Saturday, 3 June 2017

Cornel West Talks About Race, Democracy, Justice and Love at Ryerson University during Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences


By Neil Armstrong

Cornel West speaking at Ryerson University on May 29, 2017. Courtesy of Ryerson University. Photo by Kevin Van Paassen


Cornel West says the greatest honour he will ever receive is being the second son of Irene and the late Clifton West and he wants the world to know that.

He’s not keen on being known as one who has been shaped by his particular college or graduate school experiences.

The professor of philosophy and Christian practices at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University spoke at an event on May 29 entitled: “An evening with Cornel West” presented as part of Ryerson University’s programming at the 2017 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. He was there to share his views on race, democracy, justice and love.

The university hosted the congress from May 27 to June 2 under the theme: “The Next 150, On Indigenous Lands” where more than 5,000 presentations, panels, keynotes, and other events took place over the seven days.

The evening with West drew hundreds to an auditorium in the Ted Rogers School of Management where two overflow rooms were opened to accommodate everyone.

“I’ll never be half the person my father was, and I’ll never be one-third of the human being that my mother is. And that’s not just cheap piety. It’s what the great rabbi, Abraham Heschel, would call subversive piety. This piety is not a critical deference to dogma; it’s not some blind obedience to dogma. It is the acknowledgment of the sources of good in your life. The acknowledgement of the debt that you owe to those who came before, and it begins from your momma’s womb and your daddy. It begins for me on the chocolate side of Sacramento, California.”

West said this was what the Isley Brothers had in mind when they said a ‘Caravan of Love’ and that he is a product of the caravan of love.

“And it’s not a cheap metaphor because I come from a people who’ve been terrorized and traumatized and stigmatized for 400 years. A people who’ve been hated systematically and chronically for 400 years and yet we still taught the world so much about how to love.”

The public intellectual said this is not just braggadocio and that he could just turn on John Coltrane’s ‘Love Supreme’ and sit down.

“When you listen to that song tonight, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You could read from James Baldwin’s love saturated essays. Love forces us to take off the mask. We know we cannot live within but fear we cannot live without. That’s that native son of Harlem who never went to college but a college went through him.”

West’s presentation was replete with references to musicians, activists, philosophers, and academics.

“Turn on Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On,’ every note and the silences between the notes shot through with the deepest love. There’s never been a character who embodies more love than Mama of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ written by a genius from the south side of Chicago name Lorraine Hansberry who would be dead by 34 but whose name will live forever. That’s the whence for me, that’s where I come from and I have a Sankofa sensibility. I refuse to move forward until I’m connected with the best of what has gone into the shaping and moulding of who as a fallible, finite human being that I am.”

He said the reason this is very important is because in these times there is “a spiritual blackout which is the relative eclipse of integrity, the relative eclipse of honesty, the relative eclipse of decency, the relative eclipse of courage.”

“Thank God that in the American empire even as we’re seeing the worst, and let us never ever fetishize Donald Trump. He’s not some isolated individual who dropped out of the sky. No, he expresses deep, deep, tendencies in American culture, in American society, in the American empire; he’s a fellow citizen of mine, he’s fellow human being of yours, and therefore the question will become can you deal with the Trump elements inside of you?”

West noted that the best book that he has read on Trump thus far is written by Henry Giroux who teaches here and whose book will be out soon.

He said Trump is a gangsta – “a gangsta for grabbing a woman’s private parts, a gangsta to see oil in another country and go think somehow you have access to it, that’s what it is to be a gangsta, exercise arbitrary power…”

“How do you keep track of the gangsta elements inside of each and everyone of us so that we downplay the self-righteousness but like Cabral straighten our backs up and become fortified?”

“We don’t need sunshine soldiers in this moment,” he said, but instead need “all season justice warriors, long distance runners for freedom.”

“And oh, how difficult it is in our market-driven society that tries to erase memory and act as if we only have the present with the repletion of instant gratification and the next moment to dominate and manipulate. And the right wing has no full-scale monopoly on it.”

West said it is a spiritual and a moral issue, as well as a political and economic one.

“Yes, we’ve got to zero in on the vicious legacy of white supremacy that’s always set at the centre of not just the American empire but Canada too, in a different way, in a different form. Just ask our precious Indigenous brothers and sisters, they’ll tell you about it. It is not a matter of PC chit chat, there are human beings whose lands were stolen, whose babies were violated, whose humanity was targeted in a vicious way. And low and behold, by time brothers and sisters from Ireland and Scotland and Italy and England, and India and Bangladesh and Jamaica made their way to Canada – the question would be whether the Socratic challenge would be met because let’s just be honest, I read about this brother Stephen Harper. He struck me as a clever Trump.”

He said with Trump it’s “raw and coarse, it’s in your face. We know he’s not fit, we know he’s in over his head but it’s too easy just to trash him. The challenge will be who produced him. The challenge will be where did he come from, what kind of genealogy can we give that account for such a figure who now runs the American empire that could drop bombs on seven Muslim countries and no major forces be raised against him.”

West included a critique of Obama in this context, noting that, “People in love with that smile. Oh, he’s brilliant, there’s no doubt about it, poised, highly intelligent, but still as my dear sister, Pam, said ‘a neoliberal who was willing to engage in drone strikes to kill precious children in Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan and Libya and Somalia, and hardly any voice was raised in the American empire. How come? Oh, but you don’t want to deal with the various dimensions of the vicious legacy of white supremacy, just trot out a black folk at the top and break the glass ceiling and start breakdancing in the air and end up sleepwalking on the ground. That’s what we did the last eight years. We had symbolic celebration and concrete hibernation.”

He said suffering took place during those eight years, such as one out of two children under 6, black and brown, living in utter poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world.

“That’s spiritually obscene, that’s morally disgraceful. No serious talk about poverty. For eight years we didn’t have it. Here comes the neo-fascist, lower than mediocrity and America has a long tradition of white male mendacity and mediocrity in high places. A long tradition – Trump is just another one, we had Bush, we had Reagan, we had Schwarzenegger, we’d go on and on and on. And I know you’ve got some analogues in Canada but I don’t know all of them, but my hunch is you could trot them out too.”

Cornel West           Courtesy of Ryerson University. Photo by Kevin Van Paassen.


West spoke of the notion of soulcraft, “that’s precisely what the humanities is all about.”

Quoting line 38A of Plato’s apology, “the unexamined life of the human is not worth living,” he said the English word ‘human’ comes from the Latin word ‘humando’ which means “burial and burying, that we all are beings with language towards death.”

“We’re featherless, two-legged, linguistically-conscious creatures born between urine and feces. That’s funky. That’s why I’m with George Clinton and Bootsy Collins and James Brown. I want to be a funk.”

West said he doesn’t want “deodorized discourses, sanitized sterilized discourses that remain on the surface all the time” but instead he wants “the truth and the truth is always full of what Samuel Beckett calls the ‘mess,’ what my tradition calls the ‘funk.’ Because when you keep it funky that’s where the love and freedom is.”

He drew a comparison of this to the process of birth, where love dwells, and noted that this is where blues, jazz, rhythm & blues and hip hop come from.

“If you don’t keep it real and keep it funky you rest assured that you’re truncating the truth and the condition of truth is always to allow suffering to speak. From every corner in your community, every corner of your own soul, every corner of a nation, every corner of the planet – you begin with the least of these. Thank God for our Jewish brothers and sisters in Hebrew scripture ‘to be human is to spread ‘Hesed’ loving and kindness to the vulnerable, the orphan and the widow, the fatherless and the motherless, the poor, the working people, gay brothers and lesbian sisters, and trans and bisexual, the Muslims in Muslim-hating context, the Jews in Jews-hating context. That’s what it is at the deepest level – coming to terms with humanities.”

West said anyone who call themself a professor of humanities is “dealing with forms of death, the voices of the dead, and the voices of the quick who are spiritually dead, psychically dead, because the fundamental in the name of humanities is about what? – it’s about awakening. It’s what Henry David Thoreau call ‘trying to get folk to wake up’ because they’ve been sleepwalking too long.”

“That’s what my young black brothers and sisters in the American empire – a movement for black lives – they’re staying woke. And what Christina Harper [he meant Christina Sharpe who also spoke at the Congress], a black intellectual in the United States call ‘in the wake’ and the interplay between staying woke and in the wake. Because at the wake you’re dealing with the dead, especially the dead of those you love, those you care for, and part of the challenge these days is to try to keep alive traditions and legacies that look at the world through the lens of those Frantz Fanon called ‘the wretched of the earth.’ It’s a difficult thing.”

He described W. E. B. Du Bois as probably the greatest public intellectual in the history of the American empire in the 20th century, alluding to Du Bois’ critique of the legacy of white supremacy and its connection with capitalism

West said neoliberalism facilitates the massive transfer of wealth from poor and working people to the 1% that “leaves them more and more ruthless, feeling helpless and hopeless and unable to act as citizens or feel as if they’re agents in the world while the 1% breakdances on the way to the bank with millions and millions and billions of dollars and then say that’s normal, that’s natural.”
He said the greatness of Du Bois is that when he was in his 80s, in handcuffs, and the government tried to send him to jail for life, in February of 1951, he said to his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois: “’I’ve got to write a love letter to the younger generation so that they’ll never forget.’ They’ll have a revolutionary piety, remembrance, revere something more than just the market and be willing to resist until death, because that’s what Du Bois was willing to do. He was a humanistic scholar. He was not a professional who studies text in order to engage in career possibilities.”

“Don’t deodorize Du Bois, like Martin Luther King Jr., like Malcolm X, they were love warriors, they were justice warriors; they were not polished professionals. There’s a difference. Nothing wrong with getting your professional skills together but if you view life as a gold rush you’re going to end up worshipping the golden calf. And if all you do is fetishize your professional skills in order for your career opportunities, you’re going to end up being well adjusted to injustice.”

He criticized those who talk about ‘getting beyond the 1960s,’ noting instead that the need is to ‘catch up with the 60s.’

“Capitalism still in place, wealth inequality still in place, white supremacy still in place, male supremacy is still in place, homophobia is still in place, losing sight of the physically challenged still in place. Oh, we’ve made some progress. Yes, we have made some progress but what does Malcolm say, you don’t stab folk in the back nine inches, pull it out three inches and celebrate your progress. No, progress for who – for the upper middle classes yes, for the 1%, my god, what about the devastated working class of all colours, what about poor people of all colours, my god when it comes to poor brothers and sisters of colour. You’ve got levels of barbarism and beastiality, let’s be honest about it.”

West said he has taught in the prisons for 37 years and when he started there were 235, 000 in the prisons in the American empire. Today there is almost 2.5 million.

“It’s a shame, it’s no plaything, see those lives crushed, wasted potential, most of them in there for non-violent crimes. Twelve per cent of black youth fly high in the friendly skies every week, 12% of white youth fly high in the friendly skies every week, 65% of the convictions are chocolate.  And they say oh Brother West why are you so mad? How come you’re on television talking about the racist criminal justice system? We got to tell the truth. It is not just a matter of skin pigmentation. I would be mad if it was black supremacy against white brothers and sisters because it’s a moral and spiritual issue.”

West said instead of integrity we live in an age of cupidity, love of money, it’s idolatrous, it’s tied to venality, “everybody is for sale, everything for sale. Georg Lukács called it ‘reification,’ Marx called it ‘commodification.’ We’re living in the most reified, commodified, marketized, commercialized society in the history of the world, and the American empire is at the centre of it. And that’s tied to spiritual blackout – buying and selling, buying and selling of self as well as things. And the question becomes what are the conditions under which that buying and selling generates upward redistribution of wealth. That’s what we’ve been dealing with. I know here in Canada, I’ve always thought that there is a real sense in which, at least when it comes to health care, you all are so much more civilized than we are in the American empire.”

He spoke on other matters and then fielded questions from the audience.  Among them was Afua Cooper, scholar, author, poet and James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, who updated West on anti-Black racism in Canada in the education system, childcare, criminal justice, and other areas – describing it as “a genocide on black bodies in Canada.” She asked him – Why do black professors matter?

Afua Cooper, James Robinston Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia at the evening with Cornel West.


West is a provocative democratic intellectual who has also taught at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris.

He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. He is the author of over 30 books amd editor of 13.

Though he is best known for his classics, ‘Race Matters’ and ‘Democracy Matters,’ and for his memoir, ‘Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud,’ his most recent releases, ‘Black Prophetic Fire’ and ‘Radical King,’ were received with critical acclaim.

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