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Dr. Cornel West Speaks My Language

Introducing the hardest-working man on the lecture circuit, Professor Cornel West. A few months ago, in front of a “standing room only crowd” at the JFK School of Public Policy, Professor West delivered his thought-stimulating observations infused with music from his CD entitled Sketches of My Culture.

I must admit that I was eagerly anticipating his presentation and was pleasantly surprised by his cogitative use of music and the spoken word. It is about time that someone articulated the underpinnings of politically astute composers and performers.

West’s social criticism often touches on popular culture: in hip-hop, he reflects on the nihilism of the black underclass; in Suburban America, West analyzes the “Afro-Americanization of American Youth” and the “commodification of black rage.” West treated the audience to snippets from his album while offering his thoughts on the September 11th terrorist attack, origins of the Socratic teaching method, as well as the status of American leadership.

One critic of Professor West argues that pop culture is no place for philosophical analysis, stating that, “you can’t use Gramsci or Dewey to talk about Prince or the Temptations!” While some might agree, Professor West effectively engaged the audience at the Kennedy School with his observations through an emotional, musical context.

Professor Cornel West, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, went to Harvard University where he graduated magna cum laude in three years in 1973. West then went on to Princeton University to receive his M.A. in 1975 and Ph.D. in 1980. He returned to Princeton in 1987 as a Professor of Religion and Director of the Afro-American Studies Department.
Now at Harvard, he serves as Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy of Religion. Dr. West has written numerous articles and fifteen books, including The American Evasion of Philosophy, Jews and Blacks, The Future of the Race, and Restoring Hope .

West the author and member of a small circle of top black academics –
including University of Maryland, Ronald Walters, Harvard’s African American studies chairman, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Columbia University’s Manning Marable, and Asa G. Hilliard at Georgia State University – broke out with his 1993 book Race Matters, taking on a subject that West said much of white America tries to avoid.

“A lot of people, professors who are also activist, have been around, wanting to be in the limelight, trying to push their work and they haven’t broken through like Cornel,” said political scientist Ronald Walters, adding that the delight of some in West’s recent travails amounts to “sour grapes.” Race Matters, quickly achieved best-seller status in both editions and gained the attention of Time and Newsweek, causing both publications to run extensive profile articles on him.
His most recent publication, The Cornel West Reader, traces the development of West’s extraordinary career as academic, intellectual, and activist. But he is so much more than that.

West is a fighter, admitting that he must focus on his cancer which he terms “aggressive.” He plans to take a leave from Harvard for surgery. “Issues of respect and mutual civility are very important… but when you look at life and death, they are dwarfed by trying to stay alive,” West said during a recent C-SPAN interview.

Indeed, he is also fighting for his reputation in the wake of a very public dispute with the new University president – a spat that has rocked Harvard’s hallowed halls with talk of racial insensitivity, inflated egos, and questions of where black activism fits into major university agendas.

In a private meeting last year, Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary and one-time Harvard Professor, allegedly questioned West’s activities, such as making the rap CD, advising activist Al Sharpton in a possible bid for the presidency in 2004, and giving undeserving students A grades in his classes.

Others disagree. “Cornel is foremost a philosopher,” said Walters. “He has one of the quickest minds among scholars I know and puts together unique perspectives on issues.” From existentialism to urban realism, in class and in conversation, West may intertwine the themes of Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard and the ideas of Martin Luther King Jr.; religion and love; racism, homophobia and prostate cancer.

My personal view is that, while spoken word is definitely not a new concept, West’s use of the art form is distinct within his profession of teaching. Distinct in much the same way as Jazz, Rock & Roll, and Hip Hop have been to music, in that it speaks to people in a language that celebrates diversity, yet emphasizes that we are more similar than different.

As an innovator, West has sought to make his thought more accessible to a younger set by producing a CD that praises past generations of African American leaders. Efforts like this – “danceable education,” as West termed the CD – set him apart from other black scholars.

Where black academics like Harvard’s Orlando Patterson or Lawrence Bobo are more grounded in statistical analysis and surveys, West is primarily a thinker who uses his life experiences and interpretation of other works to support a more impassioned style of professorship that has brought him criticism.

Dr. Cornel West has been called the “Preeminent African-American intellectual of our time.” My mother, a fellow lecturer who has invited Dr. West to speak in our home state of Arkansas on several occasions, would beg to differ. “Dr. West is the preeminent intellectual of our time.” Period.

February 11, 2002
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