Book Excerpt: 'Hope on a Tightrope' By Cornel West

Chapter 1

We are now in one of the most truly prophetic moments in the history of America. The poor and very poor are sleeping with self-destruction. The working and middle classes are struggling against paralyzing pessimism and the privileged are swinging between cynicism and hedonism. Yes, these are the circumstances that people of conscience must operate under during this moment of national truth or consequences.

We have witnessed the breakdown of the social systems that nurture our children. Our rootless children—not just the two-out-of-five black and brown children who live in poverty, but the one-out-of-five children in America who live in poverty. We are talking about the state of young souls: culturally naked, with no safe moorings, these children have no cultural armor to protect them while navigating the terrors and traumas of daily life. Young people need a community to sustain them, so that they can look death in the face and deal with disease, dread, and despair. These days, we are in deep trouble.

The audacity of hope won the 2008 Democratic primary, yet we are still living in the shadow of the vicious realignment of the American electorate, provoked by the media's negative appeals to race and gender and the right-wing propaganda that bashes vulnerable groups. The effects of the U.S.'s economic contraction that began in 1973 have only intensified in the new global economy. Even as deep-democratic struggles began in the mid-1990s in response to corporately controlled globalization, we faced an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from working people to the elite and the gutting of the nation into public squalor and private opulence.

Culture, in part, provides people with the tools and resources to steel themselves against adversity and convinces them not to kill themselves or others. This is the reason why I am preoccupied with a sense of the tragicomic. At the moment in which we must look defeat, disillusionment, and discouragement in the face and work through it—a sense of the tragicomic keeps alive some sense of possibility. Some sense of hope. Some sense of agency. Some sense of resistance. We have not been too successful in persuading people not to kill themselves or others: from the police homicide of Sean Bell in New York City to the torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, from street thugs to corporate thugs—people of color, women, youth, the working poor, gays, and lesbians are being targeted. I call it the gangsterization of America.

This is what happens in moments of cultural decay. This is what happens in moments of cultural breakdown. Moreover, to talk about cultural resistance at this time means to ask: How do we analyze this present moment and discern some sources of vision and hope? I look at culture from the vantage point of a black freedom fighter. We are not going to be here that long. Culture moves us—it helps create the structures of meaning, feeling and purpose that keep the deep democratic tradition alive.

As bad as things are, we have faced worse conditions. We have always had courageous people willing to stand up and tell the truth, expose lies and bear witness to love and justice. We still have people who say they are willing to build on this tradition.

As our society faces deeper and deeper crisis, progressives are beginning to be heard again. People are looking to a variety of different voices, and visions for leadership and direction, about how we can overcome these situations. For too long, Americans looked to the right. We have looked to neocons, Republicans, Reagan, Bush and Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. They have pulled us deeper into a dark, bottomless pit. Yet if people are interested in looking somewhere else, progressive possibilities are reemerging.

Such progressive formations have been the history of black folk. There was slavery. Then there was a Constitution that never used that word but counted black bodies as three-fifths of a man. While America was celebrating its liberty, 22 percent of the inhabitants of the 13 colonies were enslaved. In 1829 you had abolitionist David Walker saying that eventually America will have to deal with its white supremacist slavery. It will end up a house divided against itself, split down the middle with war and bloodshed. They said he was crazy. He was dead within nine months after he published the great "Walker's Appeal." Thirty-some years later, his prophecy came to fruition. America had to come to terms with its white supremacy in the face of major catastrophes and war.

The Union won the war. White supremacy won the peace. After the Compromise of 1877, which ended Southern Reconstruction and began the era of Jim and Jane Crow, it was, "Here we go again!" From Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr., sooner or later, just as you had to break the back of white supremacist slavery to save democracy, you will have to break the back of American apartheid or you will lose your democracy.

In the 1960s, while black youths were being hosed down in the streets, black folk came to the rescue again. Dr. King and other civil rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Robert Parris Moses helped save democracy in America. There was the hypocrisy of America talking about freedom while oppressing black folk and noting that the Soviet Union had no freedom because it repressed and subjugated its citizens. Black folk came to the rescue.

What if they had killed Douglass in 1848? Or if Dr. King's house had been bombed a few minutes later in 1956? If Dr. King had returned early from that meeting with precious Coretta and the children, they would have all been killed. America would probably be much more authoritarian, if not crypto-fascist.

Now here we are in 2008. America finds itself looking to its blues people again to provide vision to a nation with the blues. That is a source of hope. Yet hope is no guarantee. Real hope is grounded in a particularly messy struggle and it can be betrayed by naïve projections of a better future that ignore the necessity of doing the real work. So what we are talking about is hope on a tightrope.