Though it shames me to admit it, for as long as I can remember, (so far as this present quest for knowledge, redemption, and usefulness I’m on is concerned, that is) I have dismissed the ideals, teaching, and overall wisdom of Dr. Cornel West. This, irrational avoidance stemmed from something I either read in a book or heard from someone at one time regarding Dr. West’s tendency towards proselytism, him being a Christian and all. This came at a time when I was barely discovering a G-d of my own understanding (read between the lines as you see fit) and had an incredible aversion towards religion as a whole… maybe around 2001-2002. Would you believe I managed to graduate from one of the most prestigious university systems (University of California) with a Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies of all fields and maintain this anti-Cornel West stance; having only read one essay from Dr. West the entire time, and only as a 5th year senior during a special seminar course on the sex worker industry in the Caribbean (taught by dissertation scholar Erica Lorraine Williams). West’s essay was about “otherness” and the animalization of African descendants both male and female. Having studied such things for a few years, while insightful, it was hardly enough to push me into the West camp.
Fast forward to March, 2010. My entire viewpoint changed as I watched the following interview of Dr. Cornel West on Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines:
Hearing the man speak, actually observing his charisma, and, most especially, his analysis of “colorblindness” and MLK at around 12:50, and his analysis on Israel/Palestine at 17:08… courted me… as though he was flirting with my brain cells. Whatever he was doing, he got me. I started to look for more and more from the man… now my teacher/mentor. This research led to the fairly recent release of Dr. Cornel West & BMWMB (Black Men Who Mean Business) – CD Project Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations. The number 6 track on the album, The N Word is a true treat. The N Word is a discussion, mediated by Tavis Smiley, with Michael Eric Dyson, a brother that commanded my attention years ago, about the use of the word nigger in and out of the black community. The discussion tastefully overlays “James Brown-ish” funk background. The entire album is amazing, featuring the likes of Prince, KRS-1, Andre 3000, Jill Scott, the late Gerald Levert, and more. You can listen/read an interview with Tavis Smiley and West about this project specifically, here.
Forward again to the topic at hand. Since coming into my own regarding Dr. West I have become, as I mentioned earlier, a believer, a follower, and a student of this man. Insha’Allah one day I will actually get to meet and study under him, but until such time I’m doing my own independent studies. At the bookstore I opted out of buying his most famous publication, Race Matters, and, instead went straight for The Cornel West Reader. Let me tell you, the brother does not disappoint. I’ve had to pace myself on account of being overstimulated on occasion. I want so much to share this experience with others as I read it and experience it that I’ve decided to devote the occasional blog post to just this. The following excerpts are from the introduction:
To be modern is to live dangerously and courageously in the face of relentless self-criticism and inescapable fallibilsm; it is to give up the all-too-human quest for certainty and indubitability owing to the historicity of our claims. Yet to give in to sophomoric relativism (“Anything goes” or “All views are equally valid”) is a failure of nerve, and to succumb to wholesale skepticism (“There is no truth”) is a weakness of the will and imagination. Instead, the distinctive mark of modernity is to pursue the treacherous trek of dialogue, to wager on the fecund yet potentially poisonous fruits of fallible inquiry, which require communicative action, risk-ridden conversation, even intimate relation.
This experience of dialogue–the I-Thou relation with the uncontrolled other–may result in a dizziness, vertigo or shudder that unhinges us from our moorings or yanks us from our anchors… This loss of our footing and gain of our freedom compel us to acknowledge that the very meaning of being modern may be the lack of any meaning, that our quest for such meaning may be the very meaning itself–without ever arriving at any fixed meaning.
American culture accentuates what is to come, what is not yet as opposed to what is and what has been. Of course, such a futuristic orientation often degenerates into an infantile, sentimental or melodramatic propensity toward happy endings, so that dreams of betterment downplay the dark realities of suffering in our midst. In this way, American discourses on innocence, deliverance or freedom overlook the atrocities of violence, subjugation or slavery in our past present. To be American is to downplay history in the name of hope, to ignore memory in the cause of possibility.
Ok, wow… the previous quote, on being American, has caused me to take a deeper, fairer look into the minds of my many critics, friends and foe alike. It has provided a better basis upon which I’ve been able to understand their incredible faith in this social project called America. Mind you, I just barely read this a few days ago and it has already caused me to completely reevaluate how I see my patriotic friends and family.
To be American is to raise perennially the frightening democratic question: What does the public interest have to do with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society? This query of democratic import goes back to Cleisthenes of 508 B.C. in Athens. Shouldn’t democracy be a form of plebodicy–not theodicy–that focuses our attention on the unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery of ordinary human beings here and abroad? And yet isn’t American democracy one in which arbitrary power is not fully curtailed and, hence, the political, corporate and financial elites–unregulated by substantive public accountability–wield forms of power that cause pain and grief for fellow citizens that need not be?
These were from the introduction alone… next posting in this “series” will be either about Dr. West’s Christianity, the very thing that once turned me off from him (forgive me… I’m older/wiser now) or his comments regarding Marxist social thought… oooh… or perhaps both because there is a definite overlap in the reading.
– Kicking Horse