If you know who Cornel West is, I’m pretty confident in saying that what you think you know about him is probably wrong, or at best, dramatically incomplete. If you don’t know who he is, then you should.
For my current class on Leadership, I had to pick an autobiography of a leader whose perspective on faith and life is probably dramatically different than my own. The book I chose was Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.
My own anxiety and compulsivity make it difficult for me to read for long stretches of time. I can usually only read one thing for ten or fifteen minutes before having to bounce my mind to something else or change up what I’m reading. But, due to my own procrastination and inefficiency with time, I came to the day before my paper was due not having opened up the nearly-300-page tome.
And so I did what needed to be done. I left my electronics at home and brought nothing but the book to a nearby Starbucks. I got a cup of coffee, turned on a Jazz radio station on my phone, settled into a couch, and read the entire thing.
Spending this time with (of all genres) an autobiography means that I feel like I spent five or six hours hanging out with one man–one brilliant, passionate man with whom I resonate so deeply. I feel a real connection with him because I just spent time with him and no one else for an entire afternoon.
I have known of Cornel West for years. But, having grown up in the far right-wing spheres in which he is treated with such indignance, the rough sketch I had in my mind was that he was simply some “far-left squishy liberal who race-baited all the time and was an utterly idealistic non-pragmatic dreamer for social engineering”.
It actually hurt me to write that last sentence I just wrote. This is not what I thought of him, mind you, but the caricature that had been offered to me–the only picture that had been painted for me of this great man. And as I read this autobiography, and I saw him in all his dimensions–his depth, his height, his strengths, his weaknesses–I saw so starkly how the powers that be so effectively and unconsciously are able to marginalize those they disagree with, especially those with black faces.
Cornel West is about far more than race. He’s not a militant black nationalist–quite the opposite. He is a Christian whose blackness has informed his passion for love and justice, his willingness to bear the cross, and his hope for the Kingdom to be made manifest. He’s a man that will call anyone brother or sister, as long as they are also in solidarity with the weak and try to live a life of love. He is theologically orthodox and nuanced and puts his faith first in everything.
He’s a full-blown academic. Just look at his writing credits. Good lord, the brother writes. He has held tenured positions at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. He’s no ideologue and dogmatist. He’s read more philosophy, fiction, and theology than you or I ever will.
In his writings on race (which isn’t all he focuses on), he doesn’t obsess over the same cyclical, tired arguments that get us nowhere. He has such important things to tell us in our racialized world. Just read this summary of some of what he was trying to do in his book Race Matters:
Race Matters…has a simple thesis: black people count and black suffering matters in how we think and act in the world….
I discuss nihilism in black America and how both liberal structuralists and conservative behaviorists ignore the core issue—the nihilistic threat to blacks’ very existence. The liberal doesn’t want to talk about culture because it takes attention away from government programs. The conservative focuses on values, ignores political-economic realities, and denies victimization. How, then, do we cope with depression, low self-worth, social despair? I discuss the cultural buffers that black forbears created against nihilism, how they valued service, and built churches that reached out to comfort and care for the community. I discuss the consumer-crazed, market-driven, hyper-materialistic, oversexed, overstimulated society that defines American culture and fuels nihilism, especially among poor blacks.
And ultimately, that’s what broke my heart. He’s accomplished so much in his life, and yet all I had known was a caricature. The very people I wish would really imbibe his thought are the very ones buffered away from any engagement with him. He’s largely been written off, marginalized, disempowered, and “subdued” in the minds of many powerful white institutions, structures, and voices. It pains me to see that.
We need his prophetic voice. He is “progressive”, but you can’t put him in simplistic partisan boxes. As he says elsewhere, the truth of a matter is not found somewhere in the wishy-washy middle, but by finding what is fake and false and digging underneath to find the truth it hides.
The mainstream popular picture of this man–at least that I’ve seen and heard–is fake and false. And this is so because the very powers that Cornel West speaks against are trying to hide the truth that his thought and words disempower them. West’s vision steals their authority and submits it to the cross of Christ.
My understanding of Jesus Christ went like this: Everything comes beneath the cross–nationalism, tribalism, patriotism, networks, even kinships. The cross is that critical juncture when catastrophe defines our condition and offers salvation, no in the name of a specific ideology or theology, but in the simple name of love. It is love that saves us from the tyranny of chauvinism and its many manifestations.
In everything from his ecumenism; passion; intellect; love of life; love for the Church; cross-disciplinary thought, research, and synthesis; and to his own musings on death, I feel such a resonance and solidarity with this man. If you don’t know him, get that book. Read his other books. Explore his thought and follow (most of) his example. We could all use a little more Brother West. I’ll end as he does:
Meanwhile, the empire continues to wobble and we all continue to waver. There are declines in our culture and decay in our hearts. As the Spinners said, we need a mighty love. We need a mighty healing. I look back at my life, knowing that without that healing love–from my grandparents and parents, from my brother and sisters, from my children and the women I have been blessed to know–I would have spun out a long time ago. This broken vessel would have plain collapsed.
So I say, thank you, Jesus.
I say, thank you, Lord.
I say, thank you for the breath in my lungs and the strength in my loins. May that strength endure so that I can serve you. And in serving you, may I serve others, especially the least of these.
Amen, brother. Amen.
[image credit: Vice Media]