I have been fascinated and discouraged by the feud between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West, two black intellectuals that have influenced me in many ways. I am concerned that we are more likely to knock each other down in order to collect the “woke and progressive” limelight to protect our reputations and to ensure that we are profitable. To me, that is distressing.
The feud has culminated in Coates deleting his Twitter account after an onslaught of criticism from a variety of people (in his words, white supremacists, Bernie bros, and feminists). Cornel West, who has a reputation for knocking down black intellectuals who seem to threaten him, called Coates the “neoliberal face of the black freedom movement.” Many people have come to Coates’ defense and in fact have criticized West, including this incisive Twitter thread from Jelani Cobb (who admits he is less than impartial because Coates is his friend).
The details of the feud are fascinating by themselves, but what is more interesting to me is the tendency we have to protect ourselves and protect our past. My friends on the “left,” so to speak, are quite fond of horizontal hostility—the woke Olympics if you will. Imperfect ideology is cause for attack, maybe to purify the movement, but also to elevate ourselves. This is all happening on the 25th anniversary of Cornel West’s influential text Race Matters. I am hesitant to assign too much motivation to Cornel’s action, but at least part of it may be the preservation of his legacy and the threats that new intellectuals pose. I am afraid that the old apparatuses of influence are seeking to preserve their own honor at the expense of the new generation.
I do not want the new generation to “win” the conflict, necessarily, rather I would prefer a cooperation to set a future vision. Cornel West has a lot to teach and a lot to prophesy about. Check this out. What Cornel should do is note where Coates is pushing the edges of the dialogue, and encourage him to go further. Instead of attacking him and soliciting defensiveness. Right now, I don’t see a lot of that. Cornel West is not the only problem, obviously. I see legacy preservation among many others too.
Circle of Hope has always done an old and a new thing. We are motivated by the goodness of the past and committed to moving with the Spirit into what’s next. It’s that reconciliation between what was and what is next that gives us the grounding and the rootedness, as well as the innovation and imagination, to move forward in a radical, but secure, way.
We have a proverb about this very thing. Those among us from “traditional” Christian backgrounds are dying to our precious memories of “church” in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility.
We are moving forward with God, and that means doing it with young people and people different from us. We imagine the way forward by encountering our growth edges. We push past our growth edges, our biases, our prejudices, and our insecurities. If we are committed to simply protecting what was, whether it is black activism from the 1980s and 1990s, or even the white Evangelical subculture that some of Trump’s disciples are trying to preserve, we are limited to how God can use us in the future.
Learning from the past and moving with God into what is next can be scary because it is uncertain. But it sustainably offers us a way forward. It is not like Coates has nothing to learn from West, but if West is just concerned about his own legacy and knocking Coates down (who has gotten attacked by West’s apologists to the point of quitting Twitter), I think there is room for major improvement. We can exhort and improve each other, but we should be committed to building each other up in order to move into what’s next. This requires open hearts and minds, ready to move in ways that seem contrary to our best rationality, even. We need to listen to each other and to God and be open to changing our limitations, rather than being threatened when someone asks a question. I hope we can learn from our elders who are holding on to the past, to let go and open up our hands to what God has in store next. God is moving us forward, let’s follow God, and not preserve ourselves. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but if you lose your life, you might save it.