Do you agree with West that the percentage of Americans who believe Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim is an indicator of continuing racial divides in our country? What about the disparate racial responses to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for shooting the unarmed Trayvon Martin?
In his essay West refers to past struggles for Black Americans, yet still offers a sense of courage and hope: "Our courage rests on a deep democratic vision of a better world that lures us and a blood-drenched hope that sustains us." What does he mean that a "blood-drenched hope" sustains them?
In your own words, describe West's perspective on the difference between optimism and hope.
"Road to Redemption" by Billy Wayne Sinclair
Sinclair describes his decision to do the right thing in order to maintain his self-respect based on the moral framework he had developed. Describe a time when you were faced with a similar decision to "do the right thing." What did you decide? What factors helped you decide one way or another? If you had the opportunity to make the same decision again, would it be the same? Explain.
Could you imagine taking a stand like Sinclair's, knowing that it might leave you spending the rest of your life in jail? What kind of moral courage would it take? Is it surprising that this courage developed in someone who once was a destructive criminal?
What do you think gave Sinclair his core strength? Did it come on suddenly, or did it build as he took different risks of courage?
What role did personal loyalties play in his conversion?
Based on Sinclair's story, what do you think makes the difference between situations that give criminals a chance to be redeemed, and ones that make more likely that they'll continue with a life of crime?
"Resisting Terror" by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall
Did you know the story of the Rosenstrasse Jews? Or the Mothers of the Disappeared? Why don't we learn about these immensely hopeful stories?
What do these stories say about how some people manage to act even among the most extreme and intimidating circumstances-such as the threat of being shot by the Nazis? Do they suggest lessons for us to take the risk of courageous actions in circumstances where the consequences are often no more than having to deal with someone disagreeing with us? Why don't we act when we have far more freedoms and latitude?
Azucenda de Villaflor de De Vincente was an "ordinary homemaker, never looking outward until 1976.." What is meant by the phrase, "never looking outward"? Do you mostly look outward or inward?
De Vincente became an activist after her son and daughter-in-law disappeared. What allows people to act if they haven't been directly touched by oppression or tragedy? Is it a sense of feeling someone's story, whether or not you know them personally? Interview someone working in a group like Amnesty International who acts even though they may never directly know the people they work to save.
How important is it for ordinary citizens to look outward and become activists before they're challenged to do by tragic events?
To what extent do you feel you look outward and/or consider yourself an activist? What would help you look outward on a more consistent basis and/or become more of an activist?
The essay describes stories of oppression in both Berlin and Buenos Aires, where the power of women to initiate change was underestimated. What skills, traits, or attributes did the women bring to those situations of oppression that helped initiate change? Do you think the power of women to initiate change is underestimated today? Explain.
Research other examples of nonviolent resistance, like the others in Ackerman and DuVall's book, or in the sections in this book on the Arab Spring. How do these stories support the thesis of the essay?
Are there lessons from "Resisting Terror" about how to deal with brutal dictatorial regimes like Saddam Hussein's Iraq? You could look up DuVall's Iraq-related essays on the internet for his perspective on what we should have done instead of the path we took. Explain whether you agree or disagree.
Whatever one thinks about the possibilities of nonviolent resistance, what do these essays say about the possibilities of human courage and hope?
Section Seven Introduction:
Do you agree that hope, as Tony Kushner put it, is a moral obligation? What's the difference between naive hope and hope that's grounded in history?
Do secular and religious activists differ in their views of social commitment and the reasons for persistence? If so how? You could interview activists in both category, perhaps even those working on the same side of a particular issue like climate change. Or if you're active in an issue, talk with compatriots who differ in their theological worldview.
"Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King
What is the central thesis of the excerpt from "Letter from Birmingham Jail"? Had you read any of King's writings before, aside from his "I Have a Dream" speech?
Explain what King meant when he said: "Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." Think of an example in your own life that supports King's point.
Explain what King means by the "myth of time" when he says he hoped that "the white moderate would reject the myth of time." Explain situation(s) in which this point is still applicable today. Take a current situation where people don't act because they believe a particular issue will simply be addressed in due time (or maybe is impossible to adequately address). Discuss possible courses of action on that partiular issue that can and should be taken today.
More than forty years ago, Martin Luther King wrote that "we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people." Is this statement true for today's generation as well? Explain. Identify situations and issues of today that people should be discussing more, but where too many are remaining silent. List at least three examples.
The original audience for King's letter was white Christian ministers. What gives the letter it's broader and enduring appeal? Did the letter speak to you, and if so how?
"The Real Rosa Parks" by Paul Rogat Loeb
Explain in your own words why the retelling of the Rosa Parks story as most know it may actually make it harder for ordinary citizens to get involved in issues of social change? Did you know the real story before reading this book or Loeb's other work? How does knowing the real story shift your view of social change?
What is the empowering moral of the Rosa Parks story? What does that moral suggest to you about your own involvement and/or responsibility for social change?
Do you agree or disagree that Parks's first action in going to a NAACP meeting was just as pivotal as her stand on the bus? Would one have happened without the other?
Had you heard of Highlander Center/Highlander Folk School? If not, what does it say about our education that such an important institution is omitted from our history? Research what they're doing now, to continue their earlier legacy.
Who are some of the models of social commitment you have known in your life? If you can't think of anyone right now, look back at the essays in this anthology; and identify 2-3 people you would like to remember as models of social commitment.
Interview someone who is a model of social commitment (or read more about someone you've identified from this anthology) in order to find out additional information about the daily struggles that they faced and how they kept on going.
Research one of the following historical efforts at change: the American union movement; the movement that brought us Social Security; the women's suffrage movement; the origin of the 40 hour week; the environmental movement. Through your research, identify a person often associated with the movement who often has been overlooked, but serves as a model of social commitment.
"Prisoners of Hope" by Cornel West
In the opening paragraph, West asserts that the divide between the haves and have-nots of this nation is widening. Find at least three facts or statistics through additional research that support West's assertions.
Explain what is meant by the Biblical quote: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul?" List any books, poems, songs, or movies that continue to explore this question today.
Summarize what Cornel West is saying about rage and its need to have some kind of constructive channel. Do you agree/disagree? Explain.
What does it mean to ask that our leaders "Make it real"? In this time of deep political division, how can we distinguish empty rhetoric from real vision?
West asserts that "a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it." What are some ways you've already contributed toward making the world a better place by your words or actions? What are two of your long term goals for doing this? (Remember "the real Rosa Parks" story-actions for social change often have small beginnings.)
"Last Night As I Was Sleeping" by Antonio Machado
What does Machado mean by "marvelous error!"?
What is the main point Machado is expressing in this poem? List some of the seemingly ordinary things that both poets, Berry and Machado, seem to recognize as gifts of the everyday world. List several "everyday gifts" in your own surroundings.
Section Four Introduction
What is the difference between "capitulatory imagination" and "rebellious imagination"?
How often have you heard the phrase "There is no alternative" used to explain-and justify-a troubling political choice or situation? Is there a link between loss of imagination and resignation? And between recapturing our imagination and being able to act?
"Childhood and Poetry" by Pablo Neruda
"To feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know," Neruda writes, "widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things." What does Neruda suggest about how this power of affection shaped his life? How do we widen the boundaries of our being to really see the lives of those whose worlds are unfamiliar, hear their stories and begin to understand what they experience? How do we develop a a sense of human solidarity and connection with those we've never met?
Have you ever felt the kind of love Neruda is describing, an unexpected moment of generosity from a stranger? What opportunities do you have to extend it to others who you do not know?
Neruda talks of the need "to pass to the other some good things of life." As citizens in a community, what specific things should we pass on to others? How do we accomplish this?
"To Love the Marigold" by Susan Griffin
Griffin writes of the critical role of dreaming and imagination in working for change What distinguishes dreaming as escape, fine in its place, from dreaming that opens up new possibilities?
In the fourth paragraph of her essay, Griffin refers to the skyscraper before her as "an icon of an anonymous power, in whose shadow [she] feels powerless." What other icons of power do you see in American society today? Who or what created and maintains the power behind them? Who might feel powerless in the face of them? Why? Is it important for all citizens to feel empowered in their lives?
In paragraph five, Griffin contends that "there is distrust and dissatisfaction with any form of politics.." Do you agree/disagree? Explain. Why do you think there seems to be increasing distrust in politics today?
"To see what exists freshly and without prejudice clears the way for seeing what might exist in the future, or what is possible," Griffin writes. Do you agree? Given all we've been told and taught, what are some ways of learning to see the world with fresh eyes? Have you ever experienced something, heard a story, or seen an image that helped you do this?
"The camera's eyes," Griffin writes, "also catches a tender quality of innocence and hope, an expression one so seldom sees any longer even on the faces of any but the youngest children" Do we live in a time where innocence is scarce? Does our culture disparage efforts toward a broader common good as idealistic or naive? What do we lose by assuming there's nothing we can do together to improve the world for others? What's the difference between wishful thinking and genuine hope?
Griffin speaks of the failure of political dreams: How do we work for fundamental change when visions of grand social transformation have often have ended up in destructive betrayal? As Griffin writes, "Where once there were societies that served as models for a better future, grand plans, utopias, now there is distrust and dissatisfaction with any form of politics, a sense of powerlessness edging into nihilism." Are there other ways to view social change that acknowledge the limits of past alternatives, but still let us dream beyond the boundaries of the present? Can you think of any contemporary examples?
How does imagination generate hope? Can we even imagine the image of Desnos reading people's palms in a concentration camp? If we can't translate wild hope directly into politics, can we use play and creativity to sustain our spirits? Can you think of a time when this has happened?
Griffin finds her answer to how Desnos keeps a sense of hope, his recognizing the "larger possibilities of life," by reading a line from one of his poems. Explain your understanding of the passage from the poem Griffin quotes.
Can you give an example of the paralysis of "realism?" What does Griffin mean when she says social movements are driven by imagination? How does a society cultivate imagination in its citizens, especially the young? What are some of society's greatest needs today that the power of imagination might help address?
Griffin concludes her essay with the imperative: "Let us begin to imagine the worlds we would like to inhabit, the long lives we will share, and the many futures in our hands." Identify one community of which you are a part, such as your dormitory, college campus, or hometown. Using your imagination, describe the community in terms of one you'd like to inhabit. What will have to occur in the present community in order to make these changes a reality? What role can you have in enacting change?
"Walking With the Wind" by John Lewis
Do you have core childhood memories that help you through difficult times? Or ones that hold you back and make you hesitate to act on your deepest beliefs?
Lewis asserts that in the 1960s, "people of conscience" never walked away from the weakest corner of the house; rather, they joined hands to gain strength where they were weak. Identify some of the "weakest corners" in society today and identify possible causes. Whose responsibility is it to strengthen the weaker corners of society? What responsibility, if any, do individual citizens have to the house as a whole?
Are the core myths of our society communal--about joining together--or individual, based on lone heroes? If the latter, does this make it harder to act together on larger concerns? How can we recover the stories that help us act in common?
We think of our families as bastions of love--or would like to. Can we extend the way we treat the bonds of common kinship and apply it to how our society should be run, or to how we could work for social change? In this context, what would it mean to treat all human beings as fellow children of God?
What's the relationship between our individual actions and the possibility of changing the world? "Not any single one of us has to or possibly can save the world," Kushner says, "but together in some kind of concert, in even-not-especially- coordinated concert, the world will change." Do you agree? What examples from previous essays support Kushner's argument?
At one point, Kushner tells us to turn off the computers and show up "at meetings and demos and rallies and leafletting corners." Since computers can be powerful political tools, what point is he making? At what point do we need to shut them off and engage face-to-face with our fellow human beings?
How do we cultivate a spirit of wild hope, like that in the Sherman Alexie's story or that of the man who drove the Range Rover through the shop window?
"The Dark Years" by Nelson Mandela
Mandela describes how authorities attempted to "exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality-all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are." How can individuals promote the opposite in each other-that is, how can individuals or authorities encourage "that spark that makes people human and each of us who we are"?
Why would Mandela and his ANC colleagues go to such lengths to get news of the outside, like passing it from cell to cell on scraps of toilet paper? How does a sense of political isolation foster despair, while being connected with an engaged community encourages hope? How do you break down your political isolation?
Most of us will not face the hardships of imprisonment like Nelson Mandela, but in what other ways can we be imprisoned? What qualities does Mandela suggest help human beings surmount even the greatest of challenges?
Loeb writes, "Those who make us believe anything's possible, however, and fire our imagination over the long haul, are often the ones who've have survived the bleakest of circumstances. It's the men and women who have every reason to despair, but don't, who may have the most to teach us, not only about how to hold true to our beliefs, but about how such a life can bring about seemingly impossible social change." Do you agree or disagree with this why? What lessons can we draw from people facing the most difficult situations for our own more modest challenges?
How can courage be multiplied? Can you think of a time in your life or a situation you've witnessed when courage multiplied? Explain.
"It was ANC policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies." What was the point of this policy? Have you ever reached out to someone with whom you radically disagree on an issue about which you felt passionately? What was it like?
"An Orientation of the Heart" by Vaclav Havel
In the beginning of his essay, Havel describes how hope is "a state of mind, not a state of the world." And he distinguishes hope from optimism. How would you distinguish the belief that things will turn out well from the deeper sense that guides us even when we are unsure of the results of our actions. Have you ever faced a personal situation where you acted even though the outcomes were uncertain?
What states of mind and approaches to the world do you think nurture hope? Do you know someone who exemplifies a hopeful approach to the world, and not just an optimistic one? Describe this person.
Have you ever heard people label activists "exhibitionistic" or say they were just trying "to draw attention to themselves." What was your response when you realized this same charge was being levied at a later successful democracy movement that challenged a Communist dictatorship? Did this make you question the way our own society so quickly dismisses our own political dissenters?
Would you agree with Milan Kundera that the petition circulated by Havel and others was futile? Why or why not? Compare Havel's description of people being brought together to challenge the regime in an apparently futile context with Paul’s friend Lisa standing in the rain and realizing she'd later helped inspire famed baby doctor, Ben Spock. How do these examples suggest that the impact of our actions may only be clear in hindsight?
How did the petition help keep the prisoners going? Have you ever witnessed a situation where the supportive actions of others help courageous individuals keep acting? Do you agree with Havel's judgment that small acts of resistance can still matter--even if they don't have the desired immediate outcome?
Since the dictatorship was still in power when Havel wrote his essay (and according to global consensus likely to remain so), what allowed him to see the cracks in the walls of their seemingly unchallengeable rule? Is it possible for us to look similarly beyond the horizon to see what might be possible in changing unjust situations in our own political context? What does it mean to "make a way out of no way"?
Havel describes resistance against a dictatorship that seeks to control every aspect of daily life in a way that prevents questioning the prevailing authorities. Does our dominant culture ever function in a similar way? If so, how? If much our culture avoids talking about the real and urgent questions of our time, what would a culture look like that challenges this? What signs of it do you see in today's America?
“Reluctant Activists” by Mary Pipher
Cornel West, public intellectual and groundbreaking author, will take part in a panel discussion, “Black Lives Matter,” for university students from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Feb. 4 in Gemmell MPR, and a lecture, “Inside Politics,” for the community at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4 in the Marwick-Boyd auditorium. The lecture is free and open to the public.
All-Time TIME 100 of All Time™ list consultant Cornel West really wanted St. Francis of Assisi, and that bird thing is cool, but I'm guessing West isn't going to click through this list, so I'm going Aquinas.
Cornel West was nice enough to help me and really wanted Coltrane on the list. Plus, without "A Love Supreme," NPR would have nothing to start their shows with.
- Cornel West introduces the Race Matters of race in America in Race Matters as a social problem with many issues intertwined in a complex combination of black male rage, crisis in leadership and economic injustice.