The Black Tradition: There is a lot to be learned from the Oppressed


Brother Cornel West frequently reminds us that he comes out of the Black tradition from African to America. Sometimes West calls that the “chocolate side of life.”

Not that long ago, I also  a wonder interview of Cornel West by Walter Isaacson  on Amanpour and Co in April of 2021 on PBS television.  Brother West started talking about one of his heroes—Martin Luther King Jr. According to West, King had a deep conversation with the ancients and the classics. He could do that, West says, because he learned it from a people who had been despised for 400 years and yet still tried to teach the world so much about love. So did John Coltrane, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison among others. All of them came from a people who had been traumatized for 400 years, but still at their best decided to be wounded healers rather than wounded hurters. He came from a people that had been terrorized for 400 years all the way up to Brother Floyd in 2020. What did that people do? They called for freedom for everybody, West pointed out. They did not create a black version of the Ku Klux Klan. “If they opted to be like the Klan there would have been a civil war every generation. There would have been terrorist cells in every chocolate centre of every city.”

West believes

“these black leaders focused on the tradition of the virtues, that embraces all, that is predicated on the humanity of each and everyone of us, each human being made in the likeness of God, that gives us a value, a worth, a sanctity, a dignity. That has been the best of black leadership, and once that black leadership has been reduced to just a quest for dollars, and smartness, rather than justice, and deep commitment to love and compassion, then you lose the best of the black tradition.

West does not say all black leaders have demonstrated the best of that tradition.  But these, and others, have done that. West said the best of the black freedom tradition has been the” levelling of the democratic low”. In the 2020 presidential election in America it was the votes of blacks, particularly the votes of black sisters that handed the victory to Biden. A majority of whites voted for Donald Trump!  58% of white men and 53% of white women voted for Trump.  Whites should never forget that. Trump of course always bragged about being a winner and his worst insult to others was  that they were “losers”. West, like Jesus, always wanted to be on the side of the low—i.e. the so-called losers.

Trump tried to appeal to the black voters on the basis that the average income of blacks in American had never been better in comparison to whites than it was during his administration. While this might be true, according to West,  it was one of the few good things about his administration, and he could not persuade blacks to abandon the quest for justice merely for dollars. That is what I have called the religious quest for justice.  Were it not for the black voters, particularly the black women voters, America could have had Trump again and would been even closer to a neo-fascist America! As a black man, West was proud of that.

As West said,

“the best of black folk has always been about the broadening of not just rights and liberties but of the equality of our relations to one another. It’s also about the Hesed that great concept that comes from the genius of Hebrew scripture.  That loving kindness is to be spread to the orphan, and widow, and fatherless, and motherless, and to be spread to the weak and the vulnerable. And if you give up on that, it becomes simply might makes right. And if you give up on that it becomes simply survival of the slickest.  If you give up on that and push the 10 Commandments away and take the 11th Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not get caught, thou shall take over by any means, and make as much money, and status and spectacle as you can’, you lose your democracy you lose your soul.”

To save your soul, you must rally to the low, rather than the high and mighty. Is that not exactly what Jesus always did.  And the Hebrew Prophets. We should all ask ourselves, what side are we on?

Leave a Reply