Pride And Platitudes

If You're Looking To Cornel West For Inspiration, Don't Hold Your Breath.

By Fred DeLovely

Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America, by Cornel West, edited by Kelvin Shawn Sealey (Beacon Press). Cloth, $23.

IN THE FALL of 1993, an altruistically minded young writer by the name of Kelvin Shawn Sealey approached Dr. Cornel West, the noted author of several books dealing with race relations in America, including the best-selling Race Matters, with a compelling proposition: to set up a non-profit foundation with the singularly ambitious goal, in Sealey's own words, "to work toward the improvement of the African American condition." Inspired by the example of Paul Newman's "Newman's Own" corporation, which has donated nearly $70 million to children's charities over the past 17 years, Sealey envisioned a network of non-profit corporations that would "take on projects in the literary, entertainment, new media, and finance industries," to the end of "improving and sustaining the material conditions of Americans of African descent in the critical areas of the arts, education, and the social services."

Books Intrigued by the idea, West pledged his full support, and within two years' time Sealey's vision, now known as The Obsidian Society Inc., was born.

Now, just two years after its founding, The Obsidian Society has produced its first for-profit venture, Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America. Fashioned from a series of public dialogues between Dr. West and other prominent public figures such as poet Maya Angelou, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and former Senator Bill Bradley, Restoring Hope was conceived as an attempt to, in West's own words, examine the "specter of despair (that) haunts late 20th-century America." To that end, West begins each of the book's nine conversations by introducing the concept of "hope," a concept he sees as crucial to understanding the diminished state of American civil society.

Disappointingly, however well-intentioned or seemingly well-suited to the subject, the majority of West's correspondents seem either unwilling or incapable of uttering any but the most shop-worn platitudes on the topic.

In response to West's question What are the resources of hope? for example, Bill Bradley, ever the evasive politician, responds: "That one of the things that is a uniquely American characteristic is the capacity of our political institutions to allow new generations to re-create themselves in the eyes of the ideals of the founders." While this curiously circular reply may, in some broad, theoretical sense, contain a kernel of truth, it hardly inspires the kind optimism one would expect from a book entitled Restoring Hope. Likewise, Maya Angelou's invocation, however well-meaning, of the tired old saw "it still takes a whole village to raise a child" can't but ring a little hollow. Wasn't it Hillary Clinton, after all, who popularized the phrase in preemptory defense of the Clinton administration's recent gutting of welfare programs? That Bradley and Angelou--both veterans in the art of high-minded, feather-light oratory--would thus stoop to such saccharine sermonizing is none too surprising.

Moreover, there's a pronounced tendency on the part of all but one or two of the speakers to engage, to some degree, in "blaming the victim." Repeatedly the reader is presented with solemn recitations of incarceration rates, plaintive pronouncements on the loss of "integrity," and, most difficult to swallow (given the economic well-being of all but a few of the invited speakers), direful invocations of the reign of unabated avarice. Bradley's tacit indictment of the "new generations," who, it would seem, have thus far failed to "re-create themselves," is just one of many such instances.

Despite Restoring Hope's peculiar deficiency with regard to its intended aim--namely, to dispel the "specter of despair"--there is yet much to recommend it. In particular, the stories and recollections that many of the speakers share strike a chord of inspiration and, well, hope. Harry Belafonte's engaging account of seeing, for the first time, a black man lauded as a hero on film, for example: "That had a profound effect upon me," Belafonte says. "I had never, ever, ever seen a black man kill a white man. Certainly never as an act of great heroism and nobility." This is precisely the sort of cultural storytelling we take for granted--voices often unrecorded, which Restoring Hope does well to preserve.

Poet and educator Haki Madhubuti's account of his first day in the military is equally compelling: A drill sergeant snatched Madhubuti's copy of Paul Robeson's Here I Stand from his hands, tore the pages out, and gave them to the recruits to use as toilet paper. That morning, he recounts, "I decided that I am African, I am black, and I would never, ever apologize for being a black African again."

Restoring Hope succeeds on other levels as well. In particular, West's discussion of the trend to diversity with the Reverend Drs. James A. Forbes Jr., and James M. Washington, is both complex and enlightening. "If your diversity doesn't have any substance to it...if it isn't genuine, then you're playing a trick on people...And the worst thing you could do is dispense that kind of cheap grace in the name of diversity," West declares.

West's debate with Patricia Williams, a Columbia law professor, about the nature of law in America is equally interesting. "The law is history of subtle narratives," Williams states. "The idea that somehow critical race theorists introduced storytelling into the legal academy is ridiculous."

Ultimately, though, and despite the odd flashes of philosophical insight and lively storytelling, Restoring Hope's failure to deliver on its hope-bound premise--to say nothing of its highly erratic editing--leaves one feeling a bit exploited...almost as if, in the final accounting, it's nothing more than the for-profit venture for which it was originally conceived. TW

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