No. 55 - Reginald Eldridge Jr. on The Black Prophetic Tradition.

Photograph by Emily Fishman


September 18th, 2019

Every time I interview someone I learn something new. It's a privilege to serve as editor of this journal, and to bring these pages to life with the stories and teachings and work of our contributors.

One of the most memorable moments that I experienced took place this past February, when I walked around Bed-Stuy with Reginald Eldridge Jr., who offered a short-story, "The A-Lift," for Issue No. 6 - Winter 2018-19.

On that Sunday afternoon, after speaking for about an hour at Brown Butter, on Tompkins Avenue, Eldridge Jr. and I started walking along Halsey Street, until we reached Lewis Avenue and made our way into the Macon Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

While there, we sat in the African-American heritage room, and whether by plan, fate, or a combination of both, we began talking about the 2008 presidential election, as well as the power of the Black Prophetic Tradition.

An excerpt from the interview appears below; the full interview along with Eldridge Jr.'s short story can be read within Issue No. 6 - Winter 2018-19.

- Isaac Myers III

Reginald: I moved to Chicago in 2011 and live there until 2017. So I was there for the re-election. I do remember the 2008 election, which has its own beauty, but that was when I was in grad school. It was really great.

We stood in line. And a lot of my friends at the time were foreign exchange students from francophone black nations, so they all spoke French. It was good for me because it helped me keep up with my French.

Isaac: Which nations?

Reginald: Martinique, Congo, Senegal . . . And I think there was one person who is half-Haitian, but they were all through France. They were exchange students from places that France once dominated by colonialism, but then they lived in the mother country ––– the so-called mother country; it's just a really terrible name for a colonial power, "the mother country."

It's not very mothering. It's the absolute opposite relationship. "The child" would be better. It's more the child than the mother. It's suckling its colonies; taking from its colonies, and being fed by the colonies, and growing stronger because of the colonies. It's not the other way around. It doesn't mother anything and it didn't give birth to the colonies; the colonies are giving birth to it, and new life.

But we stood in line forever, at this place called the Hip-Hop Soda Shop, in Tampa, and I remember calling people in New Mexico and making sure they voted. And I remember, there was a very large man who I knew, and when the election results came in he was just weeping ––– he had to be six foot four and two-hundred and fifty pounds. Just weeping, and he was saying, "Is it alright? Is it alright?"

It was an epistemic shift, which is what I was preoccupied with in grad school, which is this idea that fundamental codes of a culture can, and that night was a moment of that, a shift, having all those people in that place. And having to encounter the unreality of a possibility being realized, one which they may have hoped for, but didn't believe could actually happen –––– until it happened.

And then when it happened it was just felt like, what?

Isaac: Do you think he was asking, "Is it alright to cry?"

Reginald: I think it was more of a question of "Is what just occurred, alright?" He was grappling with the unreality of it. Because who could expect it? Until it happened, I don't know anyone who expected it to happen. Even up until the point in which it happened. The same could be said for Trump, for a lot of people, except I think a lot of black folks expected it, when it came to Trump.

We feared it and knew America enough to know that they would do that; that after Obama was elected twice, that they would be too mad, that after eight years, the backlash was coming. That was clear. Because before then, we had just had Bush. So to go from Bush, to Obama.

And you have to remember at the time, that was unheard of, a young black man being President of the United States, right? And he had all of the qualifications and he deserved it, but it didn't make sense, after Bush especially, but Bush didn't make sense.

But it's not just that he was elected, because he is who he is, but it's also having Michelle Obama in the White House. Because she's the stronger speaker of the two.

Isaac: How so?

Reginald: She's more in tune with the black prophetic tradition than he is. He's in tune with it in his own way, but her ancestors gifted her with something; not that he wasn't gifted, but part of his gift was her. If you go back to their speeches and listen to her, and also listen to Dr. King's speeches, or Fannie Lou Hamer's, or Malcolm X's . . . there's something that they're doing that sets them apart.

Again, to return to the idea of it being the sound of a voice, and not just the words . . . comparing connotative and denotative meanings, but then also considering however you would describe the spiritual efficacy of what they're doing in these speeches, and the intent that you can feel within them, without having to say it –––– what you can do to rile people up, and the kind of freedom you have to do that, and they way that you can feel when a person is speaking –––– if they're a preacher, for instance, that the Holy Ghost is with them, Michelle has that.

But that's too powerful. It's too dangerous. Which is why I hope she never runs for president. We were all scared for Barack too . . .

Isaac: Why is it too powerful, too dangerous?

Reginald: Because it's real. Say what you will about the post-structuralist scholars, but they understood something about culture. Specifically the European late capitalist culture. For instance, someone like Jean Baudrillard who understands the unreality and the reality principle that's kind of upended by being in a postmodernist culture, and the ways in which we live in a culture of simulation and simulacra: the simulation of a simulation.

Just something further and further away; signs being detached from their referents, so to speak. So there's a distance –––– and this is across the board, not just in terms of the things that we encounter, culturally, but even when it comes to money. For instance, it's becoming less and less material and physical, and based less and less on the gold principle, and more on credit, which is nonmaterial.

So that unreality principle is the the fundamental reality principle of the world in which we live, but people like Dr. King, for instance, cut through that, and got to something that feels real ––– that's the prophetic tradition.

That's why you can stand in front of a group of people, and if you have the power to move them, then something is happening there that can't quite be accessed by the so-called powers that be; mainly the political system that we live in, which is always trying to hone that power into something else, for its own purposes, or to eliminate it.

The last time we had a huge outpouring of that kind of energy was the 1960s, and how they quelled that energy was by ceremoniously killing, in public, many of the people who had that kind of power. So that the public would then recoil from that, and/or certain radical groups might formulate, and then those radical groups could be undermined in various ways.

But Obama represented the memory of that; he was the memory of that. He looks like Malcolm X, in a way, and that made it possible for us to connect with that power, and that possibility, even though it seemed impossible to go to that place. But when it comes to the spirit of what those people had –––– especially after hearing Michelle Obama's post-presidency speeches, it was clear that she has that. And if she were to let it go . . .

People should just listen to Dr. King's like last four or five speeches. Not just the last “On the Mountaintop” speech, which is extremely important –––––but for instance one where he talks about midnight; which is about the split between good and evil in the human psyche. And he, like Lebron James, for instance, demonstrates this exhaustive knowledge of the subject matter that he's drawing from, and he demonstrates his exhaustive knowledge of European philosophy and Western philosophy –––– whether it's Christian all the way to the Greeks.

And in the speech he's defining it, but then he's also describing how it translates into a question of psychotherapy. It's just a super exhaustive demonstration of his knowledge, and he does it in a speech that carries people along; and then he brings it back to himself. And he talks about the split between good and evil, which is even inside him, which he always has to fight.

And he's embodying the platonic vision, what Plato describes in The Republic, which is the soul of the city, or the nation being comparable to, or parallel to the soul of a person. And that's exactly what's happening in the 1960's; Where Dr. King is struggling with whether the efforts that he's making, or that he wants to make, will be enough.

But why is it too powerful? Because if someone does that, in this world, where people are yearning for prophecy, then it will open the floodgates.

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