Speaking in his familiar tone, a mix of Baptist preacher and imploring professor, Dr. Cornel West gave Wingate students and employees and members of the community valuable insight into the state of race in the United States on Thursday, during a question-and-answer Lyceum.
The “Community Conversations” event, originally scheduled for last March, was held over the Zoom online-meeting app because of the pandemic. Answering questions from the moderator, WBTV’s Dedrick Russell, West appeared in his living room, the camera pointed up so that his animated visage periodically filled the screen as he made a point. A longtime Harvard professor (for now), West touched on all manner of issues in this country, many involving racial justice.
Among the most pressing issues, he says, is the prison situation in America. The 67-year-old West said that when he started teaching, in the early 1980s, the prison population was 250,000 in the U.S. It’s now over 2 million. The “murderers and rapists and so forth” need to be kept separate from communities, he said, but with a fifth of the prison population incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, the system needs reforming. Meanwhile, he added, Wall Street gets a pass, even after the subprime-mortgage crisis that precipitated the Great Recession.
“I follow Jesus,” he said. “I run the money-changers out. I’m not trying to be on the side of the money-changers. I’m on the side of the poor folk.
“When we talk about prison, we have to acknowledge who actually is being targeted. The well-to-do folk? They’re committing all kinds of crimes up there in high places. And they walk around sippin’ tea. That’s a Keith Sweat moment: ‘Something just ain’t right.’”
West punctuated his answers with musical references such as this. Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” provided disturbing, lasting imagery to accompany his discussion of Jim Crow laws. He mentioned his affection for the funk group the Gap Band, formed in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. (“Gap” stands for “Greenwood, Archer and Pine,” the Tulsa streets that made up “Black Wall Street.”)
West was born in Tulsa but grew up in Sacramento before attending Harvard College, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude in just three years. He went on to become the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton.
That he was born in Tulsa seems appropriate. Three decades before West’s birth, Tulsa was the scene of horrific riots that destroyed one of the most successful Black communities in American history. West’s grandfather was a preacher in Tulsa at the time, when a reported attempted rape by a Black man of a white woman sparked rioting. Thirty-five city blocks went up in flames, 300 people died, 800 were injured. Nine thousand people were left homeless.
What West terms “the chocolate side of town,” so prosperous that six Black families owned their own planes, never recovered.
Such treatment of Black people, West said, has happened repeatedly in American history. When he saw the video of George Floyd dying under the knee of a white police officer, he said, “Here we go again.” He was “delighted” at the response: all races coming together to protest.
The outpouring was great, but the challenge, he told Wingate students, was to make sure that people are held to account. “We’re not talking about demonizing the police,” he said. “They’re made in the image of God like every other human being. But they must be held accountable for their actions.”
Speaking his mind
West will speak to just about anyone. He’s appeared several times on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox, on Real Time with Bill Maher, on CNN and on many other networks and shows. He’s also a prolific author and has released several hip-hop/spoken word albums.
A former professor at Union Theological Seminary, West frequently quoted the Bible during the Q&A session. When asked how white Christians can best serve Black Christians, he minced no words.
“White Christians need to take the Gospel seriously. And the Gospel says that you’ve got to love your neighbor as yourself,” he said. “To take the Gospel seriously means you’re going to have to call into question some of your own interest, comfort, convenience, in order to really be on fire for the kingdom of God. Be in the world, not of the world. Do not be conformed, be transformed. And being transformed means you’ve got to cut against the idols. White supremacy is an idol.”
West always speaks his mind. No favorite of the right, he was criticized by many on the left when he went after President Obama for not holding Wall Street accountable for its predatory lending practices in the early 2000s.
The evening of the Lyceum event, news broke that West was threatening to leave Harvard a second time, after University officials had denied his request for tenure.
“Is that up already?” he asked WBTV’s Dedrick Russell, the event moderator. “You are on top of things.
“I ain’t got time for mess. I ain’t got time for pettiness,” said West, who has taught at Princeton, Yale, the University of Paris and other places. “That’s not trashing Harvard, but all these universities these days, they get so caught up in reputation they downplay their vocation. Make sure they’re focused on young people, cultivate their minds, inspire them. That's what I like to do. If I can’t do it at Harvard, I’ll do it somewhere else. I wear all these institutions like a loose garment.”
Feb. 20, 2021