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.

LGBTQ Conference Call

February 20, 2017
· 42 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming an LGBTQ 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.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

February 22, 2017
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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.  8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6pm MT; 5 pm PT.  

What Is DSA? Training Call

March 03, 2017
· 26 rsvps

If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Feminist Working Group

March 07, 2017
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People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's and LGBTQ issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

LGBT Activism: A Brief History with Thoughts about the Future

April 01, 2017
· 2 rsvps

Historian John D'Emilio's presentation will do 3 things: Provide a brief explanation of how sexual and gender identities have emerged; provide an overview of the progression of LGBT activism since its origins in the 1950s, highlighting key moments of change; and, finally, suggest what issues, from a democratic socialist perspective, deserve prioritizing now. 1 pm ET; 12 pm CT; 11 am MT; 10 am PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
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  4. If you have questions, contact Peg Strobel, peg.strobel@sbcglobal.net.
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Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 20 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.