Cornel West

By Nichols, John | The Progressive, January 1997 | Go to article overview
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Cornel West


Nichols, John, The Progressive


`I have a deep, existential confidence in the rightness of radical democracy.'

At forty-three, Cornel West is a professor of Afro-American Studies and Religion at Harvard University, a noted theologian, a prominent democratic socialist, and a prime mover in efforts to renew the dialogue between blacks and Jews.

A native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, he grew up in Sacramento and was influenced both by the black church and the Black Panthers. His books, including Race Matters, published in 1993, have become best-sellers, and his appearances on college campuses across the country draw crowds that often number in the thousands.

We recently spoke about his beliefs, his activism, and his faith in the prospect of "radical amazement."

Q: In a time when so many of the ideals and causes that you have advocated are under assault--directly from the right and indirectly from those on the left who advocate compromise and bipartisanship--you remain remarkably optimistic. How do you keep the faith in the face of disappointments and setbacks?

Cornel West: You have to draw a distinction between hope and optimism. Vaclav Havel put it well when he said "optimism" is the belief that things are going to turn out as you would like, as opposed to "hope," which is when you are thoroughly convinced something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences. In that sense, I'm full of hope but in no way optimistic.

Q: What is it that underpins your hope? What is it that makes you carry on, regardless?

West: People who are still out there, fighting against the darkness and thunder. For me, that's a form of bearing witness, and, of course, intellectuals try to reflect critically on the witness that they bear. There are always hundreds and hundreds, thousands and thousands, millions and millions of folk around the world who are cutting against the grain. That's the kind of movement and motion that we hope, somewhere down the line, will lead to the higher-level organizing and mobilizing necessary to transform these societies that are shot through with so many institutional forms of evil.

Q: Growing up, you encountered some of these institutional forms of racism. To what extent were your political views shaped by experiences in your youth?

West: There was a time in my childhood when I was angry. I behaved badly. I was in trouble in school. But then I had some wonderful teachers, and I became a Christian, which really started to turn me around. I was able to rechannel a lot of that rage. I was attracted by the black Baptist theology and the idea of Jesus as a figure who expressed love and caring. It taught me from a very early age--eight or nine--to see each person's humanity.

Then, in 1963, I saw Martin King speak, which reinforced a lot of what I was thinking and feeling. I made contact with the Black Panthers, and I was influenced by them, in particular by their courage and by their ideas about socialist internationalism. I read Malcolm X. I read Michael Harrington. I became a democratic socialist when I was still very young.

Q: Several years ago you spoke in Memphis at a ceremony marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. One of the concerns I recall you expressing at the time was that contemporary progressives no longer seemed to be reaching out to people of faith as they did in King's time. Do progressives need to do more to connect with Americans on a spiritual level?

West: We just have to confront certain facts: 94 percent of the American people believe in God, 72 percent believe Jesus Christ is the son of God, 39 percent believe they spoke to God on personal terms at least twice last week. Those are the empirical facts.

If we're going to be able to address people where they are, we have to be honest with ourselves and them, but we also have to acknowledge where people are.

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