“Let's Meet up and Sit Together at the Dialogue”

An African American Studies Class Gets Tickets

November 5, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


From a reader:

A professor of African American studies invited us to speak in his class about the November 15 Dialogue between Cornel West and Bob Avakian on Revolution and Religion. He teaches at a very selective public university that has been ranked one of the most ethnically diverse in the entire country. The school has a lot of business majors, but his classes attract students from among the broader population who are particularly concerned about the conditions facing people of the African diaspora and other oppressed nationalities.

First he showed the one-minute PSA from Cornel West announcing the Dialogue, then he told the class that he was planning to attend because it promised to be a stimulating conversation between two provocative thinkers, and then he introduced me.

I started off by telling people I was here to make sure they didn't miss this historic Dialogue and that I had tickets to sell right on the spot, and if enough of them decided to come together we could even do a group rate. Then, I boldly put forward the three reasons people should not want to miss this Dialogue. I talked briefly about Bob Avakian, legendary freedom fighter and architect of a whole new vision of human emancipation, someone who has walked the walk without wavering for 50 years, and who will be appearing live and in person to talk about the real prospects for revolution and how we can get beyond the confines of the current order. The topic of police murder had already come up in class and I referenced this. I spoke of how BA came of age politically with the Black Panther Party, fighting against police murder then, and how things have not gotten better and how precious it is that BA not only never gave up on this fight but has gone deeper on the strategy to put an end to these—and other crimes of the system—once and for all.

Cornel West: "...You're going to hear agreement & disagreement... transgression & convergence... most importantly, you're going to hear two brothers who are for real..."

I spoke briefly about what a big deal it is that BA will be appearing on stage together with Cornel West for the first time. Dr. West is also a hero of the oppressed and someone who has spent decades speaking and struggling for the wretched of the earth, most recently getting arrested down in Ferguson and always bringing in his religious faith as the driving force in his commitment. And I spoke of how urgent and pressing the subject of the Dialogue is—revolution and religion—a topic that affects the lives of billions and one which both of these speakers are uniquely qualified to speak on. Hearing them wrangle together over their agreements and disagreements on this subject will certainly challenge us all, teach us many things, and provoke us to get into things more deeply and perhaps even step up our own involvement in different ways. I tried to give a sense as well that these were two people who shared a lot of love for each other and a common commitment to the oppressed, but who were not afraid to explore differences, to “transgress” as Cornel West had put it in his PSA, and that there was space and a big invitation for all of us from different perspectives to go on this journey with them.

The professor encouraged the students to make comments or ask questions, and they dove right in to some very big ones: Do we need religion to be good? Do communists have to be atheists? Do communists keep people out of the revolution by being atheists? Are people really ready for revolution? Isn't racism just too deep to ever change? What made you a revolutionary? Do you think you are making a difference? Isn't the military just too powerful to even consider an actual revolution? How is BA's revolutionary communism different than “classic Marxism”? What do you hope comes out of this event?

I responded briefly to each question, but I didn't attempt to “answer” them. Rather, I appreciated the importance of the questions, even expanding on just how urgent it is that people wrangle with and seek answers to what was being raised and what a tremendous opportunity it will be to hear these and other questions taken up by these two uniquely qualified speakers.

For example, when asked if people are ready for revolution, I posed back that one of the big questions Avakian has been working on for years is precisely the contradiction that the very things that make people need revolution—the conditions of exploitation, enforced ignorance, oppression and state repression—are also many of the things that make it hardest for people to get into the revolution. I referenced how BA has emphasized Marx's concept that the important thing is not what people are thinking or doing at any given time, but what the dynamics of the system are that they will be confronted by. For example, this system just can't get its cops to stop murdering Black youth. This is a horror, but it also means that if revolutionaries recognize this and act in relation to it, they can have a major influence in how people respond as these things keep happening and bring about leaps in terms of what people understand and how they are organized to fight back now and to go forward and, at the soonest possible time, go all the way in making revolution. How to break through on this is something that BA has spent literally decades wrestling with and developing answers to which only underscores what an incredible opportunity it will be to hear him live getting into this and much more.

There were a lot of questions about religion. This was especially interesting because people were impatient to get answers to their questions right then, and debate began to break out between them over how to go at the question of religion. One student posed that religion has been an incredible force for harm but without it there is no basis to forge moral codes. This sparked a lot of different responses and I worked to both fan this debate and to once again deepen people's appreciation of just how important these questions are to the lives of billions and returned to how uniquely qualified these two speakers are to get into this. Cornel West is one of the most courageous and consistent fighters for the oppressed, often stepping out and taking controversial positions long before others stand with him, rooted in his prophetic faith and having grappled deeply with and fought for the prophetic tradition as essential to standing up against oppression. Bob Avakian has made communism more thoroughly scientific and materialist than it has ever been, going more deeply into what he sees as the harms of religion not only politically but also in terms of the methods of thinking it trains people in—philosophically and epistemologically—than anyone before. At the same time, he has broken new ground in developing a communist approach to morality and ethics, the need for awe and wonder, and approach to beauty and questions of “human spirit.” And as different as they both are in their approach to this question, they both come at it from the common perspective of being rooted in the determination to end all forms of oppression, and they both recognize the need to stand with and work with people coming from different perspectives on this.

At every point, I worked to bring the discussion back to—and build up the significance—of attending the Dialogue between Cornel West and Bob Avakian on November 15 at the Riverside Church.

The professor chimed in a few different times. He explained that Riverside Church is where Martin Luther King gave some of his most famous speeches and said this event should be seen in that light. He offered his students extra credit if they wrote a short paper about the event and said they could erase one of their class absences if they showed up to the Dialogue. Finally, he offered to organize a time for them all to meet up and go together and sit together so that they could experience this as a group. “If you like the discussion today, think of the discussion we will be having in this class after we go together to this.” He made clear that he is not a communist and that he doesn't necessarily agree with everything that will be said, but he knows this is something not to miss and he encouraged everyone to be there as well.

When the class ended, eight students came up to purchase their tickets. One bought four tickets so he could bring some friends (meaning we sold 11 tickets in a class of 22). When I asked them why they were interested, several said, “It was everything you were talking about.” Others continued to dig into the questions they had posed. Several took a few extra cards to share with friends or to take to church.

Two young Black women stayed for a long time afterwards. One began by talking about how much she fears for the safety of her six younger brothers at the hands of police, and about being stopped and searched with them just for walking in their own neighborhood. She also opened up about the domestic abuse in her home growing up and how she felt her father used religion to justify keeping her and her mother controlled and submissive. The other told of a high school friend who was killed in crossfire last week and how she wanted to learn about the revolution so this kind of meaningless loss doesn't happen to anyone else. What they opened up and shared was so heavy and such an indication of the need for fundamental change. We got email addresses to stay in touch with most of the students and several students left with samples of BA's work to begin to get more familiar.

Afterwards we stayed and talked some with the professor and he was very pleased with the session. We have been invited back to speak in two more of his classes later this week.


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