Brother Cornel, throughout our history here, Black love has been under siege: We don’t fully understand how 250 years of slavery along with continuing racism and oppression have deeply fractured our lives and relationships. Our young suffer in underserved schools and are corralled into prisons; disparities in health care, housing and employment cripple us. But strong partnerships will strengthen us so no forces arrayed against us can win. How can we create healthier, lasting relationships?
You don’t learn how to love without being courageous and free. The challenge for us brothers has been mustering the courage to really look at ourselves, examine ourselves and find out who we really are. In a certain sense this means learning how to die and allowing a new self to emerge. This is important in all relationships and necessary if we are to love in a substantive way. If you’re the same self you were before the relationship, you haven’t loved deeply enough.
This is a difficult task given that Black culture and this society don’t encourage emotional honesty, intimacy or self-love in men. So how do we begin to shift? How can brothers like you encourage more men to be who they truly are and be true to their emotional selves?
We have to form fellowships and networks of brothers who are trying to exemplify the courage to love. But courage is relatively sparse; people who want to be free are always a small group. Most would rather languish in conformity, complacency and even cowardice. But what is life for but to learn to love and be free and courageous?
Are you brothers having these very critical discussions among yourselves?
Absolutely! And the conversations are rich, because we have to be vulnerable. We have to be willing to be emotionally naked and to risk showing aspects of ourselves that we’re not always proud of. But the fellowship helps us overcome the fear we have of facing ourselves.
Is it difficult to be emotionally naked with women?
Yes. We brothers here in America wrestle with a profound rage. We have to be on the defensive all the time and ready for the next insult or assault. So it feels much more natural to pose and posture. When you’re on the defensive all the time, it’s very difficult to risk opening yourself and being vulnerable. But at the same time you say to yourself, I can’t go through life in this posing posture without really loving or knowing what it’s like to be free, because I’ll never know me.
What is it we women need to know about the interior lives of our men that is difficult for them to articulate?
I think a number of sisters already know, because you have studied the brothers, loved the brothers, reflected on the brothers-sometimes more than the brothers have reflected on themselves. But the major thing to know is how a mature response to the profound rage can be enacted and that it takes the form of a certain kind of love manifesting, both affirmation and acknowledgement, but also loving correction. Because it’s so easy for us brothers to manipulate sisters’ patience, as the sisters attune to our rage. If a woman is either too patient or even too submissive and deferential, she easily becomes an object of manipulation.
So we want sisters to acknowledge the rage, but we also need love, patience and correction. It’s the only way we will grow. Some brothers are denying the rage, the way America wants to deny the source of the rage, which is racism.
Many Black women are tired, disappointed and hurt. Some have run out of patience and have given up. Sisters want respect and fidelity, help with finances, chores and caring for the children. What can Black women do to build the supportive and self-respecting partnerships they deserve without sacrificing themselves?
The patience I’m talking about goes hand in hand with the willingness to be tender, to be sweet and kind without being manipulated by brothers. You want to do it in such a way that you still preserve your own sense of self, preserve your own integrity. Because both of us-men and women-are wounded. And I think in life the fundamental question is whether you choose to be a wounded hurter or a wounded healer. And choosing to be a wounded healer is always difficult, but it is spiritually mature, morally correct, and in the end the most rewarding.
Women feel most deeply wounded when we are betrayed by infidelity. Infidelity has dissolved as many relationships as economic pressures have, and this situation is having a disastrous impact on Black families. Is it just all about sex? Do some men just want multiple partners, or is infidelity driven by a hunger and a longing for something deeper that men and women need to understand?
I think it’s both. On the one hand there’s just a certain kind of greed, a sense of wanting everything, having one’s cake and eating it too. The whole culture sends the message-through the mass media and advertising-that you can have it all. But what they’re talking about is pleasure. They’re not talking about joy. They’re not talking about what you experience when you look into the eyes of your child, your mother, your loved one, your valued one. The one who will be there when you’re in a wheelchair, or in the hospital with you when you’re down and out. That’s the joy that is pushed to the background. We’re bombarded with the need to have pleasure, which encourages greed and a self that’s without constraint.
But on a deeper level, compulsive sexual behavior does bespeak a certain void that many of us brothers have. And we have a fear of dealing with the void, because it will require much more than just going to the next club or getting the next phone number. You’re going to have to truly deal with people you love, and change your life. You really have to have someone who you can be honest, candid and open with or you’ll end up drifting. Our relationships have to be substantive. If you just settle for what is slightly enough, sooner or later you’ll start questioning why you’re with this person.
My husband, Khephra, says so often that our great need is for brothers to grow up, mature and take responsibility for their relationships. Securing our children and recovering our communities demand that we all make major changes in our lives and in our relationships.
Historically, for Black people, religion has played an important role in getting us to think about changing our lives. Jesus changed many a Negro’s life; I can testify to that myself. This is not to say that the church isn’t flawed as an institution, and leadership needs to meet a lot of challenges. But there is no doubt that religion has made a lot of Black people examine themselves, put restraints on themselves, and become more responsible and accountable to something outside their egos. The breaking down of narcissism-that’s very much what we’re talking about: the greed of the self and the void that is still there, that narcissism doesn’t even fill. It’s after your 105th affair and you’re still lonely-it’s time to check yourself. Something is wrong.
Video images and messages in the music that degrade Black women are having a tremendously negative impact on our community-glorifying pimp life, portraying our young women as disposable sexual objects, and encouraging young men to be players forever, instead of even trying to mature. We seem so far away from our needed cultural shift.
We have to be real enough to tell the truth, to talk about the consequences of being a player, that in the face of death, dread and disappointment, the playing won’t fill the void that you have to come to terms with and that it’s actually going to reinforce it. If your mother dies, the strip club won’t provide the resources to deal with that loss. But we do see folks in hip-hop culture undergoing changes. For all we know, 50 Cent may end up a freedom fighter in the tradition of Malcolm, after certain kinds of experiences.
You’ve been married three times, and now you’re single. What have you learned from those unions?
I’ve learned that I need to confront my own fears and anxieties more candidly so that I really know who I am. So what I bring to the table is not looking for someone to fill my void, so that I’m not looking outward to find fulfillment, but already have a certain sense of it I can share with another. This takes a tremendous level of spiritual development.
I have to attend to keeping doubt and fear from getting in the way of my happiness and development. What gets in your way, and how do you get past what could hinder you?
The kind of calling that I have requires so much running, so much traveling and so much intense interaction with larger publics. This goes hand in hand with a certain loneliness in the depths of the soul. You have to take time to cultivate relationships. And when you’re on the kind of schedule I’m on, it’s very difficult to do that. And so I have to ask myself if I have a fear of wanting to take more time to cultivate a relationship or to reprioritize some of my life. Or is it easier for me to just stay on this intense schedule, and then think that somehow I’m going to succeed in a relationship?
And how do you answer that question?
Well, I think I know it in my head, but the question is, can I enact it in my own heart and soul and in my practice? Because as I get older, my schedule tends to intensify. I have two children, so I’ve already had my chances in a certain sense. My son, Cliff, is 28 and my little daughter, Zeta, is 5. Talking about joy-that’s as deep as it gets. I’ve got to make them the priority, no matter what, and give them some idea of what it’s like to be deeply loved, so they are cultivating the capacity to love others deeply as they make their journey.
What kind of relationship would you like to see your son, Cliff, have?
Well, I don’t want him to emulate me. I want him to find himself and be himself. But most of all I want him to be mature, to have a highly cultivated capacity to love, to be patient, to open himself and be vulnerable. And the same is true when my little daughter matures. She’s got to be willing and able to deal with the patriarchal ego and wounded pride of our men; and she still has to keep track of male humanity in such a way that she’s open to it, even as she deals with some of the scars that sadly will come just from being a woman in a patriarchal world.
Black children will continue to catch hell as long as we don’t partner better or love each other better. And until building healthy relationships becomes a priority, we won’t be able to handle the challenges undermining our progress.
We should always link any talk about Black love to the struggle for freedom and courage enacted. Black people have taught the world how to lament in the spiritual. We have taught the world how to deal with darkness and still smile. With our funk we taught the world how to boogie down and shake-even under Jim Crow. But we also need to learn to love each other.
It’s the most revolutionary thing we can do.
Yes, how we relate to one another is a deeply spiritual issue. And it is the key to our transformation.