On the Conversation with Cornel West, Michael Moore & Esther Armah
The Beginning is Near conversation with Cornel West and Michael Moore presented by the Brecht Forum at Hunter College Friday night, really should’ve included more of Esther Armah’s voice. Although simply the moderator who for the most part sat silently poised between the two entertaining men (each for very different reasons obviously)—Esther Armah, a tall and rather glamorous woman clearly had much to say. The WBAI radio host, international journalist and playwright (Esther wrote Saviour? the play that tackled the difficult topic of white privilege, produced by Voza Rivers at the Dwyer Cultural Center last year) is not only a brilliant conversationalist but she certainly has the courage to push through complex, hot button topics with prominent public figures, like white rage & privilege, both pretty controversial in the Obama era of politics. Thanks to Esther, those of us in the audience got the honor of watching Michael Moore squirm as he slowly arrived at his own understanding—an “epiphany” of sorts— of what it means to be a white male in America. It was equally captivating to observe Cornel West zigzag over the subject and return to a more comfortable mode of race talk which examines (and often criticizes) people of color for having “sold out,” or having forgotten their moral (and racial) obligation to fix things.
Why are discussions of white privilege so hot tempered and even more so in the age of Obama politics? Is it because Obama is really half white and half black, but touted (and self-identified) as the first black president? Or is it because it’s about shifting our focus from the victims to those who have benefitted from racism & white supremacist policies? According to Francis Kendall, diversity consultant and author of Understanding White Privilege (2006), whites have created and sustained a pathological system in which their positive sense of self is based on the negative sense of someone else. Therefore, says Kendall, it’s important that whites take responsibility to understand their individual and collective role in maintaining a system of white superiority. That is the first thing. Then, there’s linking this responsibly to individual and institutional practice and policy. It’s asking whites to fix it. This is new territory for many and often dismissed as left wing rubbish. In a recent online dialogue I participated in on the retention of people of color in the work place, I was slammed when I brought up white privilege. I was told (by a white, male diversity professional) that white privilege has nothing to do with retention issues, that a conversation about white privilege makes people of color feel unwelcomed and would be interpreted in an organization as “trying to make white people feel guilty.” No wonder discussions of race focus solely on the effects on those who are oppressed and not on the oppressors or beneficiaries, almost as if they don’t even exist.
Back to the 68th street assembly hall. Overall the conversation with Cornel West and Michael Moore was a stimulating voyage into the minds and worlds of two distinct gentlemen, each coming from completely different backgrounds, opposite in every way; from physical appearance to personality to political strategy—and yet, the juxtaposition of them both on stage personifies the juxtaposition of themes that continue to stir the debate—a debate that we “liberals” like to call “Occupy Wall Street.” While I personally harbor conflicting opinions about the Occupy movement, I do credit it for giving us a popular all-encompassing name, a hashtag if you will, or better yet—a unifying platform from which so many can coalesce and coexist. And that was the point, I gather of bringing Cornel West and Michael Moore together for the evening. We need a unifying platform in spite our diversity.
Let me give you a metaphor: Clink, clink, clink, draaaag, clink, clink, clink. It’s the sound of a fork hitting against the sides of a ceramic bowl as eggs are being whisked, tiny bubbles begin to froth at the sides, each flick of the wrist causes some spillage then a pour and sizzle…followed by a flip. The conversation was fantastically organically scrambled, multiple messages trying to blend, quick, inevitable, hits and misses, ending in an imperfect mound of yellow which ultimately became the centerpiece for a delicious and hearty breakfast. What a better way to mark the “beginning” of a new day?
Spillage. Like Michael Moore’s rage directed at Obama. Moore’s generally mellow voice reverberated throughout the assembly hall as he screamed into the mic, “What part of the equation didn’t Obama understand?” He was referring to the fact that Obama’s bi-partisanship agenda has backlashed and consequently pissed off millions of voters who got him into office, many who would have then identified themselves as leftist. (I wonder what they would call themselves today.) “I want the black Obama not the white Obama in the White House,” Moore yelled. If my memory serves me correctly, this was even before Esther brought up the topic of race, and maybe it was Moore’s comments that compelled her to do so, but either way I couldn’t help wince when Michael bashed Obama politics and deployed the old “oreo cookie” metaphor—black on the outside, white on the inside. That is— if he were really black, he would be an honest liberal, or in the very least a true democrat. Are blacks born into a political party or as Moore reiterated later in the conversation—are blacks intrinsically more conscientious and more likely to stand up for human & civil rights? Is the white half of Obama pulling him down? Really? What is it about our perception of race that skews our expectations of people and their moral obligation in society? Do we expect more of Obama’s presidency because he’s black when in a different arena, say the classroom or the boardroom, we expect less because of the same profiling?
Although Dr. West has been criticized for his disdain for Obama’s centrist politics which he similarly links to Obama’s “fear of free black men” due to his “white cultural formation,” he did end up responding diplomatically to Moore by explaining that blacks have historically been at the forefront of revolutionary politics because of their history of oppression, that any person or group continuously oppressed will inevitably react accordingly. Unless… unless they are victims of the “dumb down culture,” aka “weapons of mass distraction.” Many black folks, just like many Jews, according to Dr. West—have forgotten their suffering. They no longer remember history, are “up for sale,” and very unlikely to challenge the status quo. “Our young people no longer have a sense of three dimensional time, past-present-future,” West said and then added, “We must remember those who suffered so that their afterlife is at work.” Cornel West who is now in New York teaching at the Union Theological Seminary in Harlem and touring with Tavis Smiley to increase awareness on poverty, leaned over into the audience and said in his feast of poetic rap-rhythm, “It’s about having compassion for those who’ve been crushed but not destroyed.”
Did it feel like we were talking about many different issues at once? Yes, absolutely. But it’s not surprising since any real conversation about the current state of affairs, the role of capitalism in our country, the Occupy movement and the corporatization of our democracy— will unleash this volcanic lava, pressured and sometimes sealed, but ultimately ready to explode at any given moment. It is inevitable as we are now witnessing the culmination or “the beginning,” if you will, of civic discourse rooted in the great intersection of identity politics: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion— to name a few. And I haven’t even mentioned how this convulsion of variables is systematically twisted, dismembered and reassembled in today’s media. Neither have I discussed the role of education in the mix, because just as Cornel West said—what about the youth? Out of what appeared to be an overwhelming response from the audience handing in questions on small index cards (there must have been at least a hundred questions!) the topic of education, the privatization of schools and the systematic slashing of arts & critical thinking programs were at the top of the list.
But, I will save that discussion for next week. Until then, I leave you all with a few questions: Who are the dominant voices in the pundit community that shape how we understand the issues surrounding race, politics and education? What does it say about which voices we value as a society? How do we validate them? And finally, how can we prepare youth in our schools to enter the conversation, navigate this flailing public discourse to have an impact on these important issues?
“We do it with the old perennial reality of love.”