Wednesday, June 09, 2010

race matters

...by Cornel West

Race Matters first hit the bookstores in 1993; the second Random House Vintage Book edition "with a new preface by the author" is dated May 2001.

Cornel West is teaching at Princeton again; check his site for more information as it invariably evolves and updates.

race maters coverRegarding "matter" as verb and the fact that ethnicity, phenotype, genotype, color, gender and nationality are concerns race matters; it's about "matter" the noun when it comes to stuff concerning nationality, phenotype, regionality, color and accent; a few other burdens every one bears include stereotypes, assumptions, body type, dietary habits and sexual preference... all this relates to how seemingly subcultural gear interfaces with the supposedly dominant culture, how it can separate and divide, how at other times helps attract and cohere.

Especially in the race-aware, extremely socially stratified - yet almost as multicultural and multilingual as it gets - USA, Cornel West's arguments and conclusions are worth considering. As social scientist he deconstructs structuralists and behaviorists and like everyone else, realizes causality ain't all that clear cut or simple, nor are solutions. Oh, yes, of course, "people of color" have progressed hugely in this country, attitudes and practices have become more just and equitable all around, yet true equality remains rare anywhere. In his Preface 2001 Professor West explains "...The most immediate consequences of the recent experience of multiracial democracy is increasing class division and distance in American society and black communities. This is so primarily because the advent of the multiracial American regime coincided with escalating levels of wealth inequality." [xv]

Mary Chapin Carpenter sings "Stones in the Road"...
And the TV glowed that long hot summer with all the cities burning down // And the stones in the road flew out beneath our bicycle tires // Worlds removed from all those fires as we raced each other home...
Unlike Mary Chapin Carpenter, who is one of my favorite singers and musicians and sings the way I wish I could, during the days "Stones in the Road" is about, I was growing up in a very urban world that was trying to survive, make sense of the present and imagine a future amidst all those fires.

Writing first in the 1990s and doing some revisions closer to present-day 2010, in Race Matters Cornel West laments how particularly in the (lower-case) black community (but is there a cohesive black community still to be found anywhere?) "We have rootless, dangling people with little link to the supportive networks--family, friends, school--that sustain some sense of purpose in life." [page 9] and asks, "How do we capture a new spirit and vision to meet the challenges of the post-industrial city, post-modern culture, and post-party politics?" [page 11] He perceives an "eclipse of hope and a collapse of meaning" [page 19] and describes "Nihilism [as] ... the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important), lovelessness." [pages 22-23] Although there are "...new kinds of personal turmoil and existential meaningless in black America" [page 56] he could be talking about almost everyone who recently has been affected by what's politely called "economic downturn" folks who find themselves less structurally connected than they were, and especially less able to reconnect in ways that help rebuild a recognizable identity and reclaim a place in the world. Mary Chapin Carpenter has a song about "A Place in the World," too; it doesn't bring along with it stinging social commentary the way "Stones in the Road" does, but it speaks to everyone's deepest yearnings:
What I'm looking for, after all this time
Keeps me moving forward, trying to find it
Since I learned to walk all I've done is run
Ready, on my mark, doesn't everyone
Need a place in the world

Could be right before your very eyes
Just beyond a door that's open wide
Could be far away or in your own backyard
There are those who say, you can look too hard
For your place in the world ...

But to be alive is to know your purpose
It's your place in the world...
For sure I'm blogging about myself and the insane frustrations of not being able to achieve some kind of way to serve world and community. But I'd also point out recent statistics about more families preparing, eating and enjoying far more meals together, finding less-expensive and free recreation options, in some cases becoming emotionally and (of necessity) physically closer than they were, appreciating each other more.

Money talks! Cornel West says there's "...a crisis of too much poverty and too little self-love." [page 93] Quite a few blogs ago I mentioned especially when I lived and served in the inner city I observed ways people exist in many kinds of poverty, economic almost being the least, albeit often becoming the last straw. Race Matters doesn't mention how increased suburban racial and ethnic homogenization had left a permanent underclass living in neighborhoods like New York's Harlem and Boston's Roxbury, but in the olden days of racial segregation, African-American professionals were visible examples of financial and educational accomplishment and lived alongside single mothers on welfare. Teachers, attorneys, entrepreneurs and physicians were living example and inspiration to those less well-off who hadn't made it yet. In recent decades housing in general has become more economically than racially or ethnically stratified .

More optimistically, Cornel West mentions current multicultural popular culture in the USA that has expanded almost to cover the globe (seen any recent news or entertainment clips about mainland China or Japan?) [page 121]. A sign of acceptability (within limits) and desirability (that has its boundaries), it also is a kind of cultural assimilation; Professor West mostly means the way sartorial styles and particularly musical genres that originated in the black ghettos have mainstreamed. I've blogged a definition of ghetto as "nothing much goes in or out of it that wasn't there the day before." However, historically most of the money that's spent in isolated ethnic enclaves does leave and doesn't return. Ever. Interesting that "Malcolm X feared the culturally hybrid character of black life." [page 145]

Providentially also, during the past decade a significant number of African-Americans have purchased and rehabbed residential property in the Roxburies and Harlems of this country, gone back there to live (or moved there for the first time, since some of them grew up in suburbia or exurbia) and sometimes opened their own businesses or established franchises of national entities.

Jazz is music and jazz is "a mode of being in the world." [page 150] On the first Sunday of Advent 2008 for the start of lectionary year B, one of the local churches featured a Eucharistic liturgy featuring jazz orchestra and jazz choir. The lections included the "Little Apocalypse" of Mark 13 and one of my all-time favorites, Isaiah 64:1-9. Someone observed how jazz, prophecy, and apocalyptic go together so very well! As a musical genre, jazz can boast multicultural, multiethnic and multi-musical origins and most characteristically is rhythmically improvised over a particular harmonic ground. As a mode of being in the world, jazz living celebrates convergence of multicultural, multiethnic and multi-linguistic origins, with rhythms most characteristically and most authentically improvised over the particular ground we're on right now.

I'm blogging after my second reading of Race Matters, and probably will reread it in a year or two or three; it is good food for solid thought!
life stuff button
my amazon review: good food for solid thought

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