Pictured: Dr. Cornel West spoke on Feb. 26 with students at online event hosted by the Moorpark College Black Student Union.
by Kimberly Rivers
Dr. Cornel West Ph.D. has been in the news recently. As one of the nation’s most prominent philosophers, activists and intellectuals, that happens regularly. Lately, however, it is Harvard University’s denial of West’s request for tenure that has stimulated media coverage.
When asked by Pauline Nassar, chief director of the Black Student Union (BSU) at Moorpark College, why he thought the school wasn’t giving him tenure, he responded, “Well, there could only be three reasons. One, because I’m too old.” (West is almost 70.) Another possible reason: the idea that “his best work is behind him.”
West discarded both of those rationales, noting that others have been tenured at more advanced ages, and that he’s been invited to participate in the prestigious Gifford Lectures. The lecture series, hosted by the four ancient Scottish Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St. Andrews, focuses on the advancement of theological and philosophical thought, and is considered by many as “the highest honor in a philosopher’s career.” .
West spoke with Nassar during a Feb. 26 online conversation as part of a series of events coordinated for Black History Month by the Moorpark College BSU in partnership with Ventura and Oxnard Colleges. Over 700 people listened in to the conversation.
“It can’t be academics,” continued West, pointing to his many writings and professorships. “It had to be politics.”
“And I don’t think my support of my dear friend Bernie Sanders upsets the powers that be at Harvard,” West continued. “I’m thoroughly convinced that it is precisely my outspokenness against the mainstream that deeply upsets a Harvard administration who would have to give their stamp of approval to someone who is so critical of the Israeli occupation and actually supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.”
“I do hate injustice and oppression”
West said that once someone comes out in support of that movement “you are usually cast as being an anti-Jewish or anti-Semetic person . . . you can call me any name you want but I’m never gonna stoop as low to hate Jews, I’m never gonna stoop as low to hate any group. But I do hate injustice and oppression.” Any group, he said, that engages in injustice or oppression “will receive my moral critique.”
“Dr. West is unapologetic in his advocacy and fight for human rights. He declares his love for all oppressed people loudly,” said Gerald Richardson III, BSU president at Moorpark College. Richardson also serves as the state legislative director for the Student Senate for California Community Colleges. He called West’s convictions, and his commitment to them, inspiring. “That passion, that dedication and implacable pursuit of justice rejuvenated me. It motivated me to keep going, to dream big, to fight for what I believe in, and to seek justice at all cost.”
West, originally from Sacramento, is a skilled purveyor of the spoken and written word which he strives to direct at justice and love for “all oppressed people” in a morally consistent way, whether it is people in Palestine, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia or anywhere on Earth. He’s been doing this work since he was 14 and helped to shut down Sacramento area high schools to force administrators to include Black Studies curricula. Today, he is a professor of public philosophy at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He has written 20 books and edited another 13. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in three years and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton. He has participated in spoken word recordings including collaborations with Prince and Bootsy Collins. Called a civil rights activist, he prefers human rights activist, pointing out that the struggle goes beyond civil rights to such things as the right to food and water.
West said he insists on teaching freshmen at Harvard because it’s so important to talk with and be around the younger generation. His directive to the young people of Ventura County is to find a way to “be connected to the struggles for . . . love and justice,” and to effectively position yourself to do that, he said, you have to understand what makes you and where you come from.
“Justice is what love looks like in public”
In seeking to “critically challenge our precious students,” West said it’s always important to “situate myself in a very rich tradition of those who have been willing to attempt to cultivate the best inside of me,” hailing the influence of his parents, Irene and Clifton West.
When talking “about race you don’t start with name calling and finger pointing; you begin with trying to understand what has gone into the shaping and molding of who we are so what we can accent the best of who we are…I cannot begin to understand my attempt to engage in truth telling and witness bearing and justice seeking without Irene and Clifton.”
He challenges students to “cultivate a critical consciousness,” and acknowledge the “roots” of who they are, but he emphasized that critical inquiry “must be founded in a moral and spiritual integrity.”
“Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.” West has shared this idea before in the context of education. He explained that institutions of learning all “purport to be in search of truth and justice and fairness,” but that is not possible without everyone “engaging in a Socratic self examination.”
“For 400 years,” Black people in America have been “chronically, systemically hated and yet, we keep dishing out love, like Coltrane, Martin King, Ella Baker, Harriet Tubman, on and on . . . Stevie Wonder.”
He pointed to the trauma Black Americans and other people of color have borne that could have led to “Black versions of the KKK… but no, we want freedom for everybody.” The trauma of slavery and injustice has “caused us to be wounded healers not wounded hunters . . . We come to elevate the best.”
West emphasized the work of becoming “better love warriors, freedom fighters and wounded healers.”
“People’s humanity comes in different colors”
Today, West sees the country “wrestling with” a “spiritual decay . . . hatred, contempt, arrogance.” The pervasive attitude of “I’ll do anything with impunity. That’s not just polarization, thats gansterization . . . We are all living at a time when gangsterized ways of being in the world are being more pervasive.”
When asked about people, including college faculty, who may say they are “colorblind,” West responded that he believed they mean something different from what people of color think. He pointed to the long-held notion that people of color were “inferior.” Today, when someone says they are “colorblind,” he guesses they “really mean they don’t see the inferiority” attributed to people of color in the past. “I reject being colorblind . . . affirm being lovestruck” by all people.
“I’m Christian. When you see folks you oughta be able to affirm, approve, even fall in love with the best of them . . . Be able to revel in each other’s humanity, without claiming we are somehow not seeing color.”
He said he figured it’s pretty impossible to not see his color, and that “preciousness” is at the core of each person’s humanity. Seeing their color “is what connects you to them . . . People’s humanity comes in different colors.”
“Keep on pushin’”
The BSU at Moorpark College is taking active steps to address the structural racism and injustices they’ve witnessed at their campus and across the district.
Richardson said a main concern for Black students on the Moorpark campus and across the Ventura County Community College District (VCCCD) “as a whole is racism and inequity. Black students typically already enter higher education with disadvantages from academic and opportunity achievement gaps. So when we come on campus, when we are not being heard nor supported, it is impossible for our retention and graduation rates to increase.”
He said “culturally responsive support services” are needed along with “faculty and staff that we can identify with, and we need curriculum in all pathways that does not exclude our culture, experiences, research and accomplishments.”
To build the change they are seeking, Richardson authored a Black Lives Matter resolution put forward by the BSU that calls for the Associated Students of Moorpark College (ASMC) and Moorpark College to take several steps to address these issues, including: declaring racism a public health crisis and an enormous educational barrier to success; increasing diversity amongst faculty, staff and administration and promote the hiring of more Black individuals; working with the BSU and college administrators to ensure equitable student grievance processes and accountability of hate and racism (covert or overt) inflicted by any faculty, staff, administration or students on campus; increasing the availability and access of ethnic studies courses; and diversifying Euro-centric curriculum in all pathways.
West spoke about how his outlook on life and enjoyment of music helps him, saying that as a “blues man” he can cope with anything. He said a major mantra he works under follows the lyrics of Curtis Mayfield, and he encouraged the local college students to “keep on pushin’.”
Moorpark College, Black Lives Matter Resolution: ASMC Resolution – Black Lives Matter – Finalized 20201222_0_0
More information about Moorpark College’s Black History Month events is online at: www.moorparkcollege.edu/black-history-month
A Conversation with Dr. Cornel West, Feb. 26: