Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf, Black Prophetic Fire (2014) — a Book Review

© 2015 Peter Free


21 September 2015



Recommended to societally conscious readers


Cornell West and Christa Buschendorf’s Black Prophetic Fire is an inspiring work, best suited to those who recognize that current social and economic conditions worldwide could use some fixing. Be warned that the book’s content and admirably scholarly presentation narrow its appeal to equivalently change-minded audiences.


Black Prophetic Fire takes the form of knowledgeable conversations between West and Buschendorf about the nature of the freedom-oriented advocacy put forward by six historically towering African-Americans:


Frederick Douglass


W. E. B. Du Bois


Martin Luther King Jr


Ella Baker


Malcolm X




Ida B. Wells.


An arguable flaw in this presentation


The authors’ did not incorporate substantive bits of the discussed figures’ statements into the book’s text.


Readers are left to infer these historic people’s advocacy positions, based on what West and Buschendorf have to say about them. In my case, having been previously very familiar with everyone but Ella Baker, this was not a barrier. But it could be for someone completely new to the field, in which case using Wikipedia to provide an overview of each might be helpful.



Professor West’s premise — a way of evaluating whether Black Prophetic Fire might appeal to you


Succinctly stated in his Introduction:



Black people once put a premium on serving the community, lifting others, and finding joy in empowering others. Today, most Black people have succumbed to individualistic projects in pursuit of wealth, health, and status.


The fundamental motivation for this book is to resurrect Black prophetic fire in our day . . . .


Without the black prophetic tradition, much of the best of America would be lost and some of the best of the modern world would be forgotten.


© 2014 Cornell West and Christa Buschendorf, Black Prophetic Fire (Beacon Press, 2014) (at pages 1-2) (extracts)


I agree with this, both as to spiritual principle and historical accuracy. If you do not, you probably will not like the book.



Most of Black Prophetic Fire takes the form of conversation


For example, this one about Ella Baker — in my extracted form:





[Ella Baker’s] life’s work is more difficult both to access and to asses. First, as a highly skillful organizer, she often became an indispensable member of the organization for which she chose to work, but she never stood in the limelight of the movement.


To Baker, the ideal activist was not the charismatic figure of the prophet who mobilizes the masses by mesmerizing speeches but an unassuming person who helps the suppressed to help themseves. As she put it in 1947, “The Negro must quit looking for a savior, and work to save himself.”




I don’t think that even Douglass, in all his glory, and Du Bois, in all of his intellectual genius, and King, in all his rhetorical genius, have the kind of commitment to the grassroots, everyday, ordinary people’s genius in this sense.


When Ella Baker says that the movement made Martin, Martin didn’t make the movement, she is absolutely right, and for me the greatness of Martin King had to do with the ways in which he used his charisma and used his rhetorical genius and used his courage and willingness to die alongside everyday people. The critique of Martin would be that the decision-making process in his organization was so stop-down and so male-centered and hierarchical that one could have envisioned a larger and even more effective mass movement, especially when it came to issues of class, empire, gender, and sexual orientation.


© 2014 Cornell West and Christa Buschendorf, Black Prophetic Fire (Beacon Press, 2014) (at pages 90-93) (extracts)



Nuanced merit


The authors touch on the problem presented by one’s position regarding the perfectibility versus imperfectibility of humankind.


To my mind, this conundrum affects:



(a) how leadership should be exercised, so as to effectively motivate and manage change


and equally impacts


(b) the kind of institutions that one would create, so as to cope with the perfectibility/imperfectibility issue.


West and Buschendorf skimmingly broach element (a), but understandably not (b).


In addressing Du Bois’ elitist rationality, they partially equate his rational approach to today’s Noam Chomsky’s:





[B]rother Noam, deep down he is a Cartesian . . . . So he believes in not just the power of reason but the power of transparency and the power of clarity as themselves fundamentally just agents of change. Beckett [see here], Chekhov [here], Schopenhauer [here], they are not part of his world. I think he has a limited grasp of the role of the nonrational, and so he easily pushes it aside . . . he really believes that once people are exposed to the clear analysis that he has, somehow they will catch on.




That’s what Du Bois believed.




For a while, that’s right. He really believed that it is ignorance standing in the way.


© 2014 Cornell West and Christa Buschendorf, Black Prophetic Fire (Beacon Press, 2014) (at page 84) (extracts)



Proper footnotes and a valuable bibliography


Black Prophetic Fire contains thoughtful footnotes. I frequently stress the value of such. A scholarly work does a considerable amount of nuanced processing in these. And they provide roadmaps to sources that readers may benefit from.


The appended bibliography is very helpful, also.



Black Prophetic Fire is a masterful and valuable work


I recommend it without qualification to anyone of thoughtfully passionate, societal mind.