Friday, April 22, 2005

Cornel West at UNCG

More than 1,000 people squeezed into the Cone Ballroom on Friday night to give Dr. Cornel West some love, and he loved them back. I think West is perhaps the most magnetic and compelling personality I've ever experienced.

As you can see from the picture, the crowd was mostly African-American. I arrived 40 minutes early and sneaked into one of the few open seats near the front, surrounded by a group of students mostly from N.C.A.&T. University.

West was introduced by Ben Ramsey, an old friend of West's, and now a UNCG religion professor. Ben's introduction was by turns funny and moving as he recounted an anecdote from West's early teaching days, involving West spotting Diana Ross on the street and, star-struck, following her into Bloomingdale's. But the end of the introduction, which recalled West's and Ramsey's late mentor, moved West to tears as he approched the lectern.

It was at that point that the crowd underwent a very sudden transformation. They had sat quietly and appreciatively through Ben's introduction. But as West uttered his first words, the body language of everyone around me relaxed, and I began hearing the umm-hmmms and amens and oh yeas that would punctuate the rest of the evening's talk. They adored him, and he embraced them, not only rhetorically, but often by gesturing with his arms wide throughout the evening.

Socratic inquiry was West's leitmotif. He began by invoking Socrates's famous saying, "the unexamined life is not worth living," and followed it with Malcolm X's accurate addition, "the examined life is painful." He then introduced Socrates's less-popular notion that the aim of all philosophy is a preparation for death, and exhorted his listeners to contemplate their mortality and decide what would make their short lives worthwhile.

A summary of what he said would not do justice to his virtuosic delivery. He is a preacher, really, not a lecturer, though a preacher as fluent in philosophy and literature as in scripture. His talk did not constitute an argument, but rather was a series of compelling rhetorical riffs on materialsm, conformism, plutocracy, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, terrorism, and African-American music, woven in with his ideas on "Socratic energy," democracy, and cultural and spiritual death and rebirth.

Here are some quotes:

"Define your own voice rather than imitating others. Cut against the forces of conformity. The forces of conformity are market-driven, driven by titillation and temptation, as opposed to decency and dignity."

"Everyone says, 'be successful, be successful, be successful.' But if success is just more toys and 'security,' how narrow is that? By that definition, you can be 'successful' and still be a gangster, still be a thug."

"St. Paul says we must die every day. The fundamentalists should think about that. That, and 'love your neighbor.' Learning how to die -- giving up an assumption you're clinging to for dear life -- can lead you through spiritual death, regeneration, rebirth."

"My vision of democracy is each person unleashing the Socratic energies in their hearts and minds."

"Slavery was constituitive of American democracy, but not part of it. It is not even mentioned in the Constitution. This was a conspiracy of the founding fathers and brothers. It was hypocricy and mendacity. The American founders were not Socratic -- they lost sight of humanity."

"The Confederacy was a violent insurrection trying to overthrow the democratic U. S. government. Jefferson Davis was at least open about the importance of slavery for the U.S. economy. Thank you, Jeff Davis!" (laughter and applause).

"Lynching was a species of American terrorism" (lots of umm-hmms).

"Through slavery and Jim Crow, whites taught blacks to hate themselves, so that they were in bondage even if they were walking free on the street" (applause).

"9-11 was the first time all America felt hated the way blacks felt hated. America's violent reaction -- that's what happens when a whole nation is 'niggerized'" (wild applause). [It was clear that West and his audience viewed white America's reaction to 9-11 with a kind of bitterly amused schadenfreude.]

"Hip-hop came from the killing fields of chocolate cities. Hip-hop artists constituted tremendous power, before they were ripped off by the record industry, and it all became about money. We went from MLK's 'let freedom ring' to the bling-bling."

"Now what we got is 50 Cent. Is that all he thinks he's worth? 50 Cent is the white man's construction of the black male."

"The negro spiritual is the first great American art form. Jim Crow gave us the Blues. Hip-hop is in that tradition -- the tradition of bearing witness."

"Jazz is the highest form of symbolic democratic action."

"The world listens to jazz, to Luther, to Aretha, to Stevie, to get a taste of what freedom should be like."

"People who put whiteness on a pedestal are pathological. People who put it in the gutter are still using it as a point of reference. People who put it in the human continuum can understand it."

"This generation has not been loved enough. In my neighborhood growing up, I couldn't get away from neighbors looking after me. Now we've taken the 'neighbor' out, and we just have the 'hood'. In a 'hood' it's survival of the slickest. It's a Hobbesian war of all against all. More guns, more drugs. FAMILIES are weaker, fathers are weaker, mothers are poor. Market forces are eating at the family through 100, 200, 350 channels to some orgasm machine. Nothing wrong with orgasms, but you need to have a conversation sometimes" (applause and laughter).

"You can't sustain democracy in this market-driven way of life. Don't follow the old leaders -- there's too much materialism and success there. A pheasant struts because it can't fly."

"Constantinian Christians are suffocating the prophetic Christians. How do you shake them out of their sleepwalk? Lovingly, democratically, Socratically."

"Young folk need to find new ways to lead. Older folk need to get out of the way. When brother Cosby corrects the young, he should make sure they feel some love and compassion."

This doesn't do justice to his presentation. But despite his tremendous personal warmth and riveting manner, there wasn't much that was actually Socratic about what he said; in fact, his speech and delivery reminded me much more of one of Socrates's sophistic opponents, Gorgias of Leontini. What little classical scholarship he quoted he got wrong (he derived the word "human" from Lat. humando -- he could have just looked it up). And much as I deplore the role of money in politics, he didn't offer much in the way of economics that I could get behind.

I couldn't help but notice some mild irony in West's deploring materialism and 'success', and the students' vocal assent to this, when most of them -- perhaps the most successful generation of African-Americans in history -- had been busy taking digital photos, text-messaging friends, and sending cell-phone photos a few minutes before. The black A&T student I chatted with before the talk told me he planned to be a C.I.A. analyst when he graduated.

No mind. Cornel West is a great preacher and a great lover, and I'm glad that I went to listen to him.


Rustam Sheridan said...

Did he say anything about working on The Matrix?

David Wharton said...


Joe Killian said...

I enjoyed West too. Couldn't believe the size of the crowd.

I just wish some of the many conservatives I've heard disparaging West without actually having read his work would have come. I think they would have been surprised. I went to Mike Adams' talk last year and would have come to the one this year had I not been working that night.

We've got to get some dialog and an open exchange of ideas going on on this campus. This year's been a big improvement

Anonymous said...

The rise of the celebrity academic bothers me. I am not that familiar with Prof. West's scholarship, and the pursuit of celebrity should not necessarily have a negative effect on the scholarship, but it does not further it either. I guess I am less bothered by the academics pursuing celebrity than the universities pursuing the celebrity academics. That seems contrary to the role of the university.

Joe Killian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joe Killian said...

know quite a few people who would never have read "Race Matters" or "Democracy Matters" - both important works of scholarship - if Cornel West didn't appeared several times on "Real Time With Bill Maher," give interviews with Rolling Stone or do Tavis Smiley's NPR radio show.

In that sense I think that academics seeking to popularize their work for the benefit of those they want to teach is a good thing. I mean, if West was jumping the Snake River Canyon on a motorcycle with a Black Power fist on it I might agree with you - but doing speaking tours and weighing in on issues in the media that directly relate to his fields of study and published work seems perfectly valid to me. I think that has a lot to do with why universities pursue academics like West, too. Anyone who was at West's talk or has seen him on television knows the difference between him and some of the professors I've had who teach sociology. Academics with a little charisma - and a public persona that is dedicated to your work but also charismatic -seems like a win-win for everyone.

Anonymous said...

I'd have an awful lot of respect for anyone who jumped the snake river canyon, but I tend not to think that the competition for celebrity academics is a valid as you claim. Is the Princeton-Harvard-Princeton fight about getting a scholar who makes his research accessible to the masses or is it just a shallow competition to rise to the top of the heap in terms of public profile. To me it seems no different than striving for a top football team. It is not connected to the academic mission. I take issue with throwing innordinate money at a celebrity academics in comparison to other equally accomplished faculty of lesser public profile.

David Wharton said...

I'm not in a position to evaluate West's scholarship. But I have no objection in principle to taking scholarship to the masses, and I wish more people in my own field had the ability to do what West can do.

SD said...

I do appreciate West's words on materialism. It is everywhere one looks today, and university campuses are no exception. For another take on this check out this view from Duke professor Will Williman and a colleague:

Anonymous said...

Regarding your comment:

What little classical scholarship he quoted he got wrong (he derived the word "human" from Lat. humando -- he could have just looked it up).

My understanding of West here was that he is alluding to Vico in the New Science and not making a literal translation.

See paragraph 12 - Vico - New Science

"humanitas in Latin comes first and properly from humando, burying"

So I suppose Vico "got it wrong"

David Wharton said...

Yes, Vico got it wrong.

Vico probably didn't have a good etymological dictionaryin his library. Princeton does, but West didn't bother to use it.

Or are you saying is it acceptable for 21st-century scholars to accept the scholarship and conclusions of the early 18th century?