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.

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