HDS Convocation 2017: Spiritual Blackout, Imperial Meltdown, Prophetic Fightback

By | September 8, 2019

[MUSIC PLAYING] Please be seated everyone. [LAUGHTER] I’m getting slower. I like this new lectern. Good afternoon, everyone
and welcome to Harvard Divinity School’s
202nd convocation. As dean of the
Divinity School, I’m delighted to welcome
all of you here today. Colleagues on the
faculty of divinity, our colleagues from African
and African-American studies, and the faculty of
Arts and Sciences, emeriti, senior administrators
from Harvard University and HDS, colleagues
on the staff, guests, students
incoming and returning, and our friends
from near and far. We are very glad to
have you all with us. Thanks for being part of
this community celebration. So today we celebrate the
opening of a new academic year, following the events of our
bicentennial celebration of this past year. And we especially
welcome our new colleague on the faculty, Dr. Todne Tomas,
our new Bloomberg visiting professor, E.J. Dionne,
and our first distinguished writer-in-residence,
Terry Tempest Williams. Please give them a
warm HDS welcome. [CLAPPING] I’ve already met most
of our incoming students during these past
days of orientation. And must say what
a delight it is to start the semester with
so much fresh energy, talent, aspiration, and eagerness
to learn and to serve. Today’s keynote address by
our new and distinguished colleague, Dr. Cornel West,
entitled Spiritual Blackout, Imperial Meltdown,
Prophetic Fightback, promises to be an engaging
and mobilizing start into our new year here at HDS. Just guessing from the title. [LAUGHTER] Please note that
Dr. West will also lead us in a moment of
silence following his remarks. Allow me please to
say a word of thanks to everyone who helped put
together today’s festivities. My gratitude goes in particular
to our musicians, especially our brand new director of
music, Christopher Hossfeld. Christopher, welcome. [CLAPPING] He organized our musical program
with immense care and thought. And even composed
some of the pieces we will be hearing
as meditations today. I’d like to thank Geoffrey
Shamu on the trumpet. Geoffrey, thank you. [CLAPPING] And to all our student readers,
Angel, [? Salva, ?] Michael, thanks for agreeing to do this. And last but not least,
to the staff members in the office for
Academic Affairs and the Dean’s Office
who organized this year’s convocation and put
everything together, thank you everyone
for all you have done. So a heartfelt thank you
and round of applause. [APPLAUSE] So without further
ado, let’s now begin our service of
convocation with a reading. Angel, thank you very much. This reading will be
taken from the book of Matthew, chapter 25. When the son of man comes in
his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit
on the throne of his glory. All the nations will
be gathered before him. And he will separate
people from one another as shepherds separate
the sheep from the goats. And he will put the sheep at
his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the King will say to
those at his right hands, come you that are
blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared
for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and
you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave
me something to drink. I was a stranger
and you welcomed me. I was naked and you
gave me clothing. I was sick and you
took care of me. I was in prison
and you visited me. Then the righteous
will answer him. Lord, when was it that we saw
you hungry and gave you food? Or thirsty and gave
you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you
a stranger and welcomed you? Or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we
saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the King will answer them. Truly I tell you,
just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family, you did it to me. Then he will say to
those at his left hand you that are accursed,
depart from me into the eternal fire prepared
for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and
you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you
gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and
you did not welcome me. Naked and you did
not give me clothing. Sick and in prison and
you did not visit me. Then they will also answer. Lord when was it that we saw you
hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick, or in prison
and did not take care of you? Then He will answer to them. Truly I tell you
just as you did it not to one of the least of
these you did not do it to me. And these will go away
into eternal punishments, but the righteous
into eternal life. [MUSIC PLAYING] A reading from the epilogue
to The Cornel West Reader on Anton Chekhov. Despair and hope
are inseparable. One can never understand what
hope is really about until one wrestles with despair. The same is true with faith. There has to be some
serious doubt otherwise faith becomes merely a
dogmatic formula, an orthodoxy, a way of evading the
complexity of life rather than engaging– than
a way of engaging honestly with life. Therefore for me as a
Christian and humanist, I am reminded of Harry– Harold Goddard’s splendid
book on Shakespeare, which says that the
greatest poetry tends to portray the human condition
as a citadel of nobility, threatened by an immense
barbarianism, or a flickering candle in an immense night. He doesn’t say that in
a self-righteous way he just means that the
possibility of sustaining hope is always difficult if you
are fundamentally committed to human dignity. That is true from Sophocles
to Aeschylus to Chekhov, Toni Morrison and John Coltrane. You know that you
are cutting radically against the historical grain. Any fundamental commitment to
decency, dignity, and democracy means that you are cutting
even more fundamentally against the grain. You have to be aware of this. You have to be willing
to look at the worst to push for the best. This is the old Thomas Hardy
insight stated in his tenebrae. I always resonated
deeply with that. It means wrestling
with despair and doubt, but never allowing them
to have the last word. [MUSIC PLAYING] A reading from the epilogue
to The Cornel West Reader on John Coltrane. Coltrane, in so many ways, is
like the Hebrew Bible, which centers on hesed, loving
kindness at its best, and the New Testament,
which deals with a love that is so rich and deep,
but it doesn’t really deal with an
incongruity that sits at the center of human
predicament, which is the raw stuff of the comic. Thus even the
greatness of Coltrane would have to be examined
in terms of what’s missing. For me the sense of
the comic is crucial, and there’s no doubt that
Charles Mingus brings that. Actually, Chekhov
is the great poet of the comic of incongruity. But it’s very high comedy. He talks about
failure and inadequacy of intelligence in the most
sophisticated and intelligent way. To accent heroic action that is
always self-critical and that is there– and that therefore accents
intellectual humility is tragic at its best. I understand tragic to
refer to the freedom that humans have to explore
the possibility of even greater freedom, but
against constraints, usually constraints of which
they are unaware. The comic is a way of
acknowledging those limitations and the incongruity between
those high aspirations and where one actually ends up. With Coltrane and Chekhov,
the tragic and the comic are in fascinating
tension and hence they actually need one another. With Mingus, within the
black musical tradition, you already have a wrestling
with the most sophisticated forms of the comic. And of course, I want to
stress that the comic is in no way reducible to
the humorous, or even the satirical. It cuts much deeper. Though it often embraces that. [MUSIC PLAYING] How many of you have heard or
sung the hymn, Oh Happy Day? Let me see some hands here. We got some Happy
Day people here. Oh Happy Day by Edwin Hawkins
and Lynette Hawkins-Stephens has been playing in
my mind recently. One reason is because
all of you new students have arrived to revivify the
Harvard Divinity School just after its 200th anniversary. Our faculty and staff open
our minds and hearts to you. Another good reason to feel the
spirit of Oh Happy Day today is because our speaker is
our dear brother Cornel West, who has returned to the
Harvard Divinity School after an absence of
more than 15 years. Cornel West, he’s the best. [LAUGHTER] I’m grateful for this day. If you allow me a
personal reflection, I’ve been waiting since 1991
to be securely on the faculty where Cornel West is inscribed. That year, 1991, I was happily
at the University of Colorado when Princeton
University’s Department of religion, where Cornell
worked, reached out to me. Now by 1991 Cornel West had
already cut an intellectual rug with the publication of The
American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism
and Prophetic Fragments: Illuminations of the Crisis in
American Religion and Culture. 30 years later
both of these works are still widely used
in graduate seminars in this country and
have been considered to be, quote, “the most
important reconstruction of American pragmatism
in recent times.” Now Cornell encouraged
me then to leave Boulder, in the Rockies. The town where I raised my
children and my Denver Broncos. Saying come on
over here, brother. And together we can do
some black-brown pragmatism together. So I left the Rockies
and went to Princeton. And within a year Cornell
left Princeton for Harvard. [LAUGHTER] John Gager, the author of
The Origins of Anti-Semitism, said one day during our time on
the faculty with Cornel West, moves me to remember this. Even though we in religion
only get Cornel half-time because he’s running the
Afro-American program at Princeton, every intellectual
interaction we have with him is a rare gift. I lamented his
departure, of this rift, and felt at once that a
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for that black-brown
dialogue had been lost. He enlarged himself with
a war against parents. What we can do with America’s–
but for America’s beleaguered moms and dads. Nine years passed and he wrote
Race Matters and Keeping Faith: Philosophy and
Religion in America. He gave us The
Cornel West Reader. Which in the words
of another critic initiated major shifts
in the public discussion of the terms of race and
class in the United States. Cornell was compared favorably
with Jurgen Habermas and Judith Butler for his philosophical
excellence and his impact beyond the academy
into public thinking. In 2000, Harvard
came calling to me. And Cornel, who was here,
said come on brother let’s put the doubt behind
us and join me up here and we’ll do that black-brown
community building. He called and I
followed him to Harvard. And within a year because
of bad leadership up the way he went back to Princeton. [LAUGHTER] In despair I turned to the
cosmos and said, is it me? Am I the cause? Every time I join up
with Cornel, he splits. But now, I have the honor
of publicly welcoming Cornel West back to
HDS and bringing him forth to you today. Oh happy day. [APPLAUSE] But one line in the
song, Oh Happy Day, has special relevance
for what we’re about to hear in
these dark times. Dark times akin perhaps
to what the Buddhists call mappo, a period
of political and cosmic degeneration. The line in the song
that people forget is, he taught me to
watch, fight, and pray. Cornel West learned from
Jesus and other prophets to be a watcher, a deep
reader, an interpreter of American travails
and potentials for caregiving
and human dignity. Cornell is like James Baldwin in
the film, I Am Not Your Negro. Who laments, quote,
quoting Baldwin, “I’m terrified that
the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which
is happening in my country.” In response to this
Cornel West wrote Democracy Matters: Winning
the Fight Against Imperialism distinguishing– and in this book he
distinguished radical democracy from liberalism. He also wrote Brother West:
Living and Loving Out Loud. He was living so
out loud that he’d been portrayed on
Saturday Night Live by Kenan Thompson, appeared
as Chancellor West in two of The Matrix movies. He’s made spoken word
albums and most recently be can heard on that wonderful
Bootsy Collins The Funk Capital of the World. Now why has he been out loud? Because in his life
a public philosopher addresses topics of
public importance in publicly accessible and
intellectually critical ways that strive to bring freedom
to the political realm. He learned to watch,
fight, and pray out loud. In fact the fight in him,
this loving fight in Cornell reminds me of the short
passage from William James, who wrote, “If this life be not a
real fight, in which something is eternally gained for
the universe by success, it is no better than a
game of private theatricals from which one may
withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight. As if there was something really
wild in the universe, which we with all our idealities
and faithfulnesses are needed to redeem.” So teach us Cornel how to
fight more effectively, how to organize in the spirit of
what Mexicans call convivencia. Living together to create
new life, not new death. And let’s have that black-brown
dialogue here at HDS. Given the Biblical-size
travails in Houston, on the Mexican border, in
America’s prison system, I want to pay a
minute of attention to one other word in the title
of the song, Oh Happy Day. That “oh” sound is
not just a litter– letter or a prefix. It comes out of black
sufferings and black strivings. It’s a numinous sound that “oh.” It’s a primal sound pointing
to excessive suffering that overwhelms the world. That complex “oh” is
what Anton Chekhov, one of Cornell’s inspirations,
wrote about when he said, write about this young
man, we could say young woman, squeezing drop by drop
the slave out of himself and waking one fine
morning feeling that real human blood,
not a slave’s is flowing in his veins. Now in closing I confess
another song also came to me as a challenge
in the lead up to today. A song by the recent
Nobel Prize winner in literature, Bob Dylan. The song is called
Blind Willie McTell. It’s about the great Piedmont
blues and ragtime singer. Each stanza ends with
a refrain, “And I know no one can sing the blues
like Blind Willie McTell.” The song tells us that
we, we live in a land, quote, “That is condemned
all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem.” That we live in a land
where suffering overwhelms the worlds of the
tribes who are moaning, where the Mexicans are
dying in the deserts, where the ghosts of
slavery ships are remade into American prisons. That’s why nobody can sing the
blues like Blind Willie McTell. And at the end of the song
we arrive at a challenge for today’s gathering. For today’s speaker. The song says God
is in his heaven and we all want what’s
his but power and greed and corruptible seed seems
to be all that there is. Seems to be all that there is. Seems. Maybe. In this school, in this year,
at this hour of growing poverty, rising rivers, and
rising Arpaios, and the eclipse of
human dignities, we gather to hear brother
Cornel West revoke the notion that corruptible seed
is our destiny as a species. We gather to hear him provoke
us with his jazz impulses so we can remember the
prophetic traditions but find new political
variations to help us all build freedom for more and more. We gather to hear him and
feel him invoke those spirits and bodies and ancestors and
even freedom fighters yet to come. So we can one day all sing
together oh happy day. Which we will watch, and we will
fight, and we will pray for. The title of his talk is
Spiritual Blackout, Imperial Meltdown, Prophetic Fightback. Please welcome Cornel West. [APPLAUSE] Oh my dear brother
David Carrasco. Give it up again
for this brother. [APPLAUSE] Oh you can tell he loves me
and I love him right back. Reminds me of the
last song written by one of the great artistic
geniuses of the 20th century. His name was George Gershwin. He wrote a song called
Our Love Is Here to Stay. Oh yes. What a blessing for me to
be here this afternoon. What an honor what a privilege. I want to begin by saluting
the captain of this ship. He’s my very dear brother
he’s the beloved Dean David N. Hempton. Let’s give it up
for our brother. And also for his beloved
wife Elizabeth Ann known to us as the
beloved Lou Ann. Let’s give it. [APPLAUSE] Of course David Carrasco,
distinguished scholar, freedom fighter, bridge builder. Of not just brown and
black, but of all colors. I don’t want to overlook
his scholarly contribution even given the fact
that you can tell he has an exemplary spirit. Professor Carrasco. [APPLAUSE] I want to acknowledge my
dear sister, Dr. [? Karen. ?] She has been magnificent. She has been marvelous in
bringing this together. I don’t know where she
is but just give it up for her wherever she is. [APPLAUSE] And the same goes
for brother Matthew. Same goes for brother
Matthew and let us never overlook our musicians. They are not ornaments
or decorative entities. They are constitutive of who we
are as persons and community. I’m talking about that,
those authors, and players, composers, and enactors
of that meditation. Trumpet and piano,
one, two, and three. Brother Christopher
and brother Geoffrey. [APPLAUSE] Salute the distinguished faculty
at Harvard Divinity School. What a great tradition. What a grand, grand legacy. It was actually 26 years
ago and I gave this talk at the same moment,
the same convocation. And I can see in the
eyes of my dear brother, the late great Richard Niebuhr. Just to invoke his name
brings tears to my eyes. Many moments in his classes, his
gentle spirit, his subtle mind, and I recall the words he
said after my convocation. He said, we do have a
future not because of what I said but because
of our work together. Let us salute the
distinguished faculty here at Harvard Divinity School. [APPLAUSE] And of course I
don’t have words, language fails me when
it comes to describing the depths of the quality
of the students here. Yes indeed, especially
that brand new students. Welcome to Harvard
Divinity School indeed. Second year, welcome again
to Harvard Divinity School. Third year, fourth
year, welcome again to Harvard Divinity School. No, indeed. But I want to begin
actually on a note of piety. That I come from a
tradition, a great tradition, of a grand people. The best of this
tradition has everything to do, with not just
courage and vision and sacrifice and service
to the least of these. But it has to do with piety. Understand piety is not
blind faith to a dogma. It’s not uncritical
adherence to a doctrine. But as what George
Santayana and John Dewey define piety as the sources
of good in our lives, in our move from womb to tomb. Our acknowledged dependence
on those who came before. I am who I am because
somebody loved me. Somebody cared for me. Somebody attended to me and
I’ll never ever forget it. It is a magnificent
moment to be back at Harvard, Harvard Divinity
School Afro-American studies. But the greatest honor
I will ever receive is to be the second son
of the late Clifton West and present Irene B. West. The grandest acknowledgment
I could ever make is to be able to come out of
that love nest on the chocolate side of Sacramento, California. That was inseparable
from Shiloh Baptist Church of Reverend Willie
P. Cook, who was a pastor, he was not a CEO. We had choirs we didn’t
have praise teams. The market model
had not taken over. Our prison ministry was
stronger than our building fund. Ooh, that hurts these
days doesn’t it? But there’s also an
intellectual piety. It was 47 years ago when I
first walked up those steps and took my Hebrew class
from Professor Dick Clifford from Weston Jesuit
School of Theology. Then moved on to
Paul Hanson and G. Ernest Wright, where I wrote
my undergraduate thesis in Near Eastern
Languages and Literature. I shall never forget
their love, their caring, and their nurturing. I’ll never forget the John
Rawlses and Hilary Putnams and Roderick Firths and Stanley
Cavells and Martha Nussbaums and Eileen Foley in Greek. They mean the world to me. And I begin with piety
because Antonino Gramsci says those who are serious
about being all-season love warriors and not just sunshine
soldiers, in this moment of spiritual blackout
and imperial meltdown, you must begin with a
critical historical inventory. Who are you really? How do you situate yourself
in relation to traditions? And no one of us have one
identity or one tradition. We’re all hybrids
all the way down. But you have to situate yourself
in the best of those traditions in order to constitute
when, at your back, so that you’re able
to sustain yourself in the face of the variety of
catastrophes coming our way. The ecological catastrophe
the anthropocene is real. The extinctions are real. The nuclear
catastrophe is pending with Russia and
the United States and other countries
with nuclear capacity. The North Koreas, the Indias,
the Pakistans, the Israels and other countries. We know the moral
catastrophe is real, what I’m calling their relative
eclipse of integrity, honesty, and decency, not just in this
empire but around the world. And what do I mean
by moral catastrophe? Not talking about politics. We’re not talking
about ideology. We’re talking about the
kinds of human beings who are being shaped
by the weakened institutions in our world. I want to acknowledge
my dear sister Suzanne, who always has
that magnificent smile when she’s in the office. She’s a grand example
of a counter-move against spiritual blackout. Give it up for sister Suzanne. [APPLAUSE] Spiritual blackout is the
normalizing of mendacity. To make lies appear
as if they’re part of the normal order of things. Such as, we believe in justice
but not one Wall Street executive who engages in
massive criminality of insider trading, market manipulation,
fraudulent activity, and predatory lending. Not one who goes to jail. It is the naturalizing
of criminality for the crimes against
humanity become part of the natural order of things. One out of two black children
under 6 years old living in utter poverty in
the richest nation in the history of the world. That’s just not wrong. That’s just not unjust. That’s a certain kind of
crime against humanity. Where is our public
discussion about it? Where are the voices? Where’s the moral outrage? Where is the
righteous indignation? No. We just fit in. It’s just business as usual. Drone strikes have been
killing innocent children for the last 10 years. And yes, under our dear
brother, Barack Obama, that so many fell in
love with and became blinded when it came to his
complicity in war crimes. We normalize criminality. So it’s not just a matter of
the new occupant of the White House. It’s too easy to
fetishize Donald Trump. But he is as American
as apple pie. He just represents
the worst of America. Don’t isolate him. Don’t act as if he
dropped out of the sky. No, no. He comes out of very
deep organic traditions in the country. Transphobia, losing sight of
our precious trans brothers and sisters. Losing sight of
our bisexual folk. Lesbians and gays, black people,
indigenous people, Latinos, working people. Across the board. Moral catastrophe. But then I want to accent that
deeper spiritual dimension. I notice that one of the great
prophetic figures of our time just walked in. I’m talking about Professor
Susanna Heschel, who of course is the daughter of
the one and only Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Give it up for our
dear sister Heschel. [APPLAUSE] Distinguished graduate, too. [APPLAUSE] Spiritual blackout not
only normalizes mendacity and naturalizes criminality, but
it also encourages callousness. It elevates machismo identity. And it rewards indifference. And when William James,
the greatest of all public intellectuals. And brother David
Lamberth understands that, given his magnificent
book on William James, and I look forward to
teaching the class with it this semester. We’re going to have
a good time brother. William James used
to say indifference is the one trait that
makes the very angels weep. Rabbi Heschel says
indifference to evil is more insidious
than evil itself. But when you encourage
indifference, where machismo
identity is defined in terms of being
manly and mature rather than cowardly
and insecure, then that’s a sign of
a spiritual blackout. And so when we look
at Donald Trump, we ought not to engage in
a sophomoric name-calling and finger-pointing
that we get too often from the corporate media,
the very corporate media that in one sense helped produce
that Frankenstein, given their obsession with money
and revenue and profits. I think it was the head, the
CEO of NBC, what did he say? We understand he’s bad for
America but he’s good for us. Oh, so much for public interest. So much for common good. Oh, we see what’s
really running things. This market-driven,
predatory capitalism that’s obsessed with
short term gain, that is obsessed with
superficial success. What about spiritual
issues in which greatness has to do what he or she who
is serving the least of these, rather than just the
smartest in the room. That neo-liberal soul-craft
has become hegemonic across ideologies, across
politics, across color, across sexual orientation,
where the very end and aim is the focus on smartness,
dollars, and bombs, rather than wisdom and
compassion and service to the least of these. That’s a sign of
spiritual blackout. So when we look at
brother Donald Trump, we ought to also look
inside of ourselves. There’s elements inside of us
that need to be wrestled with. That’s why this
grand institution, going back to 1816– and I’m reminded of John
Ware who of course generated the controversy where
Andover moves out because the orthodox folk
can’t take the Unitarians. They’re a little bit too loose. [LAUGHTER] And we love our Unitarian
brothers and sisters. But I’m still gut-bucket
black Baptist. So I can be a free
thinker and still be tied to the mysterious
movements of the spirit that always have a way
of humbling you. So you don’t think as
if being the smartest and being the freest thinker
is the measure of being great. I come from a people
who’ve been terrorized and traumatized for 400 years. But Frederick Douglass and
Martin Luther King, Jr. Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella
Baker, they decided what? Not to terrorize others. To fight for freedom
for everybody. They connected the
legacy of Athens. That fundamental
stress on paideia. That formation of
attention so you shift from the
superficial things to the substantial
things, rooted in Plato’s Republic, that
line five, one, eight, D. The turning of the soul,
the transformation of yourself, not just assess to gain a job
or acquiring a skill in order to be visible, but to be a
certain kind of human being who has undergone a paragoge,
a metanoia, a conversion, a transformation. And then you’re on the
road to the cultivation of a self-critical orientation,
and the maturation of a soul that wants to be in the language
of John Coltrane, a force for good. And it means, then,
you have to shatter the chains of conformity,
including the forms of conformity that
are shot through professional, managerial sites
in our capitalist civilization like Harvard University. The aim here is not just to
make the next connection. Moving up the ladder. Can’t wait to be successful. For what? What kind of person
are you going to be? What are you going to use
your fame for if you have it? Part of our problem
these days, we’ve got so many market-driven
celebrities tied to glitz and spectacle
and raw self-promotion, we don’t have enough
morally laden exemplars that have gritty,
deep convictions and stout-hearted
causes that they’re willing to live and die for. And young folk, the
challenge becomes, do you have enough courage,
but not just courage. The great classical tradition
of the western civilization says what? Courage and magnanimity
produced fortitude. A Nazi soldier
could be courageous but he’s still a gangster. I saw great courage in the
eyes of my neo-Nazi brothers and sisters in Charlottesville
just a few weeks ago when they stood in front
of us and spit and called names and racial epithets. Yes, I saw a lot of courage. I could see blazing
in their eyes unbelievable determination, a
willingness to live and die. But we need more
than just courage. We need spiritual
moral dimensions that are tied to that courage. We need fortitude. We need greatness of character. We need magnanimity. And that fortitude that
embraces the courage provides us with the kind
of moral and spiritual orientation. We can hold off the obsession
with short-term gain and hold off the obsession
with raw ambition and self-promotion. But it’s part of the
civil war raging inside of each and every one of us. And that’s what I love about
the great legacy of Athens. Learning how to die in
order to learn how to live. Trying to fight off
those narrow prejudices, that parochialism
and provincialism. Trying to hold back, that
hedonism and narcissism and narrow individualism. We got our dear brother
E.J. Dionne here today. He’s written a marvelous book
on individualism and community. He understands the
difference between the quest for individuality
in community and the narrow, rugged,
rapacious individualism that leaves us isolated and
deracinated and rootless and unable to connect in
such an atomized world. Did I get your interpretation
right though, brother? I wanted to make sure. We got the author
in the house, so we got to make sure we get the
interpretation right, here. I believe in hermeneutical
humility, you know that. [LAUGHTER] But the prophetic
fightback in the face of the decay and decline
of the American empire. My hunch is somewhere
the American Gibbon is beginning to
put pen to paper. It’s probably a
sister of any color. Good chance she’s
lesbian, could be trans. To tell the truth
about the history of this grand
experiment in democracy, grounded on the dispossession of
land of our precious indigenous brothers and sisters and the
violation of their bodies. People talk about, oh, slavery’s
America’s original sin. That’s not true. The treatment of our
indigenous brothers and sisters was original sin. Now slavery was second. White supremacy moves quickly. [LAUGHTER] But every human being has the
same value and significance from the tradition
that produced me. And I intend to be faithful
unto death to that tradition. But when you lie
for so long, when you believe you’re
innocent for so long, there’s an intimate connection
between innocence and violence. That’s why the dominant
myth of the American empire is frontier. What is frontier? Moral regeneration
through violence. The savages to be tamed. The savages to be
subordinated and dominated. And the sophisticated, civilized
ones to take over their land and say lo and behold,
there is free land. There’s no human beings here,
only buffaloes and Indians. Chickens come home to roost. Sooner or later you’re
going to reap what you sow. You can only go on so long
with mendacity and criminality. We have a constitution that’s
a pro-slavery constitution in practice, but talk about
liberty for everybody. Talk about yourself as a
beacon of religious liberty, but black folk can’t worship
God without white supervision, and have no right to learn
how to read or write. What are we talking about here? This is not some
interesting tension between principle and practice. They’re crimes against humanity. And sooner or later,
chickens come home to roost. And we have to be fortified that
in this moment of imperial melt down. In this moment 4,855 military
units around the world, 587 overseas arrests
in the United States, special operation activities
going on 150 nations. Yes, that’s an empire. Military overreach. For every dollar spent
in the White House– dollar spent in
Washington D.C., $0.53 go to the military
industrial complex. And we wonder why it is that
we have so many decrepit schools, don’t have
enough money to generate jobs programs to deal
with underemployment and unemployment. Why it is we can’t have
universal health care, just a basic benchmark of
a civilized society. Thank God for Canada. We got right-wing
brothers and sisters in Canada more left-wing than
most in the Democratic Party on health care. Now I know Canada
has its problems. Why? Because we all have problems. Every nation, every
person, every individual. But to be able to keep
track of that underside, but not in a spirit
of self-righteousness, this is a major challenge. Especially for those
progressive folk, who just love to be in the
company of the do-gooders. No, that’s a sign of
spiritual immaturity too. Samuel Beckett is right. Try again, fail
again, fail better. Try again, fail
again, fail better. That’s true for each
and every one of us. That’s true for our movement. But we need examples of persons
willing to speak the truth. And the condition
of truth is always to allow suffering to speak. And in my tradition, going back
to the blues artists, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, jazz musicians
like Sarah Vaughan and Mary Lou Williams and John Coltrane and
Miles Davis and Duke Ellington and Count Basie. There’s a soulful
kenosis that sits at the center of
prophetic fightback. And don’t confuse
prophetic fightback with progressive
do-good activity. Because prophetic
fightback has to do with the fundamental
orientation of your soul, the very core of your being. And the soulful
kenosis that you hear in a Sam Cooke or
an Aretha Franklin, that you might see in a
Kendrick Lamar or Erykah Badu, which is courageous,
creative, unflinching look at catastrophe. Because the blues is produced
by a people on intimate terms with catastrophe. That’s what Ralph
Ellison said didn’t he? The blues is an individual
story of a personal catastrophe lyrically expressed. Nobody loves me but my mama
and she might be jivin’ too, said B.B. King. He’s the King of the blues and
that’s the b-side of The Thrill is Gone. Which can be
catastrophic too, but we won’t get into that right now. But to look that catastrophe
in the face, no denial, no evasion, no
myths of innocence, no self-righteousness,
and say maybe together. And this is where religion
plays a fundamental role. Because let us be honest, most
of the history of religion has been religious institutions
accommodating themselves to structures of
domination and reinforcing envy and resentment and hatred. That as religious people,
we have no higher ground in terms of our tradition. The only higher
ground we have is earned in terms of
what kind of lives that we’ve lived, what kind
of sacrifices we have made, what kind of costs
we’re willing to bear. Martin Luther King, Jr.
doesn’t speak on behalf of all the black church. No. Most of the black
church was terrorized and they were scared. They were niggerized. And to niggerize a people
is to keep a people so intimidated and scared and
afraid that they walk around with their backs humped over
and laughing when it ain’t funny and scratching when it don’t
itch and wearing a mask and just trying to fit in and
be well-adjusted to injustice rather than maladjusted
to injustice. Martin Luther King, Jr. had
to cut against the grain in the black church. Rabbi Heschel had to
cut against the grain when it came to
Jewish synagogues. Dorothy Day had to
cut against the grain when it came to the
great Catholic tradition. We can go on and on and on. Bell Hooks, Buddhist, she’s
cutting against the grain in more ways than one. But not in a self-righteous
way at their best. But soulful kenosis. Which ought to be
inextricably tied to paideia. In which after the
critical reflection, after the analytical
understandings of the operations of power
and structures of domination and oppression, did she say,
this is a kind of human being I choose to be before
the worms get my body. That’s a vocational question,
not a professional one. A question of calling,
not just your career. A question of life
and death and not just your upward mobility in
terms of your status. Those are the kind of
questions religare, going back to the Latin,
binding and rebinding religion. What the great William James
in his Gifford Lectures called the core
problem of religion. Which is what the call
for help, being an agent, being a subject in the
world, but knowing there will be moments of such
relative helplessness and impotence that you
must call for help. And the great Nathanael
West in Miss Lonelyhearts, which is the literary equivalent
and analog of William James’s varieties of
religious experience in that first chapter,
probably the second greatest comic text ever written
in American literature after Mark Twain’s
Huckleberry Finn. Nathanael West, in that first
chapter says, “Help, help.” That’s where we are now
in the imperial meltdown in the escalating
neo-fascist era run by Trump, tied to big money, big
banks, scapegoating the most vulnerable, especially
Latino immigrants but also those of non-straight
orientation, people of color. Call for help
horizontally of each other as part of the
brown-black dialogue. I can’t make it
without brother David. He can make it a little longer
without me but sooner or later I come running anyway. That’s the kind of solidarity,
and it is not just ideological. It’s not just political. Don’t believe the
corporate media hype, that you have to subsume
yourself under some label. So when the anti-fascist
forces protected us in Charlottesville, they
didn’t ask for our identity. They said these folks
singing, This Little Light of Mine going to get crushed. Them and the light. They intervened. Courage. Of course we have some
ideological political differences with
them, absolutely. But at that particular moment,
they intervened with courage. And that’s where I
think we will be. Which means there will be
widespread disagreement. There will be strong agreement. Let us mediate our
disagreement with respect, critical sharpness, and an
acknowledgment of the humanity of each and every one of us. And do we have any guarantee? Absolutely not. If that American given is
right, then the decline and fall of the American
empire is in motion and the dominant thick
forces will be hatred, envy, resentment, xenophobia,
anti-Jewish hatred, anti-Arab hatred,
anti-Palestinian hatred. It would be targeted on
women, and especially black folk and brown. And if so, we just
go down swinging. That’s all you can do. Go down swinging. If we can turn it around and
regenerate, reinvigorate, and revitalize the best
of American democracy, fight for the rights
and liberties, try to create some
robust public life, public conversation, public
schools, public health care and so forth,
then we have a chance. But that’s not something
that is in our control. What we ought to
do now is to decide in the end who we really are. These are the times that
test women’s and men’s souls. Thomas Paine was right. Let us now have a moment
of silence for our brothers and sisters of all
colors in Houston. Let’s have a moment of silence
for our brothers and sisters in Asia and Africa and Latin
America and Central America. Let’s have a moment for
our brothers and sisters here in Cambridge,
wrestling with the effects of a variety of
different catastrophes as we begin this new year in
the middle and in the mess, in the funk, but deciding to
intellectually, spiritually, morally, fight, work, laugh,
grin, hug, serve and sacrifice. God bless you and let’s
have a magnificent year. Have fun. Be unsettled, unearthed,
and bounce back strong. My dear brother, Dean David. [APPLAUSE] I found your notes. [LAUGHTER] I think we need livelier
convocation services. [LAUGHTER] And I want to thank David and
Cornel, especially Cornel. But thank you both for leading
us out into this coming year. It’s going to be a tough year. We know it’s going
to be a tough year. And we will figure
out who we are, who we really are in
this year, as he said. So thank you so
much for inspiring us right at the start. After the closing music, please
do join us for some iced tea and cake just right out there. And especially welcome our
new students, who are here. And again, thank you everyone
who took part, especially to our two principal speakers. We’re very grateful to you. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]

16 thoughts on “HDS Convocation 2017: Spiritual Blackout, Imperial Meltdown, Prophetic Fightback

  1. Sean A. Barley, Sr. Post author

    Awesome Dr. West ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿพ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿพ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿพ!

  2. Infinite Rumination Post author

    He says the same thing every time. I have no doubt he knows a lot, but it is getting old. You're still the man though.

  3. Libertarian Prince Post author

    Black Prophetic Fire Paperback โ€“ September 1, 2015
    by Cornel West (Author), Christa Buschendorf (Author)

  4. Candy Coat Post author

    we need more DR CORNEL WEST medicine he will help cure the cancer , thank God for people like him ,weve got share his message and spread his message before morality vanishes from our hearts i for one will die with my natural born gift of morality and ,love for all humanity and spiritual connection with my creator .dont be discouraged there is more love out her than you think

  5. Candy Coat Post author

    united we stand all of the people of the world respect and love we are in this together love conquers all evil ,believe in ir

  6. javier Melgoza Post author

    If you want Peace get ready for War ! Itโ€™s true than and itโ€™s true Now ……

  7. Theflowoflove Post author

    What a great man, I feel my heart is home in the wealth of his wisdom.

  8. Michael Hrisca Post author

    If it were not in the title I would never guessed this is Harvard. Looks more like a sad joke, a eerie convention of darkness. I canโ€™t go to a place like this even if they pay me. And so it goes for all ivy leagues. Overrated. I canโ€™t exaggerate this

  9. Joseph Reni Post author

    What an exciting and inspiring 2017 convocation speech by Dr. Cornel West. I look forward to listening to him again at other fora.

  10. Farshid khorasani Post author

    brother west you Brought tiers to my eyes and some hope to our heart ๐ŸŒน๐ŸŒน๐ŸŒน

    great team wonderful setting top platform



  11. Christophe Abiel Post author


  12. Bacon Grease Al Post author

    Congrats to Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin – Still Crime Free! No Wat I Sayin? Jus AXEIN.


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