Cornel West's 'Prophetic Fightback'

August 30, 2017
Professor Cornel West
Professor Cornel West. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva.

In August, Cornel West stood arm-in-arm with clergy members in Charlottesville, Virginia, singing “This Little Light of Mine” while white supremacist groups spat at them and shouted racial epithets.

Just weeks later, the HDS Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy recalled the courage he witnessed there, and how courage alone is not enough in the fight against hate.

“I saw great courage in the eyes of my neo-Nazi brothers and sisters in Charlottesville when they stood in front of us and spat, and called names and racial epithets. I saw a lot of courage blazing in their eyes; unbelievable determination; a willingness to live and die,” West said. “But we need more than just courage. We need spiritual and moral dimensions that are tied to that courage. We need fortitude. We need greatness of character. We need magnanimity.”

On August 29, West delivered Harvard Divinity School’s Convocation address to the newest students to enter HDS, as well as hundreds of other people from the School, University community, and public who gathered on campus to hear him speak.

Titled “Spiritual Blackout, Imperial Meltdown, Prophetic Fightback,” West’s speech protested the normalizing of mendacity, the naturalizing of criminality, and rewarding of indifference. (Professor West's remarks can be read online.)

“In this moment of spiritual blackout and imperial meltdown, begin with a critical historical inventory. Who are you really? How do you situate yourself in relation to traditions,” he said. “You have to situate yourself in the best of those traditions in order to constitute wind at your back so that you’re able to sustain yourself in the face of the varieties of catastrophes coming our way.”

West listed ecological and nuclear catastrophes, but singled out the “moral catastrophe.” He called it the “relative eclipse of integrity, honesty, and decency … the kinds of human beings who are being shaped by the weakened institutions in our world.”

Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America, introduced West and likened him to writer James Baldwin. Carrasco praised West’s works, including his book Living and Loving Out Loud, and offered an explanation for why West has lived so “out loud.”

“In his life, a public philosopher addresses topics of public importance in publicly accessible and intellectually critical ways that strive to bring freedom to the political realm. He learned to watch, fight, and pray out loud,” Carrasco said.

Preparing for his introduction, Carrasco was reminded of Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” He said the lyrics offered a challenge for West and those in attendance:

Well, God is in heaven/And we all want what’s his/But power and greed and corruptible seed/Seem to be all that there is

Carrasco then told the crowd that he and they had gathered to hear West “revoke the notion that corruptible seed is our destiny as a species.”

In order to do so, West urged those in attendance to shatter the chains of conformity, and discard notions of glorified upward mobility, status, and success. Higher ground, he said, is “earned through the kind of lives we have lived, what kind of sacrifices we have made, what kind of costs we are willing to bear.”

“What we are to do now is to decide in the end who we really are,” West said, before channeling Thomas Paine. "These are the times that test women's and men's souls."

—by Michael Naughton