Cornel West: Long Distance Runner for Justice

A review of Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, A Memoir by Cornel West with David Ritz (Smiley Books, 2009, 288 pp., $25.95)

by Duane E. Campbell
Democratic Left - Summer 2012

This fascinating memoir of a life on the run by Cornel West, one of the Honorary Chairs of Democratic Socialists of America, begins in Sacramento and continues through the election of Barack Obama. It is the tale of a self-described “blues man in the life of the mind,” a renowned public intellectual who wears his politics and faith on his sleeve.

Readers will likely know West from his many books, including Race Matters and Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. Many of us have had the experience of hearing him deliver lectures and sermons as he travels, speaks, records on radio and appears on television. He is a popular and even theatrical performer who never fails to remind us that “Justice is what love looks like in public, just as deep democracy is what justice looks like in practice.”

Cornel West lives his life with a deep commitment to the prophetic Christian tradition he learned from his family and as a youth in Sacramento’s Shiloh Baptist Church. In Brother West, he shares and describes his commitment to this Christian tradition that confounds and confuses many of his comrades on the Left.

I had the good fortune of meeting Cornel way back in 1983, at a DSA meeting of some 100 activists and scholars of color in 1983 organized by Manning Marable at Fisk University in Tennessee. That’s where we formed the Anti-Racism and the Latino Commissions of DSA. For his part, Cornel was the first chair of the DSA African-American Commission after the merger of DSOC and the New American Movement in 1982.

The memoir, written in collaboration with David Ritz, is more personal and less analytical than many of West’s academic writings. He tells of his several wives, his children and his family ties. Cornel tells his own story the way he wants it told and he tells it with rhythm and grace.

He describes his intellectual life as “the way I sing my blues.” At times, his choice to engage with popular culture by appearing in movies and cutting rap albums has led to some consternation in the more austere precincts of academia. Reflecting on his time at Yale, West notes the somewhat contradictory nature of his public persona: “the academy was my source of income, but the academy often clashed with my own sense of integrity.”

West has been a teacher and a professor at some of the finest universities in the country as well as in churches and prisons. He acknowledges that “the college professor as bluesman isn’t a concept easily embraced by the college president,” and then goes on to describe his view of the much-publicized 2002 conflict with former Harvard University president Larry Summers that led to his return to Princeton, where he had earned his Ph.D. in 1980.

“Reaching and teaching is my greatest joy,” says West. “To be teachable is to muster the courage to listen generously, think critically, and be open to the ambiguity and mystery of life.” He says, “the way I sing the blues – in lectures, and books, on hip-hop albums and TV shows, in adult education classes and prisons, in college auditoriums and church pulpits – well, that is unusual.” His memoir testifies to a strong commitment to a radical democratic tradition that leads him to confront power and to criticize those who do not use their power to help the “least among us.”

He has reached and inspired many of us in DSA and millions in the U.S. and around the world. The memoir is a delightful read, with surprises and profound reflections on a life lived fully.

Readers can stay current with Cornel West and Tavis Smiley on their regular program on Public Radio International where they comment on the issues of the day. Smiley and West just published a new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us, which reports on their recent tour highlighting the shameful depths of poverty in the contemporary U.S. As West never tires of arguing, if we do not deal with the still widespread poverty and racism in our midst, we will lose our democracy.

It is a privilege for many of us in DSA to have known and worked with Cornel. We are certainly encouraged and blessed by his work with us, just as the entire nation is better off for his articulate and prophetic voice.

Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University- Sacramento and the chair of Sacramento DSA. His most recent book is Choosing Democracy: a Practical Guide to Multicultural Education (Allyn & Bacon, 2010). He blogs on politics, education and labor at www.choosingdemocracy.blospot.com and www. talkingunion.wordpress.com.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 37 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 51 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 7 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 46 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 69 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.