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February 25, 2013 / robinswood

Thinking jazz with Cornel West

Having had the opportunity to meet Cornel West during my recent trip to New York, I decided I really needed to reread some of his work. I pulled my copy of Race Matters from the shelf, as it had really been my introduction to his writing when I first discovered it back in 1995. As he brings the book to its conclusion with a chapter entitled “Malcolm X and Black Rage,” West offers some great reflections which draw on the metaphor of jazz:

Furthermore, the cultural hybrid character of black life leads us to highlight a metaphor alien to Malcolm X’s perspective – yet consonant with is performances to audiences – namely the metaphor of jazz. I use the term “jazz” here not so much as a term of a musical art form, as for a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode of protean, fluid, and flexible dispositions toward reality suspicious of “either/or” viewpoints, dogmatic pronouncements, or supremacist ideologies. To be a jazz freedom fighter is to attempt to galvanize and energize world-weary people into forms of organization with accountable leadership that promote critical exchange and broad reflection. The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed form above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase the creative tension with the group – a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project. This kind of critical and democratic sensibility flies in the face of any policing of borders and boundaries of “blackness,” “maleness,” “femaleness,” or “whiteness.”  (West, Race Matters)

What I love about reading West’s work is the way in which his prose builds and moves with this improvisational freedom, much in the way of a great jazz solo. It isn’t random, unreflected, or unprepared… much practice and discipline has gone into it… but offered in this way to the audience it is at once challenging and freeing to read.


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