I had the pleasure of sitting in the front left aisle in the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Union Square for a conversation between Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, and Dr. Cornel West, activist, thinker, professor, and leader. As I looked at this rather diverse crowd, young professionals, burgeoning and veteran journalists, liberals and scholars alike, I had no choice but to think about the troubled but auspicious history of underrepresented people in this country. While we still have a long way to go with regards to civil rights, I’m still in awe that people had clamored in the hundreds to hear a Black intellectual (or two) speak his or her mind.
Cornel West doesn’t settle for anything less than being himself, and his track record proves that he doesn’t just stand at the pinnacle of Black intellectuality, but also the forefront of world intellectuals. Revered by those of us who consider ourselves thinkers, he surely makes a fortune just from speaking his mind alone, and never does it to the point where we feel he’s embarrassing us, no matter whether we disagree with his opinions (it seems we rarely do). Julian Bond, on the other side, doesn’t advertise himself as much, but helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, among a myriad of accomplishments. Soft-spoken but firm, Bond has a more authoritative tone when he speaks, but there’s still an undeniable passion there. They both represent two sides of the Black intellectual spectrum: the infamous and energetic versus the measured and methodical.
With that said, here are some finer points I’d like to highlight about the speech. (I skipped some of the less interesting parts. As hard as that is to imagine, I’m skipping some stuff too, as I might use this later for my own writing this week.)
- When asked about where how their prior experiences have shaped them, Julian Bond started by recalling that his father was a college educator and his mother was a school teacher, so he already had a firm ground in education. Conversations of race were prevalent and part of the dinner table, so he and his siblings were very race-conscious. Whenever they got the chance, they were encouraged to not only have a job, but also find time for social engagement, and by that, I presume he meant activism on some level.
Cornel West said something to the effect of being his mother’s child and his dad’s kid, how grateful he was for them, and if he even tried to measure how much love they had for him, he “couldn’t make it to the crack house if he wanted to.” With that in mind, he talked about some of the people who he currently associates with and those who came before. He doesn’t believe in a self-made man because every person, especially those of underrepresented populations, can’t be self-made men. It’s about those that came before that, and before that.
- When asked about the past, present, and future sustainability about the NAACP, Julian Bond strongly advocated for its future, even plugging NAACP.org in the process, and found those who’ve said that the NAACP is not in touch with what happens in today’s world are themselves out of touch. For one, they’re the only civil rights organization that holds 7 seats for members for and voted by members under the age of 25. Also, as many activists say, he said, “Just because you don’t see us doing anything doesn’t mean we’re not doing anything.”
Cornel West was also quick to point out that, indeed, the NAACP was an organization that started as a Black response to American terrorism. Instead of becoming an al-Qaeda-type of organization, NAACP chose democracy and inclusion of all perspectives towards one goal. Even in the midst of American slavery, when America chose to “niggerfy” Black people, people like Frederick Douglass wanted freedom not just for Blacks, but for everyone (instead of a system where they enslave Whites.) I believe he said right after the NAACP didn’t say, in response to America’s trying to niggerfy us, they didn’t say, “We’re going to cracker-fy you!” He’s got a million of those.
- On the subject of President Obama, Julian Bond said, “You know, people always say to me, ‘We already have a Black president. Aren’t you done?” That alone got the crowd riled up. Bond felt that not only is the work not done, we have to think about what’s next. “We’re not the National Association for the Advancement of 1 Black Person, we’re for all.” Poignant. As he said before, “NAACP chose democracy.” He felt proud for Barack and he’s done a lot of things right, but he questioned his decision-making a few times over the course of his few months in office. Would he choose to support the poor and helpless or would he choose Clinton-administration neoliberals who give all their monies to the rich? Right. (I also found this interesting with Tavis Smiley in the audience.) Just because he’s Black doesn’t mean he’s right, even though he’s done a lot of right things. Blackness is not rightness. Blackness is beautiful, but it doesn’t always mean it’s right.
Then, Julian Bond responded with a quip by current NAACP CEO Ben Jealous by saying, “If Barack wants to be Abraham Lincoln, then we’re going to be Frederick Douglass.” And of course, the work of NAACP is not done because, while we have a brother that can fly Air Force 1, his daughters can’t even swim in a pool in Philadelphia he said.
- On their respective futures, Julian Bond said, “I’m going to say this the way Jay Leno said in his farewell speech. When I started, my hair was black and my president was White. Now my hair’s white, and my president is Black. I hold the NAACP responsible for both.” Cornel West chimed in, about the future of the NAACP, “It’s about what do we do now?”, a theme across the whole conversation.
A fantastic afternoon. Yes, I got to see him, shake his hand, autograph my book, and get a few numbers (just kidding about the last one). I also got a chance to shake Julian Bond’s hand too. I think I’ll go be an intelligent Black man my damn self …
Jose, who’s good with what he’s done, but is about what he’s going to do now???
p.s. – These are the notes as I’ve taken them. Should you disagree or think I wrote something in error, feel free to leave me a comment, too.