Black Prophetic Fire: Cornel West on Ella Baker (Part Two)

Excerpted from Black Prophetic Fire by Cornel West in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Buschendorf. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

In Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West, in conversation with scholar Christa Buschendorf, aims to shed light on what is missing from the fight for justice today by examining past Black leaders. In the following excerpt, they discuss the work of Ella Baker.  

CHB: It is so interesting that the Occupy movement is definitely leaderless, tries to be leaderless and group-centered, which has great advantages. For one thing, you can’t decapitate a movement easily by just killing one of its charismatic leaders. But more than that, as you just explained, it gives the group much more power, a power that it otherwise delegates to a representative. But even if we say today that this is why Ella Baker is more important, when we think back, what is your stance on the fact that after all we also needed a Martin Luther King Jr.? What, then, is to your mind the relation between those two forces, the charismatic leader-figure and the group-centered work that Ella Baker did?

CW: When Ella Baker says that the movement made Martin, Martin didn’t make the movement, she is absolutely right, and so for me the greatness of Martin King has to do with the ways in which he used his charisma and used his rhetorical genius and used his courage and willingness to die alongside everyday people. The critique of Martin would be that the decision-making process in his organization was so top-down and so male-centered and hierarchical that one could have envisioned a larger and even more effective mass movement, especially when it came to issues of class, empire, gender, and sexual orientation.

When he hit economic justice for janitors and the poor, and when he hit issues of American imperialism in Vietnam, he would not have been just dangling all by himself if there had been more political education and cultivation among the people in the organization and the community. And Ella Baker—who was shaped by the South, went to Shaw University in North Carolina, and then straight to New York City, where she runs the West Indian newspaper, and she is working with George Schuyler during his anarchist years, interacting with leftists, interacting with various progressives, but always rooted, always grounded—offered a deep democratic alternative to the model of the lone charismatic leader.

One of the things about Ella you might recall is that—and Bob Moses was telling me this, it was so striking—right in the middle of the movement, she pulled out to take care of her niece. And people said, “Wait a minute, this is something that you have been waiting for. This is the moment. The cameras are here.” “I got my roots,” you see, “my niece needs to be taken care of. She is, after all, by herself.” And people would say, “Oh, but that’s part of the gender question. She had to think of herself as a carer and nurturer.” But, no, no, she puts things in perspective. Her caring for her niece in those years that her niece needed her was part and parcel of her calling as someone who is of service. But for Ella, her calling embraced both service to her family and service to the movement.

For her, humility and service flow across the board, and so I think that her critique of the great Martin Luther King Jr. ought to be integral to any discussion about Martin Luther King Jr. She brings to her critique humility, service, and love; her own willingness to sacrifice. She’s the kind of unassuming character who doesn’t need the limelight at all in order to have a sense of herself. She doesn’t need the camera.

You know what happens is that these charismatic leaders become ontologically addicted to the camera. And it’s a very sad thing to behold. You see it in Jesse Jackson, despite his rhetorical genius and great contributions to our struggles. We see it in Al Sharpton, despite his talent for adaptability and service. You saw it in the later years of Huey Newton, as great as he was in his early years. Angela Davis has resisted it. Bob Moses also resisted it. Stokely Carmichael— even given his greatness, incredible love for the people, and the deep influence of Ella Baker—was still much more tied to the charismatic model. My dear brother the charismatic Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright—largely misunderstood and underappreciated—was demonized by the media and will, in the long run, be vindicated. But, like Ella, prophetic giant Dr. James Forbes Jr. defies these seductions.

CHB: One wonders, of course, whether there is not a natural relation between the possibility of becoming such a charismatic leader and a certain degree of narcissism, so it is an even greater accomplishment of those figures who do not develop in terms of egocentricity, and yet are great leaders.

Baker often criticized the mostly male cofighters she had to put up with. As she recalled, they took it for granted that when there was a meeting she would take care of the people, so that they would have something to eat and drink, that the coffeemaker was running. Thus, there was always that double concern of hers. For she was not at all a person who was content with those everyday services to the movement; she had great foresight.

In fact, this to me is another important feature of hers: the way she understood the whole process, namely, as something that would go on for a long time, because nothing would be accomplished in ten years or twenty years, but that nevertheless you would have to bring all your strength to it, even if you did not see much progress. She was looking ahead and willing even to pass on the baton to the next generation, to the next person who was there to serve, and that is one of her great strengths.

CW: Absolutely. There is a fundamental sense in which the age of Occupy is the age of Ella Baker. Even given the deep contributions of the legacies of Douglass and King—we could add Malcolm; we certainly would add Du Bois as well—for Ella Baker, you know, when you radically call into question the distinction between mental and manual labor, then that frees you up to engage in forms of activities in the movement that allow for a natural flow, from caring for the homeless, cooking food for the elderly, and reading Gramsci on what it means to be an organic intellectual all in the same afternoon, because these are all just functions of a freedom fighter, functions of an organic, catalytic figure, where the intellectual is not somehow either isolated or elevated and therefore distinct from the manual, tactile, touch, hands-on-activity.

You know, when I talked about Ella’s democratic existentialism, it is relevant to me in terms of your point on narcissism and charismatic leaders, because anyone who is a long-distance freedom fighter has to have a tremendous sense of self-confidence, and the real challenge is how do you have this tremendous sense of self-confidence when you are being targeted by assassination attempts or threats; when you are rebuked, scorned, lied about, or misunderstood. You need self-confidence in order to keep going in a community and a network, but how do you hold on to self-confidence without sliding into self-indulgence?

The only weapon against narcissism is a belief in self and a greater cause than the self that is severed from an obsession with self as some grand messianic gift to the world. And I think you could see elements of this in the other figures that we talked about: Douglass and King and Du Bois had unbelievable self-confidence, and at their best, they are Ella Baker–like; at their worst, they are narcissists. And of course, this is a struggle in the human soul in each and every one of us.

But the major weapon against narcissism for me is a kind of spirituality or a spiritual strength that accents, on the one hand, gratitude—what it means to be part of a long tradition that has produced you and allowed you to have the self-confidence—because self-confidence doesn’t drop down from the sky; it is cultivated over many, many years owing to earlier people, antecedent figures who had the same kind of self-confidence—so gratitude on the one hand, as a kind of democratic piety in that sense, if piety is understood as the debts you owe to those who came before tied to the tradition and community and legacy of struggle, and on the other hand, there is an indescribable joy in serving others. This joy in serving others is qualitatively different than pleasure in leading others.

[Read part one of this excerpt here:]

Excerpted from Black Prophetic Fire by Cornel West in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Buschendorf. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.