by Brent Kendall
Every February, the national spotlight shines on black history month, providing Americans an opportunity to take a close look at a storied African-American past long overshadowed. Dr. Cornel West, professor of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, has committed his life to shining the spotlight year-round. In addition to his significant contributions to the academic world, West is regarded (along with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.) as the prominent spokesman on race relations. His latest project, Restoring Hope, uses a number of first person accounts to evaluate what contemporary American life holds for the African-American community.
The book consists of eight transcripted oral interviews conducted by Dr. West with a variety of guests. The interviews are not typical Q&A sessions; rather he supplies the spark that ignites many pages of very rich dialogue. West's primary concern is with the question of how to infuse spirit into those who have given up on the American dream. From this focus, he renders a state of the nation's assessment, commenting on economic, political, social, and cultural issues facing an increasingly diversified nation.
During each rap session, the respective guests deliver powerful personal accounts and impart bits of wisdom. Harry Belafonte discusses ways integration adversely affected the communities of his youth. Senator Bill Bradley highlights the six o' clock news credo, "if it bleeds it leads if it thinks it stinks". Poet/publisher Haki Madhubuti describes young life as a door-to-door magazine salesman while posing as a student struggling to pay for his Howard University education. His attempt to sell magazines to a Howard alumnus and their subsequent conversation changed his life. These stories and the many others make Restoring Hope a very personal work that both provokes thought and affirms the possibilities of life.
Several themes resonate throughout the interviews. Foremost, growing economic inequality severely dampens hope for those falling behind. To a man, the participants believe many racial tensions can be alleviated when more African-Americans obtain the type of economic prosperity enjoyed by much of white America. Secondly, the guests express concern that the media fosters public negativity and fear. Thirdly, many worry that Americans are growing more materialistic and American culture more consumerist. Society's 'I'm gonna get mine' attitude contributes to the growing isolation and unfulfillment many Americans feel.
This last issue leads to a final note. Kevin Shawn Sealy, editor of Restoring Hope, is firmly committed to combating such attitudes. He states, "I am at 35 years old, not about to see lost the work of fifty-million souls over five centuries evaporate in a whirlwind of twentieth-century consumer and capitalist greed." In response, he has created the Obsidian Society, a for-profit venture committed to generating revenue for philanthropic ends. Restoring hope is the society's first project. Dr. West's excellent work gives the society a fine start.
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