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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Starting a Local Chapter from Scratch (9pm Eastern)

October 04, 2016 · 8 rsvps
Webinar, RSVP required for sign in information

So you are now a member of DSA, but there is no local chapter where you live. You are thinking of starting a local chapter, but you're not quite sure how to do it.

In Starting a Local Chapter from Scratch you will learn:

  • how other locals got started in recent years
  • how to find out who is already a member
  • the importance of a comrade
  • how to recruit new members
  • the importance of a mentor
  • how to become a recognized organizing committee
  • how to become a chartered local
  • what works best to bring new people in.

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

Instructor:

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

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt talt@igc.org 607-280-7649.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt schmittaj@gmail.com 608-355-6568.
  6. You can participate in every webinar or just attend once in a while.
  7. Workshops will generally be on weekends or evenings.
  8. Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance -- by midnight Sunday for Tuesday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

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DSA New Member Orientation Call

October 19, 2016 · 22 rsvps
DSA New Member Orientation

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; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

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