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Reversing Nihilism
Kyle Trama
HIST 217
Professor Serrano
April 13th, 2012
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Nihilism is an elusive term. It can be defined as the complete rejection of
established laws or institutions. In terms of philosophy, Nihilism is described as an
extreme form of skepticism and a complete denial of reality. It is a plague that has
consumed black youth across our nation. As a result, black nihilism has become an
issue debated across the nation by scholars and intellectuals such as Cornell West,
who defines this ideological contamination as sense of hopelessness and loss of
identity.” In “The Souls of Black Folk” W.E.B. Dubois explains his own “Double
Consciousness”1 theory. DuBois offers a an accurate historical assessment of the
progress of race, the obstacles preventing that progress, and the possibilities for
future development as the nation entered the twentieth century. In his own book,
“Democracy Matters”, Cornel West agues that the institution of slavery, the lack of
local leadership, our consumer and capitalistic systems, and the polarization of our
political dialogue contribute to increasing black nihilism. West stresses the
apathetic tendencies of young people across the nation have become the biggest and
most direct threat to our three hundred yearlong democratic experiment. This
divergence of political discourse, and lack of true activism on a local level fosters a
disheartening climate of dispiritedness in urban neighborhoods across the U.S. We
must recognize that America is in crisis. We must restore our sense of community
and involvement. We must rediscover the cultural structures of significance and
responsibility, and the civic foundations that embody our shared values of service
and sacrifice, love and affection, self-control and merit. Democracy requires
W.E.B. DuBois, “The Souls of Black Folk.” Dover Publications, May 20, 1994
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unmitigated participation, and it is the duty of every American to contribute no
matter their color or creed. The purpose of this essay is to explore the philosophies
of these two highly respected scholarly activists, and address the issues that prevent
long overdue progress and threaten to further divide our great nation.
In 1897, W.E.B. DuBois wrote an article for Atlantic Magazine entitled
“Strivings of the Negro People.” In it, DuBois coined the term “Double
Consciousness.” Five years later, in his timeless masterpiece “Souls of Black Folk”,
DuBois went on to explain the meaning behind the term, “…the Negro ever feels his
two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled
strivings…two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps
it from being torn asunder.”2 Double consciousness was DuBois way of describing
the contradiction between social values and daily struggles faced by black people
living in the United States. This lack of confidence and identity played a direct role in
the nihilistic mentality that formed in the black community during the slavery and
post-revolutionary eras. DuBois described this feeling as “(the) sense of always
looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape
of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”3 Despite all of this, the black
community succeeded in building powerful shields against the threat of white
supremacy and nihilism. They embraced cultural structures of significance and
value. They founded their own religious and civic institutions that embodied the
W.E.B. DuBois, “The Souls of Black Folk”, Dover Publications, May 20, 1994
W.E.B. DuBois, “The Souls of Black Folk”, Dover Publications, May 20, 1994
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values of their homeland, and black intellectuals and scholars pledged to lead and
educate the youth.
Scholarly Activist, Author and College Professor Cornell West agrees with
W.E.B. DuBois that black nihilism in America has existed since the inception of
slavery. The alarming consequence of this detachment from others is a reclusive
disposition toward the world and an apathetic outlook on life in general. West
considers this to be the single greatest threat to Democracy because he believes the
“foundation of a Democratic Nation is civil participation.”4 Life without significance,
faith, and friendship results in a self-destructive mentality that threatens to damage
the individual. In “Democracy Matters”, West argues that up until the 1970’s, blacks
had succeeded in creating a strong culture that was encouraging civil participation,
self expression, and community engagement. West blames the deterioration of black
expression on the nature of capitalism, and reach of the media, whom he believes
perpetuates materialism. According to West, corporatists have successfully
“hijack(ed) black culture” 5 and created a monopoly on black expression. He builds
on this point, and calls on all people to “resist(ing) all forms of cultural
authoritarianism, be it from the right wing church, black ideologues, black
Cornell West, “Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism”,
Penguin, August 30, 2005
5 Cornell West, “Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism”,
Penguin, August 30, 2005
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nationalists, or mainstream white media”6 in order to combat nihilism, and keep our
democracy alive. Often times choosing to use bombastic language, West writes that
“Many black folk now reside in a jungle with a cutthroat morality devoid of any faith
in deliverance or hope for freedom.”7 This controversial sentence is full of
persuasive language that drives his point home, while simultaneously alienating his
In Chapter 6 of “Democracy Matters”, West addresses the necessary
engagement with youth culture. He contends that the solution to nihilism and
political polarization would be the emergence of strong leaders at the local level.
Gone are the days of true grassroots activism, as West argues that many politicians
nowadays avoid “Politics of Conversion”8 and engage in divisive talking points that
focus far too much on structure, and far too little on community engagement. Our
fragmented state of politics has lead to contagious disparagement among the
nations youth that obstructs the efforts of local activists who depend on civic
involvement. These local activists must directly address the threat of nihilism by
working within the system in order to bring about an explicit sense of united
accountability amongst our youth. West believes these new leaders must treat
nihilism as a “disease that can be tamed by love and care, but that can never be
Cornell West, “Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism”,
Penguin, August 30, 2005
7 Cornell West, “Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism”,
Penguin, August 30, 2005
8 Cornell West, “Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism”,
Penguin, August 30, 2005
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completely cured.”9 He directly addresses the absence of black leadership, asserting
that it is a direct contributor to the spread of nihilism. Ultimately, the point being
driven home is that it is the responsibility of scholars and intellectuals to engage the
youth in democratic participation. It is the responsibility of these educated people to
become leaders and facilitate productive political dialogue.
There are obvious parallels between Cornell West’s cries for black leadership
and W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth”; a term coined in “The Negro Problem”, a
collection of essays written by African American leaders in 1903. The main pitfall of
this speech is the ostentatious tenor DuBois adopted. The language he chose was
grandiloquent and confrontational. The op-ed started out with a controversial
introduction, as DuBois wrote “the Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by
its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all
deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race
that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst,
in their own and other races.”10 As a result of these assumed pompous overtones,
the speech is often disregarded, overlooked, or used as evidence to prove DuBois’
alleged elitism. Despite the criticism, DuBois clearly articulated his belief that higher
education was key to developing leadership capability amongst the top 10 percent
of black Americans. Quite simply, this was DuBois’ attempt to reach out to his fellow
peers, and to convince them to embrace his gradualist political strategy. DuBois
Cornell West, “Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism”,
Penguin, August 30, 2005
10 W.E.B. DuBois, “The Souls of Black Folk”, Dover Publications, May 20, 1994
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understood that blacks needed to embrace higher education in order to develop
societal, economical and cultural buffers strong enough to defend against white
supremacy and the nihilistic approach to democratic involvement that would
undoubtedly result from various forms of aggravated oppression. Cornell West
demands a similar approach from black leaders today, calling on them to engage
young people across the nation, while singling out a new enemy, insisting that media
and capitalism are to blame for the most recent spread of nihilism. West asks our
local leaders to work in conjunction with the national system and accuses many
prominent political figures of ignoring people's needs against the brutality of a
profit driven capitalist system.
West contends, and I believe DuBois would agree, that more efficient local
activist efforts, the formation of a sense of collective responsibility, and a firm
devotion to community and democracy are the weapons we must use to combat
nihilism in America today. The apathy plaguing the black community and our youth
across the nation, can neither be alleviated by Democratic endeavors to transform
the system, nor Republican attempts to accentuate individual responsibility and
dependency. This means our local leaders must focus less on re-election and
subordination, and concentrate more on working in conjunction with national
leadership. In order to accomplish these goals, we must forge a new cultural identity
and encourage youth participation across the nation. Now is the time to embrace
higher education, civic participation and communal responsibility. For if we wait
any longer, we risk losing our identities.
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1. Cornell West, “Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism”,
Penguin, August 30, 2005
2. W.E.B. DuBois, “The Souls of Black Folk”, Dover Publications, May 20, 1994