‘We Better Do Something’: Toni Morrison and Cornel West in Conversation

‘We Better Do Something’: Toni Morrison and Cornel West in Conversation

‘We Better Do Something’: Toni Morrison and Cornel West in Conversation

In 1993 the Nobel Prize-winning author and the Princeton professor sat down to discuss blues, love, and politics.


On March 24 at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, The Nation Institute sponsored a conversation between Toni Morrison, recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize, member of The Nation‘s editorial advisory board and author of Love, Beloved, Paradise, Jazz, and The Bluest Eye, among other books, and Cornel West, professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton, Nation contributor and author of Race Matters and many other books and articles. The following is an abridged and adapted version of that conversation.   —The Editors


Cornel West: We want to begin just by raising the general query of how you would characterize our historical moment.

Toni Morrison:  I feel two things at the same time: terrified and melancholy, and I think in both domestic and foreign affairs it’s frightening–the altercations, the agenda. There have been other frightening moments, but the melancholy that I feel now is about a country like this with the best shot in the world, that a country like this with a certain kind of plenitude and intelligence and ambition and generosity and some history from which to learn, could, indeed, throw it all away and become the worst parts of its own self.

Cornel, I see you sitting here nodding and frowning, but what is curious to me is that whenever I read you, as well as talk to you, and as clearsighted as you are and as aware as you are of these difficulties, you always seem to be something I used to be but no longer am, optimistic. And since I’m rapidly losing that quality, maybe just because of age, I wanted to ask you why.

CW: I’ve always viewed myself as a person with a deeply sad soul but a cheerful disposition. So that when you say you feel terrified and melancholic, that describes my situation too, but it’s just that I always believe that struggle and the unleashing of moral energy in the form of moral outrage can make a difference no matter what the situation is. And it may have something to do with just having a blues sensibility, a tragic orientation, a sense that no matter how mendacious elites may be, they can never extinguish the forces for good in the world. And if that’s true, then they’re mighty but not almighty.

And in some ways that’s a characterization of just being black in America, it seems to me. Since 9/11 all Americans feel unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated, and that’s been the situation of black folks for 400 years. In that fundamental sense, to be a nigger is to be unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated. And now the whole nation is niggerized, and everybody’s got to deal with it. And I think we’re at a moment now in which a blues nation has to learn from a blues people.

I’m thoroughly convinced, and one of the reasons why I think that your work is not just powerful and monumental but will be read hundreds and hundreds of years from now, is that it’s really been the artists who have exercised what the Greeks called parrhesia, frank speech, free speech, plain speech, truth-telling in a sentimental nation. And when I read your work, I say somebody’s still serious about telling the truth about the country, and it’s painful, it’s unnerving, it’s unhousing, but somebody’s still telling the truth. And I think that’s true for so many artists. You’ve got a blues sensibility, don’t you?

TM: A very complicated sense of blues as it morphed or changed or influenced jazz, but for me it’s a question of not whining. The blues is about some loss, some pain and some other things. But it doesn’t whine; even when it’s begging to be understood in the lyrics, the music contradicts that feeling of being a complete victim and completely taken over. There’s a sense of agency, even when someone has broken your heart. The process of having the freedom to have made that choice is what surfaces in blues. I don’t see it as a crying music.

And then what happened later with African-American music was what I was trying so hard to capture in the book Jazz, which was not just to put it in the so-called period but to have the text represent the anarchy, the originality, the improvisation, the practice, the anger, the daring of the music. It was very modern in the 1920s, that sound. There was an enormous political shift in the lives of many, many black people post-Reconstruction, post-World War I. Whole towns were wiped clean of black people, running from want, running anywhere. Mostly to cities. And along with that came these sounds, and, of course, this city was legendary in terms of receiving this migrated black person.

I’m informed deeply, I think, by the music. I know I am. But the point of the novel is to not re-render it; it’s to take from it its compositional qualities, its ferocity, its seduction, its temptation and the fact that it was so enormously complex.

CW: I think one of the things that America as a whole–especially the imperial elite who rule us at the moment–is going to sooner or later have to come to terms with is that those of us who have a blues sensibility, who are committed to democracy and equality, we’re able to proceed like the blues artists. And you make this wonderful point in one of your interviews, you talk about the fact that there’s no vengeance and bitterness in the blues, even though there’s a dogged determination. And when you respond to terrorism, if what is motivating you is the bitterness and the vengeance, then Shakespeare says vengeance is sweet but short-term, whereas the blues folk say it’s about justice and it’s about looking beyond so you don’t reinforce the cycle.

And there’s a spiritual strength that’s shot through your life and works that’s connected to that blues sensibility that either America must learn, or else America will find itself caught in the same cycle of vengeance, in which we all slide down a slippery slope to chaos. And whether, in fact, America has what it takes is an open question. If America doesn’t, then it just becomes another empire that, like the ebb and flow of all empires, decays and declines, and we’re at each other’s throat.

TM: What is this absolute obsession with violence? I mean, violence is two things. First of all, it takes a certain amount of courage, physical courage, but it also requires a certain laziness of intellect. So it’s both easy and hard. It’s such a child’s view, as is the puny language that accompanies it. I guess I shouldn’t dump that on children, but it certainly is not adult.

The language of literature that is bellicose, that is warlike, is the prized language. The White House likes the word “robust.” Robust. It’s carnal, it’s sexual, it’s sensual, whether it’s The Iliad or Ulysses or Chanson de Roland, you know, that language, or the Churchillian language. Anything opposite that is understood to be weak, wimpy, appeasing, feminine. On the other hand, just in terms of language alone, it always seemed to me that the language of Gandhi, the language of Martin Luther King, the language of Mandela, that’s seemed to me the most powerful, morally persuasive language around.

Now, it’s true that after World War I, I think Hemingway and other writers, especially poets, who had been in the war all said, oh, you know, this is ridiculous; let’s get back to precision. There are no such things as honor or glory in war. Those words they couldn’t use anymore. But following that was World War II, and people needed everything they had, all the language that was available to them, in order to finally confront such horror. But after that, not just the gestures seemed anachronistic and sort of old, retro, but war itself seems retro somehow. Even though everybody is at war, it’s somehow a genuinely outmoded idea. And the language that is produced by it is also outmoded and puny and uninspiring and trite.

I don’t mean that people don’t say “Yea!” but when you hear these people championing war, they almost have no recourse except lies and deceit. There’s almost nothing else there for them. Because the old power of slaughter for whatever reasons–religious reasons, political reasons, tribal reasons, etc.–suddenly has lost real intellectual credibility.

CW: I want to come back to your point about immaturity because I want to make a distinction between “childish” and “childlike.” You see, the blues and jazz are childlike, the sense of awe and wonder and the mystery and perplexity of things. “Childish” is immature. And what we have now, we have the imperial elite who are adolescent and immature because they perceive their crude interests to be protected only by might, only by force.

So that you get this intersection between free-market fundamentalism, which is a market-driven capitalist society that’s driven not just by profits but by ways of reproducing its own system, the oil in the Middle East and so forth and so on, but then you’ve got the escalating militarism, which requires a certain mentality. It’s a machismo identity. The machismo identity is nothing but an insecurity and an anxiety, an inability to be human, so you have to protect your territory and so forth. And with that comes the increasing authoritarianism–Patriot Act I, and now they are trying to get Patriot Act II.

The blues tradition that goes, let’s say, from Leroy Carr to your own work is not just music, it’s an idiom; it’s a way of being in the world, it’s mature, and it takes unbelievable courage, persistence, practice, discipline, energy to be a mature, compassionate, decent person. And that’s exactly what the blues fish is trying to get us to be because you can’t have a democracy without it. And that’s the problem with not just the White House but with Wall Street. It’s the problem with City Hall; it’s the problem with the Statehouse.

TM: And you find the history of the culture, of African-Americans, central and representative?

CW: Absolutely. Because when you have mature people who have compassion in their soul and a willingness to live and die for a grand ideal like democracy, you’ve got a force for good no matter how far it’s able to move. So you get these truth-tellers who are on the underside of the society saying, my God, this hypocrisy and mendacity is overwhelming. Sooner or later the chickens are going to come home to roost.

TM: So we better do something.

CW: So you better do something. So you get some white brothers and sisters to say, You know, I think they’ve got a point. And some of them move, William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown and others, some of them move by self-interest. But I think we’re at a moment now–and this is what’s so sad, I think, about black America–we’re right at the moment now when we can learn so much from black history, but so many black people themselves are deferential to the imperial project. They’re deferential to the militarism. They’re deferential to the free-market fundamentalism, so they chase material toys and think that somehow they can simply make the glass menagerie of America more colorful.

They are running into a burning house, as the great Jimmy Baldwin used to say. And the question is what role do, first, the artists, play, then the activists, and the intellectuals, for the larger citizenry? We’re all part of it, but we have a certain calling and vocation to ply for the larger citizenry.

And when people look at your work at this particular moment, what do you want, or what are some of the things you want them to tease out, given this political crisis or emergency that we find ourselves in under the Bush Administration?

TM: Well, it is interesting that you bring that up because in the very last book I wrote, in addition to whatever else the story was about, it was important that the word “love” be withdrawn from the text. I went over it and over it and over it to make sure that that word was never used except by somebody who had earned it. This was not limitless love, this was not unconditional love, this was something that had to do with work and thinking it through. I wanted to give that term its heft, its meaning again.

So the two major women in the book–Heed and Christine, both black women, are separated economically. One is very poor, wore a man’s T-shirt for a dress, and the other one is part of the upper middle class. But before they know who they are–as children, they love each other, they’re very close friends–they are forced apart, separated by adults with some other agenda. They leave one another, have rather miserable lives, come back together in hostile, cold, silent contempt until one is about to lose the other. It’s only after they have a real conversation can they use the word “love.”

The under-, the ur-story, so to speak, was about contemporary conditions among African-Americans, the willingness to separate oneself from the so-called community. I’m not being nostalgic about segregation, but there was a time when we all lived together, class-wise, we went to the same church, went to the same barbershop, etc. The progress, which was real and important, meant moving out of those neighborhoods–where you have clientele that can only go to the black mortuary, that can only go to the black lawyer, that can only go to the black doctor, can only go to Cosey’s Hotel. If you can go anywhere you want, well, some of those businesses and institutions and entrepreneurs collapsed. You know, the credibility and the authenticity of African-Americans in high places is street credibility, is community credibility. But we are separated by class–that was the metaphorical disaster that took place in the novel–a wrenching phenomenon. I was trying to complicate the civil rights process, interrogating it in a new way so that we would not be left with the simple notion that there was some agitation, some pain, and then, pow, everybody moved into whatever neighborhoods they wanted to and there was more access into the corridors of power, there was more money, you know, better jobs, etc., none of which is not true, but that’s not the full story.

I think, in addition, affirmative action, the controversy about it, still plays into this huge question of the acquisition of full citizenship in this country and what it really means, not just these rights to live or work or go to school or what have you in different places, but what happens when you have more of the liberties that you have fought and died for. I don’t have the answers, but I’ve framed it as a physical separation as well as a psychological one.

You know, Cornel, you do your work in the academy and you teach at Sing Sing. You do your work in high schools, storefront churches and Princeton. But that’s not typical. If you are an academic, then you write books and you know many people in all sorts of places. Well, to also spend time graduating some prisoners, then you’re not typical. I mean, this is what you understand to be the canvas of your own work. You have defined in that sense what Love was really complaining about, or investigating anyway.

CW: Ah, yes, I hear what you’re saying. I mean, there are certain structural processes at work that make it difficult for us to maintain the kind of web, the care and bonds of empathy with not just the vanilla/chocolate city distinctions in the empire, but also with the materialism, the careerism, the individualism that make it difficult for us to even conceive of ourselves as part of some larger communal project.

TM: Exactly. You have to work at it.

CW: Toni, one of the things that’s striking to me, I think critics 150 years, 250 years from now, in reading your work, one of the things they’ll say, which is pretty elemental, is that you’ve got to be one of the first writers in the American literary canon who just take for granted the fundamental humanity of black people. You just assume black folks are like everybody else. They’re human beings. Because that’s a revolutionary notion in a civilization deeply shaped by white supremacy. The white supremacy in black people makes it difficult for black people to just accept that they’re human. They’ve got to prove this, deal with the achievement gap, make sure their promotion is really meritorious, and all this other kind of mess.

It’s true because everybody’s always got you under the gaze. It’s like the music, when you go to Louis Armstrong, you go to John Coltrane, they just assume black people are human beings. When you go to Love and you go to Beloved, wow, you’ve got to feel relaxed. And this is true for white brothers and sisters too, because they know if they look in the mirror and just see lies about themselves, that’s not really comforting in the end. Because in order to make it from womb to tomb, they have to live a lie.

So they come to your text and they say, oh my God, you know what? Amy and Sethe and so forth in Beloved, there’s a humanity that’s flowing between them. And I’m not saying this to put other writers down. I mean, Melville is one of the great figures who wrestled with this issue, that’s true, and there are other white writers who make the effort. But in your writings, when you talk about gaining access to rights and liberties as a result of the civil rights movement, it’s so important that the breakthrough never be downplayed. But then you’ve still got black humanity to deal with in all of these new spaces.

TM: But that’s what makes it exciting. I think the point was that every African-American writer I knew about, loved and admired, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, etc., Richard Wright, and further back, had to at some point write about what it means to be a black writer, what it means to be a Negro, how that is different from anything else. Or they needed a white person to authenticate their work, like the slave narratives used to have an acknowledgment printed to say this narrative was actually written by, etc., etc.

Whether that was necessary or not or whether it was an important question or not, they had to confront it. But it means that somebody else was being addressed. And as much as I admired, still admire, Invisible Man, that title says it all, because the question for me is, invisible to whom? Not me. So when I wrote, I would just, as you say, assume not just the humanity but the richness and interests–

CW: The good and the bad, the blindnesses and the insights–

TM: And no editorializing, no footnotes, no explanations, no dictionary–

CW: Just delve into all the funky humanity of black folk and white folk and everybody else. But that’s a very crucial thing. I mean, I think it’s been the musicians and the preachers who’ve been able to do that at their best–but it’s difficult for the writers because the white gaze is always there.

TM: I got in a lot of trouble, you know.

CW: And so one takes the risk in that regard, and Ralph Ellison in some ways is a transitional figure here because he’s got all the humanity, and the essays are there, but he’s still also got to prove himself. And as he’s proving himself, he’s also got to be related to the other black folk who know they have to prove themselves.

I don’t think we’re going to talk about getting out of the mess that we’re in unless we engage the younger generation. The young folk, they’re just out there and they’re struggling, they’ve got unbelievable creativity and imagination, but trying to channel their moral outrage. They’re locked into this market way of life, but they also know that it’s empty and hollow in the end. In some sense, they’re imitating us–our materialism, careerism and so on–but in another sense, they also have grown up in a different kind of world. I mean, their world is so market-saturated that it’s hard for them to gain access to nonmarket values and activities that they can ascribe weight to because everybody’s gimme gimme gimme.

TM: Oh, it’s pernicious. When you think of after September 11, when anybody would have done practically anything to help, I was waiting for some guy, the mayor guy, the governor guy, the presidential guy to say: Go home, see if everybody’s all right, build this, organize that, check your neighbors, get some food, you know, some sort of citizen action. But what they said was, go to the malls, go to the theaters, get back on those airplanes, buy. Now, I understand what they were saying; they were saying the market is vital, you know. And the point of the attack was to destroy things, one of which would be the economy and the capitalist system, etc., so we want the markets to go on. That was one thing. But that could have been said along with some other things. So that meant that we were not to be called on as citizens, only as consumers.

CW: It shows just how idolatrous the market is in the culture. It’s a fetish, you know. We ascribe these magical powers to it, so that your public interest and your public life are just drained.

And it’s a sick civilization that would be so obsessed with the sexualization of its children, the targeting of its children as a constituency to consume, and think that somehow the future is going to be in mature hands when they’re 100 percent of the future. That’s not just shortsighted, that’s pathological. In that sense, it’s very much like white supremacy, it’s a pathology that’s shot through the civilization, and we have to confront our bitterness. And I love what you’re talking about in terms of loving something earned, but it’s still something that’s worth taking a risk for.

I think, in the history of black people, we’ve been so hated that love takes on subversive status.

TM: It’s renegade. Totally renegade.

CW: So in our culture when you talk about love supreme, this is not just a gesture. You know what I mean? And when Martin Luther King talks about love, it’s not just a gesture. This thing is rooted in a long tradition of struggle against institutionalized hatred that then becomes contagious, because other people want to be more human than they are, too, and to be in on it.

But look how we end up regenerating public life. I think that’s one of our major challenges at this moment, because the market ideology and the authoritarianism and the militarism come together to constitute this new kind of configured imperialism that has colonized public life. And so you end up with very little idea of what it means to be a citizen, what we can do.

TM: Will we have a good chance, do you think, in the forthcoming election?

CW: Well, I hope so. I hope so. I think we’ve got to have a united front against the imperial elites who rule us. It’s about time for the questions. [reading] “If Condoleezza Rice were with us this evening, what would you say to her?”

TM: Oh, I would strongly suggest that Condoleezza Rice get another job. I know how seductive power is. She is a beautifully educated woman, she’s a gifted woman, she’s a talented woman. She has a lot of attributes. Why trash them in an area–I know that she has benefited time and time again from that part of the political spectrum, and particularly from that family, but loyalty is not all there is in life. There is something called real integrity, and I don’t think she understands that.

[reading] “What are your reflections on the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision this May?” Well, I might as well do a little self-promotion here, I hope you don’t mind. I was asked to do a memorial book about the fiftieth anniversary by Houghton Mifflin, a children’s book. We put together some very beautiful pictures from the period, and I wrote imaginary captions underneath. And the book is called Remember. And it’s for young people, children in elementary school, who weren’t there, don’t remember, don’t know quite what it was.

But what’s interesting to me about this period, in addition to everything else–the Supreme Court, the lawyers for the NAACP, all these families filing suit, the marches, etc.–at the center, at the forefront, on the front line were children, little children who were led into school–with guns, perhaps, and their parents–but had to go in that building and stay there all day, alone. Sometimes two or three. And they did it, obviously because they were told, but what they knew, and this is what was extraordinary to me, they knew they were doing it for something bigger than they were.

They were 8 years old, 9 years old, 10 years old, in their little dresses and their little suits and going in these places, and then having grown people–can you imagine what it’s like to be an 8 year old and having adults screaming at you, spitting at you? All right, when you got home, you were in your mother’s arms and your father was there, and you knew you had that support, but at the moment, these were strangers, white women who were mothers who could actually do that to another mother’s child. It really boggles the mind.

So I was thinking about not just the courage of their gesture but its uniqueness. They were out front. And I wanted young people who are now also 8 and 9 to feel the connection. That for me was more intimate than the history books and the movies and so on.

[reading] “Could you speak about black leadership in America? What are the conditions we need to change?” This begs the question that we need it and there isn’t any or it’s not working or something. What do you think?

CW: Well, when I talked about mediocrity in terms of leadership, I was making a multiracial statement.

We’ve got to keep in mind that there are different levels of leadership. In a democracy the real leadership’s on the ground. We are the leaders we’re looking for, grassroots activists. You’ve got televisual leadership, you’ve got elected leadership. In televisual leadership, you’ve got a small slice of courageous, prophetic folk. In elected leadership, you’ve got a smaller slice of prophetic, courageous folk. Most of the major leaders in the society are grassroots leaders, and that’s what Martin was, that’s what Fannie was, Fannie Lou Hamer, that’s Myles Horton’s idea, a white brother, that’s what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was. They were grassroots leaders. And it’s the spilling over of that high-quality grassroots leadership into the political system and the economic system.

That’s why I think hip-hop culture is so important, because you’ve got a highly colonized form among young folk where you get the very deeply reactionary hip-hop artists who are into misogyny and homophobia and so forth, and it all mirrors the larger forces in our society. But a lot of the courageous hip-hop artists can’t get a contract because they don’t have access to the recording industry and A&R departments.

But that’s also so true for the tenant activists, that’s true for those wrestling with ecological crises, that’s true for those dealing with the issue of homophobia, the vicious forms of homophobia that are surfacing now around gay marriage and so on. 

TM: Here’s a question about what you just said. [reading] “John Kerry says he supports civil unions and not gay marriage–separate but equal, back-of-the-bus politics, question mark. Is gay marriage a question of civil rights?”

CW: Absolutely.

TM: I would say so.

CW: It’s equality under the law. There’s no doubt about that.

TM: Here’s an interesting question, which I think we touched on generally. [reading] “Do you think the average black person perceived 9/11 differently than a white person?” That question probably means a lot of things. I don’t think there was any difference in the way it was perceived. A lot of black people died in that attack as well as whites. I mean, you know, that was not a racial moment.

But what happened afterward, the consequences of it, there was the need to say this is not about Islam, this is about terror, etc. But I do remember my own son saying–and you may have heard this too–that right afterward, when there was still the fear, black men, black African men, black American men, they were looked at differently…. There was this we-know-who-you-are sigh of relief. Blacks were the demons before 9/11, particularly men. And suddenly they were welcome in a way that they had never been before. Am I right about that? Because they were being split away from what whites perceived as Arabic or, you know, whatever other group–

CW: Islam–in some stereotypical sense.

TM: That’s right.

CW:I mean, it did bring out the worst in some black folk, I think, because you might recall the poll in USA Today that said a significant number of black folk supported the racial profiling of Arab brothers and sisters just to get some weight off their back, you know what I mean. They’re no longer the group that’s being profiled, just shift it onto somebody else.

I believe in moral consistency. You’ve got to oppose racial profiling no matter what. I think the tears of [Abner] Louima’s mother ought to be integral to the tears that we share for innocent folk who are murdered by gangsters. And it’s not just Louima. I thought about the tears of Jewish Israeli mothers attacked by gangsters of suicide bombers. I thought of the tears of Palestinian mothers with their babies crushed by a state terrorism.

TM: You can’t rank these things. 

CW: All these are human at that deepest level.

TM: Exactly. [reading] “There was a time in this country when arts that we take for granted, education, writing, etc., were revolutionary acts, and we seem to have lost that notion. How can we, especially African-Americans, regain that revolutionary spirit and mindset?” I always took for granted that the best art was political and was revolutionary. It doesn’t mean that art has an agenda or a politics to argue; it means the questions being raised were explorations into kinds of anarchy, kinds of change, identifying errors, flaws, vulnerabilities in systems.

Now I suppose there is something called benign, apolitical art, and some people accuse postmodernism of being exactly that, but in a sense each generation responds to the ones before. For me the big revolutionary period in terms of art that affected me most was during the ’50s, during the McCarthy period, when there was this blanket notion that no one should speak about anything political, and people who did were being fired and losing their jobs and losing their homes. So that the few people who were able to talk about that were the ones who I felt were forthright, brilliant writers who had courage. Those writers and artists and filmmakers and people in the theater who were trying to buck political censorship and who suffered a lot, that’s what I remember. I know there were other revolutionary artists who had written long ago about oppression, but those were the contemporary artists that I gravitated toward.

CW: I think there might be a tendency, because America is so preoccupied with the practical and the utilitarian and the consequentialist, that when the phrase “revolutionary art” is used, people might get the impression that art has the capacity to make revolution. Revolutions are made by social movements, and artists might be a part of those social movements. There are works of art that are revolutionary. I think Shakespeare was revolutionary, I think Beethoven was revolutionary. I think Eugene O’Neill was, I think your work is. But I would never call it revolutionary art in that sense. I would just say it’s the best art I know. But it might be aligned with a social movement whose end is to engage in a fundamental transformation of society. And so I think an artist should always be suspicious of being called just a revolutionary artist because you might be used by a certain revolutionary movement. But at the same time, as the truth-telling you engage in has impact and might, in fact, be part of some group of citizens who are organized and trying to change society in a fundamental way, then I think that is a part of it.

And I think we do have a number of voices. You’ve got Tony Kushner, you’ve got Dead Prez and hip-hop, you’ve got Ty and KRS-One; I think Nilo Cruz’s recent work is quite powerful in this regard in terms of truth-telling. So I was thinking about that in relation to the question. But I’m not an artist, so I ought to shut my mouth.

TM: [reading] “I am curious about the language of religion, which has become more pronounced in this Administration. Can you comment on the manipulation of religious belief and language for violent ends?”

CW: That’s one of the most dangerous features of our moment, there’s no doubt about that. We live in a society in which 96 percent of our fellow citizens believe in God, and 72 percent believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, 71 percent believe that the Book of Revelation has an empirically verifiable potential and 71 percent believe in angels. I don’t put that down, I’m a Christian myself, but I’m a different kind of Christian than a lot of these Christians.

But when you have those kinds of beliefs so deeply held, subject to multiple interpretation but able to be mobilized for right-wing purposes, and as the Christian right began to organize, to bastardize and pulverize Martin Luther King’s attempt to try to use the best of the Christian prophetic tradition for democratic aims, all of the homophobia, all of the patriarchy, all of the worst of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, can be mobilized in the name of Jesus. That’s what’s difficult. This is true for the Mel Gibson film; it’s part of the political discourse.

TM: Did you see the film?

CW: I refuse to see the film. Because as a Christian any time I hear the juxtaposition of Roman innocence in the Roman Empire with Jewish responsibility, I already know it’s anti-Semitic.

TM: Well, I saw the movie. I went with a friend. We sort of crept in because everybody said, Toni, don’t go. Please, don’t give him your money. I wasn’t going to go, but it got so hot and it’s so controversial and so big, I thought, wait a minute, I don’t want to be told what to think, let me go see what this is. Now, you know, I’m a Catholic, right, so we’re used to images of blood and gore. Also, I have to tell you, I was very depressed when I went, and sometimes (I feel ashamed about it), but sometimes, you know, sometimes you just want to escape into a good murder mystery or something. A little fictional Armageddon. So I went with a friend, and I have to tell you at least one thing. Maybe I’ll tell you two things. One, I fell asleep. I’m not entirely sure why. I did wake up when I heard a pow, a lash.

I don’t regard that as film criticism at all, but I have to tell you that in some way it was boring. It was simply the Stations of the Cross, and you recognize them immediately. And if you don’t, it may be incomprehensible, as it was to my friend, who is, well, she’s sort of vaguely New Agey, a wonderful person, spiritual, noninstitutional and Jewish. And she was bored, too, because she didn’t understand the narrative. You know, there was build but no structure, no suspense. It’s just–

CW: Torture, torture, torture, torture. 

TM: Yes.

CW: I can’t take that. Because the other side of this thing is that here we are, living in the biggest empire since the Roman Empire. Now the underside of the Roman Empire is the cross; that’s why political prisoners were put to death, those who had the courage to act against the powers that be. We’re the legatees of Constantinian Christianity, after Christianity was incorporated into the Roman Empire and was the official religion of the Roman Empire, which went on persecuting Jews and others.

Now, you see, I’m a prophetic Christian, I’m not a Constantinian Christian. That’s very important. Because I want to raise the question, well, if you’re going to talk about Jesus, did you really talk about the empire that put him to death and what the connection is between that empire and the empire that we’re a part of now, and what Jesus demands of us in this empire given what he was willing to sacrifice in his own imperial moment? And I say now, Gibson, what have you got to say? But, he says, no, I’m going to give you sadomasochistic voyeurism.

TM: Right, that’s what it is. But although the bloodiness was uninteresting, excessive, repulsive, etc., I was trying to persuade myself that instead of dwelling merely on the spirit of Jesus, this film was really about his flesh, and we often forget that and sanitize the crucifixion. This is real human suffering. I was looking at it like a lynching. This is an innocent and betrayed man who’s being lynched. I didn’t want to look away. I wanted to endure it. But that was my effort to bring meaning into the film. The film was not necessarily bringing meaning to me. You understand me?

CW: I hear you. But it’s part of a political moment. On the one hand, you’ve got Jewish brothers and sisters who know that it’s anti-Semitic. But then you’ve got Constantinian Jewish folk who themselves are deferential to the American empire who now find themselves on the other side because they’ve become completely assimilated into American power at its highest level, who don’t want to speak the truth about the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and yet all of a sudden, now they’re so upset that they say, well, how come the people don’t recognize our victimization?

I say, no, I’m in solidarity with you Jewish brothers and sisters even if you’re Constantinian Jews. But you ought to be serious about why you’re deferential to the American empire and why you’ve got these conservative Jewish brothers in alliance with the Christian evangelical folk who are the social base of the film. What makes Jewish folks think this is the Promised Land? If America has to make a choice between oil and Israel, please. You know what I mean? The Jewish brothers and sisters better get back to their prophetic tradition, and that means becoming blues people.

TM: Well, this question will take you to another continent. [reading] “What are your thoughts on the spectacle of Africa in the USA? Where and how can we reconnect with African-Americans?” There’s extraordinary good news coming out of Africa and some really terrible news. These wars are the children of previous wars. The consequences of chopping up Africa by Europeans and all these subsequent internal wars reinforce the same elements. That’s what this country has often produced, not just encouraged, which is a series of dictatorial regimes that are willing and able and seduced into the destruction of their own people. And then there are other places in Africa where that is simply not so.

CW: To me, Africa has produced probably the most towering statesman of our time, Nelson Mandela, and Botswana’s democratic experiment is very important. But I think you’re right, I think any time we think about Africa, you’ve got to think of three elements–you’ve got to think of the vicious imperial past of Europe, you’ve got to think of the vicious autocratic leadership that emerged after that great heroic moment of anticolonial struggle against those empires, and you have to think of the neglect of the American empire vis-à-vis the suffering of African people.

What is it, a dime for every African on the foreign aid list of the richest nation in the history of the world? Everybody in this room knows if the AIDS epidemic were taking place in Berlin, London, Lisbon and Paris, there’d be a qualitatively different response of American elites, as opposed to what’s taking place in Africa. And I say that without bitterness. It’s just a fact.

So that Africans must be more responsible and accountable, and those vicious elites that are ruling their own people and chopping them up need to be accountable, but they’re responding to this ugly imperial past to divide up the territory. You’re after their resources. You already demeaned their humanity and so forth and so on. And some have responded heroically. Nelson Mandela was on the American terrorist list for twenty-six years. Now everybody loves him. We used to march for Mandela, and they said we were supporting a terrorist.

And yet Africans do have to take responsibility. It’s a twofold project, but I just wish we were more engaged with our foreign policy.

TM: Well, that’s really what the question was about. [reading] “Where and how can we reconnect?” “We” meaning Africans with African-Americans. I have to say that one of the reasons I was able to abandon what I felt in the early stages of my own career–that gaze of the other–was by reading African literature. I was able to because of the fiction of African writers. They gave me license. Chinua Achebe gave me license. Bessie Head gave me license. When I read them, suddenly, whatever they were talking about, the white gaze was absent. And so I knew there was a territory there in language.

CW: Now was that because they accepted the fundamental humanity of African people?

TM: Yes, precisely.

CW: What was the name of that novel you wrote about in the New York Review of Books?

TM: Oh, The Radiance of the King. There are so many narratives of the white man in Africa, but never told from the African point of view. And now, in Camara Laye’s novel, here comes the white man into Africa with no resources. He doesn’t have a job. He doesn’t have any money. He doesn’t have any other white people who like him. He’s really alone. All alone. No gun. No safari. And what does he want? He’s a European, so of course he wants to work for the king. And the Africans said, “I beg your pardon. What skills do you have?” It was just a whole upside–

CW: Turned the world upside down.

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