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Throughout the last four centuries of their existence in the often oppressive climate of this country, black Americans have consistently relied on hope to shelter their souls, to guard their desires for a brighter future. Hope is the sentiment that seems to reign supreme in every aspect of black American culture; it is the word that appears again and again in countless songs, poems, speeches, and prayers. In “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Negro National Anthem, Americans of African descent are encouraged to “Sing a song, full of the hope that the dark past has taught us.” When the Rev. Jesse Jackson toured the nation soliciting support for his presidential campaign, it was hope that he urged people to keep alive.
Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America by Cornel West continues this legacy by reintroducing the concept of hope and presenting it as a necessary tool for future generations. The book, a collection of one-on-one conversations between West and nine of America’s most accomplished citizens, attempts to reveal the ways in which hope, and the spiritual perseverance that it inspires, have shaped the work and lives of Harry Belafonte, Bill Bradley, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the Revs. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. and Dr. James M. Washington, Wynton Marsalis, Patricia Williams, Haki Madhubuti, and Maya Angelou.
While Restoring Hope is a wonderful documentation of the thoughts, ideas, and recollections of these particular individuals, readers who pick it up in search of the same astute observations and critical theories that filled the pages of West’s earlier book, Race Matters, will be sorely disappointed. The conversationsall of which were held in various public forumssimply come across as typed presentations (complete with italicized notations of when audiences laughed or applauded) of these dialogues. What is lost, for the reader, in this translation is the momentum, the energy, that fueled the live discussions. In fact, one is left wondering which came first, the dialogues or the idea to compile them and publish them under the broad umbrella subject of hope. My guess is that the book was an afterthought.
Even so, all these voices could have been easily woven together to satisfy the book’s theme if a synopsis or a set of editorial objectives were presented in the preface or introduction. In the brief preface that West writes, he just states his belief that the country is in turmoil and then distinguishes the difference between optimism and hope, particularly the sort of hope that has sustained black Americans. “This hope is not the same as optimism,” he writes. “Optimism adopts the role of the spectator who surveys the evidence in order to infer that things are going better….Hope enacts the stance of the participant who actively struggles against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of wealth inequality, group xenophobia, and personal despair.”
Throughout the course of the book, these topics are only mentioned casually; they are never dealt with in a serious fashion. And, though the subtitle of the book blatantly announces that these conversations are about the future, in actuality most of them are weighted down by nostalgia, narrowed by the myopia of an overly romanticized past. One could, of course, easily argue that nothing can so clearly define the possibilities of a future as well as the realizations of a past. But those realizations cannot simply be presented, they must be challenged, filtered through some sort of analysis.
For instance, Angelou, one of the few women invited to attend and participate in the Million Man March, fails, in her eloquent recollection of the event, to investigate the reasons for the controversy among black women surrounding it. “And as I walked with the Fruits of Islam,” she says, “and my ownmy grandfather and my sonas I walked through, and the men, some young, old, plain, pretty, said, ‘We love you.’ This keeps me erect. What did it feel like? Sister, it was for you; it was for all the sisters. I was there for all of us. And every black man was there for all of us.”
This may sound wonderfully poetic, but it doesn’t quite explain why other black women were not welcome at the Million Man March. Nor does it begin to tackle the damage that was done by excluding black women. What does that, if anything, mean to the future of black male-female relations? Angelou completely sidesteps any deep meditation on issues of gender and the subject of sexism by offering a rather feeble theory on how slavery disempowered the black male and overinflated the image of the black female. What she doesn’t say, however, is why this theory is significant or how it is applicable to black life post-slavery, post-integration, post-feminism.
Likewise, while reflecting on the origins of his creative impulsethe films, books, and people that aroused his love of the artsBelafonte allows his vision of the future to be clouded by his yearning for the past. For 22 pages of a 31-page conversation, he talks about the urgency he felt as a youth, about how he came to understand that “our art was the substance of our soul and our survival because it was our art that permitted us to survive.”
Yet when, finally, Belafonte turns his thoughts to the book’s subjectthe futurehe disregards all the powerful, innovative art that is presently being created. This is what he has to say: “So, I tell you, yes, I feel that we have lost an awful lot. And we have done it in the name of integration….We have all these titles, but we’ve lost our humanity, we’ve lost our vision, we’ve lost our culture. And how do we get back to it? I do not see our leaders coming together some place and creating the new Du Bois, the new Robeson, the new Martin King, the new Fanny Lou Hamer, the new Ella Baker.”
In addition to being downright depressing, statements like these totally undermine the purpose of Restoring Hope. Perhaps these new leaders Belafonte is searching for are not trying to repeat history; perhaps they are creating change in ways that are fitting for the times in which they are living. A prime example of such leadership is Kelvin Shawn Sealey, the man credited on the book’s cover as editor. Sealey founded the Obsidian Society Inc., a nonprofit organization that “donates profits from African-American arts projects to the black community.” Ironically, Restoring Hope is the first project of the Obsidian Society.
It is important to note that the only interviewee in the book who challenges the status quo is also the youngest: Wynton Marsalis. At one point during their conversation, West suggests to Marsalis that “there’s a sense in which what you’re talking about is jazz signifying this mature wrestling with what it means to be human, and most Americans of any color are not interested in that. They muddle through, rather than confront the challenges.” To that, Marsalis, replies: “You know I don’t agree with that….I think that people, they’re just like me and you. We are all dealing with the same thing. When we know about something, and we know that it’s hip, that’s what we want. If we don’t know it’s hip, we don’t know. And I don’t think the people really want garbage.”
Now that’s the way to restore hope. CP