Cornel West is a preeminent public intellectual, a brilliant philosopher-gadfly and a towering thinker whose critically engaging voice and fearless speech have proven indispensable for calling out injustice wherever it exists. He is a force grounded within a prophetic tradition that refuses idols, even if that idol is democracy itself. He is a bluesman who grapples with the funk of life through a cruciform of love within a crucible of catastrophe, where despair never has the last word.
West isn’t a typical professional philosopher. As a professor at Yale in the mid-1980s, he was arrested for attempting, through protest, to get the university to withdraw its investments from all companies that were doing business in Apartheid South Africa. And he relentlessly exposes the limits of disciplinary smugness and the hypocrisy of epistemological “purity.”
West is arguably the most publicly visible philosopher in contemporary America, but despite his prominence and brilliance, he was recently denied the option of being considered for tenure at Harvard, where he currently teaches, and where he had previously held tenure.
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In a massive outcry, students at the university have mobilized in support of West, describing Harvard’s refusal to consider West’s bid for tenure as “an urgent matter of equity and parity” and a blatant devaluation of Black scholarship that could lead to “a mass exodus of Black scholars.”
At this tense decision point, as West decides whether to stay at the institution after this level of disrespect, I asked him to share his thoughts on optimism, racism, capitalism and what it means to be a philosopher of African descent within the American empire in the 21st century.
George Yancy: I was surprised and disturbed to hear about your situation at Harvard University. It is my understanding that a faculty committee was reviewing your renewal and that committee asked that you be considered for tenure. Yet, that consideration, as I understand it, was denied. I immediately thought about forms of academic institutional fear when it comes to maintaining scholars — especially Black scholars and scholars of color — who engage critically in processes of calling academic insularity into question, calling empire into question, calling forms of institutional and systemic injustice into question. Given your conceptualization of vocation as tied to a form of calling that allows suffering to speak, I immediately thought about how certain institutions might care more for their self-image and their donors as opposed to keeping scholars who cause “good trouble,” as that towering figure, the late Congressman John Lewis would say. Some may very well fear the vocational work that you do so well, with so much fire, courage and love. Talk about how you understand the distinction between vocation and profession.
Cornel West: Yes, that’s a very important place to begin my brother, because, for me, intellectual vocation and prophetic witness sit at the very center of my work. And for me, I am just building on Max Weber in many ways, especially two great essays of his from 1917 and 1919. What it is to have a Beruf, a calling, is very different than having a career. When you are wedded to a vocation, when you are wedded to a calling, it is tied to the Negro National Anthem; you are lifting your voice. You are not just lifting an echo, you’re not a copy, you’re not an imitation. Rather, you have a distinctive, unique and singular voice to be brought to bear and that voice is found only by bouncing up against earlier voices, the voices of the dead and the voices of the quick, but it’s the best voices, the most courageous voices, the most visionary voices. And it means then that you’re always going to be over against establishments, over against status quos — no matter what color.
Every vocation is connected to a sense of history in which you are involved in an invocation. And every calling that you have is tied to a certain kind of recalling and interpretation of the past. And every interpretation of the past is an interpretation of the present. Or, as Michel Foucault used to say, every history of the past is a history of the present and vice versa. And, therefore, you situate yourself within a particular vocation and tradition headed toward — for me — revolution.
It’s revolution in the spiritual sense, revolution in the political sense and revolution in the economic sense, which is a massive transfer of power, of respect, of wealth. It is a transfer that is not about putting others down, but it’s a democratizing, it’s a sharing of that respect, the sharing of that wealth, the sharing of those resources and so forth. So that radical democratic end is informed by this intense commitment to vocation, finding voice, but always situating your voice in relation to a certain tradition, or what Antonio Gramsci called a “critical historical inventory.” That’s Socratic, it’s self-examination.
But all of us are always already in circumstances not of our own choosing, and so we have to situate ourselves in particular historical traditions, and my traditions come from the magnificent West family, Clifton and Irene West, from the Shiloh Baptist church, and from the Black radical tradition. But it also comes from the best of my teachers, Hilary Putnam, John Rawls, Tim Scanlon, Thomas Nagel, Richard Rorty, Martin Kilson, Preston Williams, one can go on and on. So, I am a fusion, I am a hybrid of the best from whence I come, and the best of my formal education, but all of them are just feeding into a particular vocation and witness, an intellectual vocation and a prophetic witness.
George, as you said in your brilliant foreword on me written for Teodros Kiros’s new book, Conversations with Cornel West (2021), my intellectual vocation and prophetic witness are profoundly cruciform, profoundly Christian, tied to the cross, tied to service, tied to the willingness to empty oneself, to give of oneself, to donate oneself.
This is how you use the term kenosis, which is a form of emptying. I agree with it and use it in my own work.
Yes! It’s kenosis in that very deep sense. That’s why I’m always pulled by the great artists of kenosis. It could be Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, which is kenosis on the canvas, the emptying of the self, of father to sons. Or it could be James Brown on the stage, the emptying of himself for four hours straight, nonstop; it could be Aretha Franklin behind the microphone, the emptying of herself. That is kenosis at work.
And do you see a relationship between kenosis and pedagogy? Like you, I tell my students that when they come to my class that they need to be prepared for their prejudices and dogmatic assumptions to die.
I like the idea of kenosis or emptying. As you know, Michel Foucault talks about a certain kind of death in relationship to parrhesia, or courageous speak. In fact, he sees the process of parrhesia as a risk of a kind of physical death, where one stands on the precipice of risking one’s own life. What do you think about that? You talk often of having your black suit on, what you call your cemetery clothes. I want you to speak to the gravitas of this unique voice that you’ve crafted, a voice that is always already in relationship to your parents and your siblings. I know that you reject a Cartesian position of an insular or hermetically sealed voice. For you, your voice is always moving beyond yourself, it is rhizomatic and multi-historically grounded. My sense is that you take very seriously the idea that vocation and voice will often create deep tension in relationship to issues of empire such that one’s very life is at stake.
Absolutely! As you know, one of the differences between the grand Cartesian subject is that the “real problem” is epistemological skepticism. Whereas for the bluesman like myself, or the blues-woman, the real problem is catastrophe and that catastrophe is not just epistemic.
The catastrophe is bodily, it is corporeal, psychic, spiritual. It’s where one wrestles with forms of death — spiritual death, psychic death, social death, civic death. All of those continually bombarding you. So, when I say that I’m a bluesman in the life of the mind, some people say, “That’s kind of interesting.” No! That is a particular tradition of a way of being-in-the-world.
So, if I put my cemetery clothes on every day, if I’m coffin-ready every day, it means a particular kind of catastrophe, like physical death, is always already there on a continuum with the other forms of death. And to be a Black man in a white supremacist civilization, where Black love is a crime, where Black hope is a joke, where Black freedom is a pipe dream, and Black history is a curse, then I’ve got to fight that no matter what. So, I’m going to love and be willing to be criminalized. I’m going to fight for freedom and be willing to be crushed. I’m going to try to provide some kind of hope and be willing to be laughed at as a joke.
So, one is radically cutting over against oneself. And then when you add the cruciform character and the tragic-comic content to it, it means that you’re in but not of this empire, you’re in but not of this white supremacist society, trying to be in but not of this predatory capitalist society, you’re in but not of this patriarchal, homophobic society, but you know all that’s inside of you, too. And that is part of the paradox, the white supremacy that is inside of me. I grew up within a patriarchal empire, so I’m going to have the patriarchy in me. So, I have to fight that every day. That’s part of learning how to die. That needs to die daily in order for me to emerge as a stronger love warrior, freedom fighter and wounded healer.
What does it mean to be a philosopher of African descent within the American empire in the 21st century?
You begin with the giants in your own philosophical tradition. I can talk about Lucius Outlaw; Bernard Boxill; Joyce M. Cook, the first Black woman to receive the doctorate in philosophy from Yale University in 1965 and who you knew so very well; Eugene Holmes, Alain Locke, Leonard Harris, Howard McGary, and others. These are folk, many of whom I’ve been blessed to know, whose voices are forever inside of me that I wrestle with. And all of us are then bouncing off of those voices of American philosophers: from William James, to John Dewey, to Alfred North Whitehead, to W.V.O. Quine, to Stanley Cavell, and then European philosophers.
There are also some who have been willing to go back to recuperate certain African philosophers. For example, Maulana Karenga has taught me a lot about Maat, which is a concept that links us to Egyptian moral philosophy. We’ve got Eastern philosophy from Asia. I’m very open to dialogue across the board. So, it ought to be global, but you really do need to acknowledge the degree to which certain philosophers have had more influence on your thinking. I would never want to say, as you can imagine, that there’s any generic answer to what Black philosophers ought to do or say.
We’ve all got different voices, just like musicians.
My particular voice is one that has been deeply shaped by critiques of empire, predatory capitalism, and white supremacy in the ways in which all of these are interwoven. But what makes me a little different from some of my brothers and sisters is that I tend to look at the world through the lens of the cross, through a moral and spiritual lens. So, I’m very tied to the prophetic voices of Hebrew scripture. I view Hebrew scripture as one of the great moral revolutions in the spreading of hesed, which is a steadfast love and loving kindness of orphan and widow, the hungry, and the shelterless, the homeless and the oppressed.
So, when the Palestinian Jew named Jesus goes to the Temple, which is the largest edifice east of Rome, with hundreds of Roman soldiers, bankers and intellectuals, and the chattering classes, and runs them out, well, that is very much like running out elites in the White House, Pentagon, Congress, Hollywood, Wall Street, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Emory. And you’re running them out not because you’re demonizing them, but because there’s too much callousness and indifference toward the poor that you see in their way of life.
You see too much commodification that makes their souls too cold and their hearts too coarse. There’s too much bureaucratization that distances them from the lived experience of people who are trying to struggle. There’s too much white supremacy in terms of its mistreatment of precious Black people and Brown people and so on. I’m much more explicit about the cross and the Christian tradition. Many of my precious brothers and sisters within the philosophical tradition, Black or what have you, swerve away from that particular Christian stream and strand. And that’s fine with me. It’s a matter of our voices bouncing up against one another yet again.
Your work is not only interdisciplinary, but it is also de-disciplinary, where one may need to call into question one’s own discipline as such. Your work, as a public intellectual, engages not just a specialized few, but aims to intervene within a larger conversation that has implications for the destiny of large numbers of people. I think that this vision puts you at odds with certain neoliberal assumptions within academia. This is the work that you do. Whether you’re discussing the precious lives of our Palestinian or Jewish brothers and sisters, you’re asking across the board for all of us to empty, to undergo kenosis, in relationship to all forms of corrupt power and domination. And within academic spaces, you’re also calling into question forms of corruption, bureaucratization, neoliberalism and hegemonic power. I see you as an indispensable gadfly within that space. So, how do you understand what is going on at Harvard with respect to not even wanting to consider you being considered for tenure? How do you see the voice that you’ve developed and nurtured, the vocation that you’ve chosen, the gadfly that you are, in relationship to your situation at Harvard? Is there not an important relationship or tension here? Do you not see this as part of the problem?
Oh absolutely. It goes back to the issue of intellectual vocation, and prophetic witness. I have always had a deep tension with the academic division of knowledge. Think about my heroes going back to Socrates and Jesus, or Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. When Emerson gave that famous speech on July 15, 1838, the Harvard Divinity Address, they didn’t invite him back for 30 years. Why? Because he spoke his mind; he said what he meant and he meant what he said and he cut radically against the grain. What was Ralph Waldo Emerson? He was a kind of poet, a kind of preacher, a kind of circuit lecturer, a kind of philosopher. But what was he? Well, he was Emerson, you know what I mean?
Think of William James on June 24, 1903, when he gave his famous speech, “The True Harvard.” What is the true Harvard for James? It’s what he called the “undisciplinables,” the people that can never be disciplined, they don’t fit within the disciplines. William James had no A.B., B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. So, how does he end up being the greatest public philosopher alongside John Dewey in the 20th century? He had an M.D., that was it; but he had a calling, he had a witness. He had a form of self-confidence in his way of pursuing the life of the mind in the world of ideas to be conversant with his voice, with a whole host of other voices, but he went on his own way. He was nonconformist. He was in the academy, but not of it. He wrote his famous essay entitled, “The Ph.D. Octopus,” which was published in the early 1900s. He argues that the worst thing will be intense forms of specialization, and intense forms of professionalization that will lose sight of the forest, will be shining all the nuts in the corner, with no sense of the forest, no way of connecting the parts with the whole, where the whole is always bigger than the sum of the parts.
He got one life and then, boom, he drops the mic in 1910. He dies leaving us to make sense of what he’s left in his corpus. Emerson, in 1882, drops the mic and dies. And W.E.B. Du Bois was the same way. He was the student of William James. And that’s just within the American context. We can go to Russia and go from Vissarion Belinsky to Anton Chekhov. And Chekhov, for me, of course, is deeper than all the Americans. He’s a medical doctor, poet, playwright, short story writer, exemplary freedom fighter, prison reformer, but always looking at the world through moral and spiritual lens as a Darwinian, as a secular thinker. And what does he say about philosophers? Chekhov says that he doesn’t trust philosophers because they remind him of generals, they just want to enlist people in their army. I don’t want to join their army. I’ll read Friedrich Nietzsche, I’ll read Nicholas of Cusa, I’ll read Charles Darwin. I’ll read as many of them as I can, but I’m going to be Anton Chekhov, grandson of a slave. You know what I mean?
I do. It is indicative of your unique voice and your ethical fortitude. This raises the question of your situation at Harvard. How does your situation speak to Black scholars, what does it communicate, especially to those who want to cultivate their voices, who refuse to be echoes, who want to engage in deep interdisciplinary and de-disciplinary work? It seems to me that there is a problematic message that is being communicated. There is a sense of communicated fear in terms of what we should or shouldn’t say. I can’t see any basis upon which Harvard would not even consider you for tenure. And I was so delighted to see the significant support by the Harvard graduate students, undergraduates, and others throughout the country who are pushing back against Harvard’s decision. How do Black scholars and scholars of color remain strong in the face of what you’re dealing with?
Well, this is minimal in terms of what our brothers and sisters on the block have to come to terms with, with what Black working-class people have to deal with. The fundamental common denominator, though, is that we’ve got to fortify in order to fructify, we’ve got to be strong in order to generate fruit in the form of deeds, fruit in the form of visions, of organizations, of institutions, of structures that bring power and pressure to bear.
A little crisis of the professional managerial class of Black folk, yes, it’s important, but it still pales in the face of the catastrophes of our brothers and sisters who constitute the masses of Black and poor working people. We always have to work with what we have, and we have to use what we have in order not to sell our souls for a mess of pottage. The saddest thing that happens is when those folk who adjust to injustice then parade around as a success. We’re talking about greatness here.
Greatness does not adjust to injustice. It doesn’t adapt to indifference and then pose and posture as if that is success. Not at all. The worst thing that could happen is that young folk think that it’s just about getting into the academy to be successful, become the next wave of peacocks. That’s not what it’s about at all.
So, I would hope that my example, given all of my privileges and all of my blessings, will communicate the message that young people should be fortified. Don’t be disrespected. We come from a great people. Black people are a world historical people whose gifts have disproportionately shaped the cultures of the world. And there’s just no doubt about that, so you’ve got to be true to that, and you are true to that with your humility and your tenacity. And you have to be willing to speak the truth — to the powerful and the powerless.
When Harvard treats me in this way, that’s a sign of its spiritual and intellectual bankruptcy. Now, it could bounce back, but you have to call it for what it is. You have to acknowledge that there’s new styles of Jim Crow in the life of the mind and the country. It’s just a fact.
You look at The New York Review of Books. Thank God there are brilliant essays by brother Brandon Terry, but other than Darryl Pinkney and Anthony Appiah, it has basically been a case of Jim Crow. How many of your books, how many of John Hope Franklin’s books, how many of Houston Baker’s books, how many of Hortense Spillers’ books have been reviewed? Intellectual work that’s taken place in the last 40 years has been rendered invisible because of the Jim Crow quality of the ways in which they review books. And that’s just one example.
We have to be honest about that and say that we can do better. And we must do better. And, in fact, if you subtract the number of Black people in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard and only include Black folk in other departments, Harvard looks like the National Hockey League. There’s hardly any Black folks at all. That’s how Wall Street looks. That’s how elite formation looks. That’s how Silicon Valley looks, especially at the top.
You see, that’s still Jim Crow, new style. So, when people say, “Ah Brother West, you are so hard on Harvard, you’re so hard on the professional managerial class,” I say, “Come on.” I’m not even beginning to tell the truth in terms of allowing this suffering to speak. Yes, let’s pursue veritas. Let us take veritas seriously, the motto of Harvard, and see its own weak will to truth about itself. That’s the best kind of witness that becomes very important. Not in a spirit of hatred or revenge. This is Coltranean all the way down. This is a love of truth, a love of beauty, a love of goodness and a love of the Holy for those of us who are religious.
That sounds very Baldwinian. I’m thinking here of where James Baldwin talks about how love removes the masks that we fear we cannot live without and yet know that we cannot live within.
Oh yeah. That’s the genius from Harlem. Baldwin is another brother who never went to college, but at least two colleges went through him.
As you know, Martin Luther King Jr. was critical of what he called the triplets of racism, materialism or capitalism, and militarism. In fact, he became very unpopular once he broadened his critique of North America beyond issues related to civil rights. As a public intellectual, as one who speaks about parrhesia, or courageous speech, talk about how you understand the intersection between racism, materialism or capitalism, and militarism. Of course, all three are linked to empire-building.
Intellectual vocation and prophetic witness is tied to integrity, not popularity. It is tied to quality, not quantity. And it is tied to substance, not superficial spectacle. The very way in which you look at a problem is going to be informed by important levels of integrity, quality, political, spiritual and moral substance. So, all the talk about identity these days will not mean much at all if it is not rooted in integrity and high quality and solidarity. You see, racial identity and gender identity could just be weaponized for another middle-class project that would reproduce neoliberal politics that will unleash Wall Street greed, generate high levels of poverty, no accountability of the elites at the top, and everybody walks around with a smile, because you got some Black folk and Brown folk at the top. And it just means that the class hierarchy is more colorful, and the imperial hierarchy is more colorful, but people are still suffering. King comes from our tradition, brother. He’s a wave in our ocean. You and I know about 400 years of being chronically hated and yet we keep dishing out love warriors like Martin Luther King, and Stevie Wonder, who’s thinking about going to Ghana. Four-hundred years of being terrorized and yet we keep dishing out freedom fighters like Fannie Lou Hamer. Traumatized and yet we keep dishing out wounded healers like Aretha Franklin. That’s a great people with a great tradition. We’re human beings like everybody else, but I’m talking about the best of who we are. So, when we think of a Martin Luther King, we say, “What would the analogues in the academy look like? What would the intellectuals look like if they were fundamentally grounded in those traditions of love warriors, freedom fighters and wounded healers?” I think that is our challenge. I think that you’ve done a magnificent job in your corpus and you’ve been so true to this tradition. And I think this is true for a variety of different thinkers and philosophers, but it just means, in the end, that we love the people, we’re servants of the people, that we want to use our gifts to enable others, we want to use whatever we have, to empty ourselves, to donate and give ourselves, to be of service to others, such that they can be stronger, they can be more empowered when the worms get our bodies.
And it isn’t easy, because we have this lingering Trumpian, neo-fascist moment.
Right, but neofascism is not new to us. Not new at all.
We are bluesmen and women and we are never, ever surprised by evil, we are never ever paralyzed by despair.