Black Prophetic Fire

Cornel West, with Christa Buschendorf. Beacon Press, $26.95 (248p) ISBN 978-0-8070-0352-7

Fearful that we may be “witnessing the death of black prophetic fire in our time,” historians West and Buschendorf engage in a book-length conversation about six historic figures–Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells. The subtext is a critique of President Obama, whom West calls both “my dear brother” and the “friendly face of the American empire.” Along the way, West plays rhetorical catch-as-catch-can: Douglass was “probably the most eloquent ex-slave in the history of the modern world” but “so tied in to the machinations of the Republican Party and willing to make vulgar compromises”; DuBois was “the greatest... black intellectual ever to emerge out of the U.S. empire,” but uninterested in “serious wrestling with modernist texts”; “it is not in any way to put down the great Ida to acknowledge her middle-class context.” Putting aside West’s willfully provocative opinions, his mini-lectures, which frequently run uninterrupted for pages at a time, and Buschendorf’s instructive set-ups for them do convey a wealth of information. Readers with a serious interest in history will treasure the full-bodied appendices, including the content-rich notes and extensive bibliography. [em](Oct.) [/em]