Gravy Train vs. Freedom Train (HUM415)

Here’s a little peek into American politics. At present a huge amount of attention is being paid to the mythical “Black Vote,” which is often discussed as if it were some kind of object, a prize to be gifted to the deserving candidate.

As you can see in this exchange between Dr. Cornel West and Bakari Sellers, however, there is no monolithic African American position on who will make the best Democratic nominee. Like the fabled African American community– increasingly an “imagined community,” to borrow a phrase from Benedict Anderson– the “Black Vote” is in reality plural and contradictory.

West comes from a political tradition that overlaps with but is distinct from Sellers’s. It is more rooted in the folk, it is socialist, and it is spiritual. These qualities are expressed at the level of personal style. Note, for example, West’s diction and elocution. He is a dynamic speaker who pulls from the vocabulary of freedom struggles and the Black church.

Sellers’s style, like his politics, is clearly less folksy. His speech bears no discernible trace of a southern accent and his vocabulary seems drawn for the most part from academia and public policy dicsourse. His is the perspective of the next generation of the African American political elite, one perfectly at ease with what we might as well call the Establishment.

Though from different cohorts, both men share a middle-class background. They are both well educated and linked to the Black struggle for civil rights, though Sellers’ connection is probably most notable via his father, Cleveland, who as a leader of SNCC was involved in the Orangeburg Massacre. The difference between them emerges most clearly in their understanding of capitalism and class.  In West’s language, it is the difference between the political visions of “the gravy train” versus “the freedom train.”

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