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Willie James Jennings


The BURDEN of the BLACK LEADER

Torn between the demands of black nationalism and American democracy.

In Race Matters (1993) Cornel West judged the state of black leadership as one of crisis: "There has not been a time in the history of black people in this country when the quantity of politicians and intellectuals was so great, yet the quality of both groups has been so low. … Just when one would have guessed that black America was flexing its political and intellectual muscles, rigor mortis seems to have set in." West echoes what has become a loud refrain within the black community.

Loud, yes, but also wrong. The fact that black intellectuals and activists now bemoan a crisis of leadership in the black community is a strange twist of history. It is as if a Shakespearean tragedy were being enacted in public view. Black leadership in America is not in crisis. Black leadership is always a matter of crisis—born of crisis, schooled in crisis, and performed and recognized in crisis.

These texts showcase the complexity of the black public persona as an always trouble-filled place of existence for those who out of divine providence, historical accident, political expediency, or even sheer luck become embodiments of hope, bearers of collective dreams, actors of believed destinies. Their lives are played out against the background of America's disease, white supremacy and racism. Herein lies the basis of their complexity as individuals and their dilemma as black religious leaders. They live in the "in between" of public presentation, between an oppressed community and a larger nation, between being representations of blackness and representing the realities of black people. Each book registers a life engaged in this almost impossible task.

THE LOGIC OF BLACK NATIONALISM

Mattias Gardell's In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam is a fine social history written in the tradition of C. Eric Lincoln's classic text The Black Muslims in America (republished 1996). In ten chapters, Gardell moves from the Nation of Islam's foundations in black ...

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