Black Prophetic Fire

Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Buschendorf, (Beacon Press), 248 pages, released October 7, 2014

In Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf wrestle with two questions: “Are we witnessing the death of Black prophetic fire in our time? Are we experiencing the demise of the Black prophetic tradition in present-day America?”

Prophetic as it’s used here isn’t referring to to fortune-telling or predicting the future. The authors use prophetic in the biblical sense—a calling out of what is wrong in a society and a demand for change. West and Buschendorf see this tradition threatened by “the fundamental shift from a we-consciousness to an I-consciousness… a growing sense of Black collective defeat… [and] a Black embrace of the seductive myth of individualism in America.”

West and Buschendorf address their questions through a series of conversations (later edited by Buschendorf) each focusing on a diffferent Black prophet and the movement that prophet was a part of: Frederick Douglass; W. E. B. Du Bois; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ella Baker; Malcolm X; and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

For the reader, getting to “eavesdrop” on these conversations is an exhilarating and challenging experience. Both scholars have such extensive knowledge in multiple academic fields, that their dialogues become lessons by extension—not because the writers’ tone is didactic, but because few other thinkers would be capable of synthesizing and analyzing this disparate material.

Simply put, this is the most intellectually and ethically engaging book I’ve read in years. Topics of discussion range from the increasingly globalized visions of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the role of religion in each of these prophet’s lives; the differences between the charismatic leader and the group-centered leader.

The book has a sense of immediacy (and emergency) because these conversations are grounded in the events of the time in which they occurred. And what was occurring at the time that West and Buschendorf were conversing? The occupy movement. As a result we also see the authors move along a trajectory from excitement to disappointment to hopefulness.

If you have any interest in issues of justice and the power of individuals, this book is absolutely essential reading. It’s not just the figures featured in each chapter who are prophets—West and Bischendorf deserve the title of prophet as well.

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