Join Our Community

When Hope Walks a Tightrope

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

When Hope Walks a Tightrope

How to prevent the collapse of today’s families.
Cornel  West
Cornel West More by this author
Nov 15, 2009 at 09:00 AM

“You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”

We are now in one of the most truly prophetic moments in the history of America. We have witnessed the breakdown of the social systems that nurture our children. Our rootless children—the one-out-of-five children in America who live in poverty. We are talking about the state of young souls: culturally naked, with no safe moorings, these children have no cultural armor to protect them while navigating the terrors and traumas of daily life. Culture, in part, provides people with the tools and resources to steel themselves against adversity.

Family is a major vehicle through which history and memory can be preserved in the face of a culture that defaces history and erases memory. Real family signifies a high level of compassion and intimacy between people. A compassionate family affirms the best of who you are even in the worst of circumstances. Even when you go to jail, your mama, sister, brother, or loved one will still believe in you because they know you can be better than whatever crime you committed. They don’t give up on you and keep giving you another chance.

Intimacy and compassion are important too because they allow people to open themselves, take risks in relationships, and thereby allow the worst and the best to be seen. It’s knowing that when people see the worst, they’ll still be accepting. When people see the best, they’ll still be embracing.

Part of our problem these days is not just the indifference that displaces compassion but the cold manipulation that’s displacing intimacy. The relative collapse of families in America, especially in black America, means that the very act of intimacy is being destroyed. Young people need a community to sustain them.

When I was growing up, we were targeted for love and people cared for us. They were concerned about us. Folk in the church would give you generous portions of wisdom, most often unsolicited. Folk in the Little League or in the beauty salon just kept dropping all these different pearls that you didn’t even realize were wisdom until you strung them together in a moment of crisis.

Young brothers and sisters today have no sense of the signs, signals, clues and cues needed to negotiate and navigate the treacherous terrain of American society.

It’s not just how you dress. It’s in language, nuance, tone, judgment, and timing, all those things you learn in your family. You don’t learn them in a book. You have to learn them by spending time around other folk who’ve had to negotiate and navigate on that same terrain for a long time. That’s partly what I mean by the young folk not being loved right and not getting enough care and attention.

Historically for so many, but especially for black people, the church has been an extended family. The church gave you a sense of history, memory, and the need for struggle. The church at its best was the upholder of truth, love, and justice.

We live in a society that suffers from historical amnesia. We find it very difficult to preserve the memory of those who have resisted and struggled for the ideals of freedom, democracy and equality.

That’s why young people need to read their history closely. To prepare themselves spiritually for struggle. To be self-critical and open to counsel from elders who have been engaged in purposeful struggle their entire lives.

Young people need hope. They need to hold on to the notion that the future can be different—if they sacrifice, if they fight, if they struggle.

I try to uplift young people by introducing them to historic individuals who have displayed courage in its highest form—people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Michael Harrington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and other freedom fighters. Then I ask them how many of their parents and brothers and sisters in some way  extend this kind of tradition. I ask them: What’s going to happen to this tradition? Are you going to be part of this tradition? How can we keep it vital, vibrant, and alive?

About Author
Cornel  West
Educator and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Known as one of America’s most gifted, provocative, and important public intellectuals, Dr. We Continue reading