President's Forum Fall 2009
Dr. Cornel West
October 5, 2009
Smith Opera House
Oh, what a blessing to be here, Geneva, New York! Oh yeah, Hobart and William Smith Colleges! What a blessing to be back to this grand institution. It is my privilege and honor and sheer delight to be here. I want to thank each and every one of you for being kind enough to take time in your short lives to come out and be a part of this dialogue and discussion.
I want to begin, of course, by saluting my very dear brother, who is the captain of the ship, President Mark Gearan - give him a hand, please, Brother Mark Gearan! I salute you, brother! Ten years of service, that's a long time and most college presidents don't last that long these days. It's a sign of your deep commitment, quality of service. And my dear sister, Dean Cerri Banks, please give a hand! From Rochester, New York. Every time I think of Rochester, it reminds me of Frederick Douglass. Oh, what a rich tradition. Give Brother Fred a hand! What a rich tradition: vision, courage, sacrifice.
I also want to acknowledge my very dear brother, Professor James Spates, where is he? There he is - lovely brother! 38 years of service. You brought me here many, many years ago. I was a young brother in those days. But we've been wrestling with the rich legacy of the grand John Ruskin; nobody like him. What a prophet, what sacrifice, even though he went mad at the end - that's alright, he was still striving, trying to bear witness and tell the truth. I appreciate your work over the years.
I also want to salute Professor Mary Gerhart; I don't know whether she's here or not but I wanted to tell her I send my love and respect to her. She's an emeritus professor here, right? Give Sister Mary Gerhart a hand, please! Thank you so very much. And last, but not least, I'd like to dedicate this lecture to the professor who first brought me to this grand institution. I was 29 years old. I had just published Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. His name is Professor Dick Heaton; I hope someone remembers Dick Heaton. He's a wonderful brother.
But, as you can see, I am in no rush tonight, not at all. I don't know when I'll get a chance to come back to Geneva. So, no rush. I want to both give my presentation and, at the same time, be challenged by you and your questions. I think we might even have some book signing after: my new memoir, "Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud," but I don't promote it, the text, at all. If you think it's useful, fine, just read it in the library. I would say steal it from the book store but that's not right, that's not right, that's not right. No, no, no, the bookstores are struggling these days. So we want to support them in every way we can.
I want to begin, really, on a Socratic note because it is true that this memoir is very much about my life, even though I am not going to talk primarily about my life. But I want to begin on a Socratic note. Everywhere I go I try to say something that unsettles people, to say something that unnerves people, that unhouses people, and that's what I love about the great Socrates. A line, 38A: "an unexamined life is not worth living." This is especially for young brothers and sisters of all colors and cultures of civilizations. I don't want to exclude those who are slightly older, but I really want to focus on the students here, the dynamic students here. I'm an older brother now and my dance with mortality is intensifying every day. I am concerned about trying to transmit legacies and bequeath traditions, and the Socratic note of examining oneself; "the unexamined life is not worth living."
Malcolm X adds that the examined life is painful. One has to cut against the grain. The Greek adage says the unexamined life is not the life of the human. The human. You know our English word "human" derives from the Latin humando, which means "burying." That's where "humility" and "humanity" -- the words themselves -- come from. Paragraph 12 in Vito's "Great New Science," written in the early part of the 18th century, begins with humando. This is where humanistic studies emerge. We are vanishing organisms. We are disappearing creatures on the way to death, extinction. We're featherless, two- legged, linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces. That's us.
We got a lot in common, don't we? Oh yes, we're in deep solidarity. Our bodies will be the culinary delights of terrestrial worms one day, very soon. The terrifying question becomes of anybody who has the audacity to engage in humanistic studies and humanistic inquiry is, what kind of creature, what kind of person, what kind of human being will you be from your mother's womb to tomb? Of course, I am a blues man in the life of the mind. A jazz man in the world of ideas. So, I begin with what James Brown would call "the funk." We all emerge in the funk. Love push, Mama's love push that got us out: there's a lot of blood there, a lot of stink there, a lot of funk there. I know Geneva might not be used to the funk, but it's gonna get funky tonight. There's a lot of love in that funk.
The question becomes, what kind of choices will you make in terms of the kind of human being you will be? What kind of traditions will you be a part of? What kind of story will you locate yourself in? What kind of narrative or set of narratives will you situate yourself in? Most importantly, what kind of legacy will you leave? Maybe we're most human when we stand before the coffins with the corpses in the coffins of our loved ones, like our mothers and our fathers and our brothers and our sisters. Because that's where the deep existential question is: who are you gonna be in light of the past, the corpse; the present, you; the future, those who come after you?
And that's why any serious wrestling with the humanities -- you could be wrestling with Sophocles' "Antigone," wrestling with Dante's "Inferno," wrestling with Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and the wonderful dialogue with the gravediggers, reflecting on the chap of infinite jest, it could be Toni Morrison's "Beloved," it could be James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" with one eye closed and one eye open on the corpse in the wake, given the rich Irish tradition -- has to do with wrestling with forms of death. Of course, Plato says what? "Philosophy:" a love of wisdom, is a meditation on and a preparation for death.
The great Montaigne, one of the greatest of all early modern philosophers, happens to be Catholic -- self-styled Catholic. I know Episcopalians had divisions, too, that inaugurated this institution, am I right? Episcopalian, the nice little sidekick to the Catholic brothers and sisters. God bless John Henry Newman. Anglican and Catholic. Montaigne says to philosophize is to learn how to die. And even Seneca, we don't expect too much profundity from the Romans -- we study the Greeks - he says, "He or she who learns how to die unlearns slavery." Unlearn slavery. Death is not just an event at the end of one's life, but the process of learning how to die in order to live more intensely, more critically, or, as Christians like myself would say, more abundantly. In the humanities, its deepest level is about wrestling with the question of how to live. It is connected to forms of deep education: paideia. P-A-I-D-E-I-A. Paideia. Not the same as schooling, we're talking about deep education. It has to do with formation of attention. How do you shift from the superficial to the substantial, from the frivolous to the serious, from the "bling bling" to wrestling with life, death, sorrow, sadness, joy? I didn't say "pleasure," I said "joy." One of the great things about this institution is that historically it has been about paideia. How do you gain access to these young folks who themselves have so been disproportionately shaped by a sped-up capitalist culture obsessed with stimulation and titillation, living a life of surface, living life on the surfaces, not taking the time to learn how to muster the courage in a Socratic mode to think critically for themselves, because they are going to be dead pretty soon, physically, and they must learn how to die existentially in order to be more mature and developed, more adult in the best sense of adult.
We know many adults, of course, who have yet to grow up, just like we know great civilizations that grow rich and powerful but never grow up. They are just obsessed with superficial things like greed and avarice and status and position and wealth and never, ever dig deep in the wells of what it means to be human, to come to terms with love, quality of love, service to others, joy in serving others, common good, public interest, those difficult things you can't achieve by pushing a button, some overnight panacea, no, not at all. The great William Butler Yeats, our dear Irish brother, probably the greatest poet in the English language -- yes, beyond Thomas Stearns Eliot, yes, even beyond W.H. Auden - the great William Butler Yeats used to say, "It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battle field." Have the courage to think for yourself when engaging in paideia, the forming of attention, tied to the cultivation of yourself, distinctively you, no one like you. And that's maturation of a soul so you can connect you, your history, our history as a people, as a community, as a species, some sense of vision, a better vision for the future.
This cuts radically against the grain in our present historical moment. That's why a deep commitment to paideia, as one committed to humanist inquiry, takes courage because you have to ensure, especially young folk, that when you come in these classes and you read Aristophanes' "The Clouds," wrestling with his critique of Socrates, sometimes there are moments when you have to take the text and throw it against the wall. You can't take it because so much is at stake in terms of who you are. And what are they doing? Thoroughly calling into question certain assumptions and presuppositions you have.
Read Toni Morrison's texts and think you can make it through that novel without tears, or throwing that text against the wall. Thomas Pynchon, "Gravity's Rainbow," on and on. Nathanael West, "Miss Lonelyhearts," and all of those texts that push you, and they do what? They force you to recognize that, if only for a moment, your view rests on pudding. I hope and pray that all the students here at this institution have that wonderful moment when they leave the class and find themselves thoroughly, intellectually discombobulated. Rest on pudding, you can't find your footing whatsoever. That's called education. Because your assumptions have been so thoroughly interrogated, the presuppositions that you have, some of your dogma, some of your doctrine has been so radically unsettled and anytime you give up a certain assumption you are comfortable with, that's a form of death. Death for rebirth, death for regrowth. Anytime you have to reexamine a dogma you brought in from home, or your beloved mama or daddy - never stop loving them, but they can be wrong, you know; you don't love 'em because they're right or wrong; they've got something deeper going on -- anytime you give up, set loose assumptions and presuppositions you held, it's a form of death in order to live more critically, more compassionately, more abundantly. Of course, I would add more deeply democratically.
It's all about courage; courage is the enabling virtue for the serious embarkment, paideia. It has everything to do with you determining what it means to be human. And, of course, like the bluesman or the blueswoman, it means you have to find your voice. Can't be an echo. Yes, you want to do well in your classes. Yes, you want to gain access to new possibilities by making As, A-s, and maybe a few B+s. Do your best, even if it's a D, just give it your best. We all have those moments. Don't fetishize grades, but you know, they're indispensible, but in no ways to be viewed as the ultimate end and aim. But most importantly, most significantly, it's a matter of you finding your voice.
It's part of the problem I find among young folks these days. I've spent a lot of time in hip-hop studios these days. Many of you probably know of my album, "Never Forget," with Prince, Talibe Kweli, Jill Scott and Outcast. Who else is in there? It's been a little while; I forget about some of these Negroes that I work with. They're towering figures. But I go and I tell them that part of the problem these days is that in terms of the unleashing of Socratic energy I come from the tradition of Motown and stacks and Philly and national sound and Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield and Al Green and Luther Vandross. I see too many copies; there's not enough originals. Not enough originals, you see. You can't be an original, you can't find your voice, as opposed to being an imitator and an echo, if you haven't mustered the courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul, find out who you are.
You know, Sly Stone used to play organ for my church in Sacramento, California. He's known to the world for the genius that he is. Sly Stone, he wrote a song called "Everybody is a Star." Cynthia Robinson played trumpet, from the neighborhood of Sacramento. Everybody is a star, and by star they weren't talking about Hannah Montana, God bless that sister. "Nobody's perfect. I gotta work it." God bless, Sister Hannah. She's a star these days; Sly wasn't talking about that. Sly was talking about what it means to be a star in your particular life given your potential if you have the courage to critically examine yourself and be the best you can be, not in any cheap form of self-improvement, but in the deepest humanistic sense of finding your voice and trying to do the best you can to master the art of living.
That's what I love about the tradition of Black music, even though it's easily bastardized, easily diluted and domesticated. Louis Armstrong writes the greatest of all 20th century songs, "Western Blues," after the death of his precious mother and hits the highest C known to the European instrument called the trumpet. Winton Marsalis had been trying to hit that note for 25 years; I love that brother, but he just can't hit it. He can hit some other notes beautifully, but not that one. Clifford Brown came close. But Louis Armstrong wasn't hitting notes just to titillate us, he was expressing something deep inside of him. It was a transfiguration of a wound mediated through moans and groans that took the form of a sophisticated mastery of technique and craft dealing with what does it mean to be human in the face of the loss of one's ultimate beloved, the only person who he said unconditionally loved him. And Louis Armstrong is no ordinary artist; he is the inaugurator of one of the greatest art forms of modern times called jazz. That's what we're talking about, we're talking about humanistic inquiry.
Now granted, what's fascinating about Socrates, like Jesus, he never wrote a word; I do not recommend that to the student. I want you all to write your papers and write them well. Deduce evidence and draw your conclusions and so forth. What's fascinating about Socrates, and, of course, this is a question that humanist scholars have wrestled with for so many years is, why it is that Socrates never cries, he never sheds a tear. In all the depictions of Socrates, you can go to Xenophon's more didactic dialogues, you can go to Plato's rich and profound dialogues, or Aristophanes' "The Clouds," and see the depiction of Socrates arguing, interrogating, questioning, but never, ever cries. At the very end of his life, you might recall, after the trial, he says maybe I've missed my calling, my vocation. I've been arguing all this time; maybe I should have taken the arts more seriously. He writes verses of Aesop's "Fables." And he actually writes some hymns to the gods. I would love to hear what Socrates' music sounded like. Wouldn't that be fascinating? Believe me, it didn't sound like Steven Sondheim. No rich, deep, melodic expressions. It was probably flat as a pancake. But who knows, he might surprise us.
But why is that important in relation to humanistic inquiry or even why is it important in terms of democratic practice? Because even given the centrality of the Socratic question, anyone who has never cried or shed a tear has never really loved. And if you've never really loved, I would argue that you've never fully lived, especially as a bluesman. B.B. King said, "Nobody loves me but my mama and she might be jivin', too." That Negro's crying! That hurts! Deeply! And what B.B. is getting at is that even given the Socratic energy of sophisticated analysis and very deep probing and questioning, that when you begin with the catastrophic in your life - 'cause that's what the blues' autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe express lyrically - you begin with catastrophe like, "Maybe my mama's jivin'." Or the strange fruit that Southern trees bear that Billie Holiday sang about. Or the dear Jewish brother Meeropol writing the lyrics, "Black bodies swayin' in the Southern breeze." That's called American terrorism, that's Jim Crow, that's James Crow, that's lynching, that's catastrophic.
Or like Franz Kafka's first line in "The Metamorphosis" - you all recall that story, right? - "I woke up this morning and found myself" what? "Transformed into a huge, vile vermin." It's downhill after that. Turns the plot, an insight. Kafka, what are you talking about? I'm a bluesman, Brother West; I might be on the Jewish side of Europe, but I've known catastrophe and Jew-hating Europe. And I have to come to terms with tears and sorrow and the flow of my expression in light of the wounds that have been inflicted on me, not because I believe I'm solely a victim, but I'm wrestling with forms of victimization even as I resist it. And in humanistic studies, of course, this is the legacy of Jerusalem, in fascinating juxtaposition with Socrates' tie to the legacy of Athens.
I want to suggest, especially to the young students here, that even as you commit yourselves intensely to mustering the courage to think critically for yourself, against the grain, be highly suspicious of forms of intellectual conformity: whatever it is, whatever the ideology. Finding your own voice but knowing that you can't find your own voice without bouncing off against the voices of the dead and the living, not just the echoes. It is a perennial, endless process, just like the quest for wisdom. Perennial, endless process. But tears must play a role. Tears must play a role.
You can just look at that legacy of Jerusalem and see the tears of Amos: "Let justice roll down hills like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream;" you can feel it. You don't just see it but feel the tears. And what Brother Martin had to say in regard to the American empire in the middle part of the twentieth century; you could feel the tears that Martin had, why? Because they speak out of a deep sense of what the Hebrew scripture calls hesed, of loving kindness; of Micah 6:8: "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God." And every human being - you don't have to be Jewish or Christian or even religious - to resonate at that deep, human level of what it means to deal with sadness and sorrow but then not to allow them to have the last words and so you're gonna resonate with Amos.
Or, of course, resonate with that particular first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus who did what? Wept. Socrates argued, "Jesus wept." Why did he weep? Because he loved so. Hypersensitivity to those catching Hell: poor, orphaned, widows, indigenous peoples in America, young precious brothers and sisters locked in the dilapidated school systems and decrepit housing and levels of unemployment and underemployment in chocolate cities, our poor white brothers and sisters in Appalachia. The same reality. Our gay brothers and lesbian sisters marginalized, demonized, losing sight of their humanity. Hatred of Jewish brothers and sisters, demonizing of Arab brothers and sisters - oh, how ubiquitous is this cycle! When it comes to the human drama in every corner of the globe, at yet there is this tradition that says somehow we've got to break that cycle by cutting so radically against the grain that we raise critical questions like Socrates and then bear witness to a quest for unarmed truth, understanding the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak and then questing for unconditional love, but recognizing love is not some namby-pamby, sentimentalized sentiment but rather a steadfast commitment to the well-being of others, beginning with the least of these echoes of the 25th chapter of Matthew, and also acknowledging that justice is what love looks like in public. It's not some privatistic, personalistic relation with a significant other in any narrow way. It spills over. My dear mentor and teacher, dear brother John Rawls, of course, wrote one of the great classics in the latter part of the 20th century, 1971 - I was blessed to be in his class at that time I had at Harvard College in 1970 - The Theory of Justice. It's an abstract notion of justice, deploying notions of original position: difference principle, priority of liberty and so on. Very important, very crucial, but the legacy of Jerusalem also says, "Justice is a fire inside of you," because when you actually have a genuine love for people, you can't stand the fact that they're being treated unjustly. You hate the fact that they're treated unfairly, and if you don't do something, rocks are gonna cry out. What kind of person are you when you see folk being mistreated? Do you remain indifferent?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Drescher said that indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself. George Bernard Shaw - "The Devil's Disciple," an early work of his - a great Irish writer who dropped out of school in the fifth grade, so you don't necessarily have to go to college, even though at least two colleges went through that Irish brother. Oh yes, that's George Bernard Shaw. Strange, peculiar genius that he was. Indifference, he says, is the very essence of inhumanity. And probably the greatest of all men of letters, of American civilization, from that first family of intellectuality - the James family - William James used to say that "indifference is the one trait that makes the very angels weep." How do you shatter indifference? Complacency? The iciness of the soul? The coarsening of the conscience? The hardening of the heart? Shatter it! Kill it! Try to ensure it dies so that you can more decently live. Compassionately live. This is a deep problem of our time. It has much to do with the relative decay and decline of the American Empire. It's hard these days to find persons who are for real. I heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak when I was ten years old. I didn't understand one word, but one thing I knew: that Negro was for real. Lord have mercy. You could feel the love oozing out of every nook and cranny of his existence. He wasn't perfect; no, he wasn't free of spite or wrinkle. But like Fanny Lou Hamer, like early Tom Hayden, like Ella Baker. Those folks were for real. If you had any relation to them, you had a sense that they had already wrestled with the Socratic question of examining themselves and defining what it meant to be human and some sense of finding their voice and vocation and vision before the worms got to them. These that people are certainly around, but it's hard, much more difficult in this celebrity-centered, success-obsessed culture. Where greed has been running amuck for so long that we think it's normal in the history of civilizations.
So I grew up in the 60s and 70s and we had some gangsters then, don't get me wrong, in all colors, they always come in all colors, but it was the moment of the social movement! With a sense of possibility! People weren't obsessed with success, doing well in order to live large in some vanilla suburb and be stimulated to death! It makes you a candidate for spiritual malnutrition. That's part of our wrestling with the dear Michael Jackson, who I loved so much. He was my soul brother in so many ways. I loved his music; his music was so much bigger than him. But look how he wrestled with spiritual malnutrition. Sister Britney's another; let me make this ecumenical and interracial. It's true; we could go on and on. And the well-to-do have no monopoly on spiritual malnutrition.
I teach in prisons, I see it all the time, too, obsessed with the 11th commandment: thou shall not get caught. Survival of the slickest. Survival of the toughest. Back-stabbing taking place day in and day out. 'Hoods rather than neighborhoods. I grew up in a neighborhood. It was chocolate; it was all black folk. But it wasn't a hood. A hood is a space of Darwinian existence. Bullets flying, violence overflowing. weak families, feeble communities. Very few opportunities. A neighborhood is what? People having ties of empathy and bonds of sympathy. Where some paideia is taking place.
Even in that time under Jim Crow conditions in Sacramento, California, we way out in our little chocolate place of all black folk, having a good time. We had James Brown and The Dells; the white boys had Beach Boys. We didn't feel inferior at all. Not at all. We could appreciate the quasi-genius of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, but give us Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin any day! Give me Curtis Mayfield any day! The richness is there but it still didn't deny the social and economic deprivation there. But we had a sense of ourselves. We knew we came from a blues people who had been resisting over 400 years. And we had a tremendous sense of the 60s and 70s straightening our back-ups up.
I remember Sly Stone used to sing "Stand." Stand, and in the end you'll still be you. One has done all the things one set out to do. Stand! A midget is standing tall and the giant beside him about to fall. That's the lesson to Stuart. Now, he might be flyin' high in the friendly skies now, but he's got a drug problem. I love the brother. That happens sometimes to geniuses. 'Course John Ruskin went mad, though, didn't he? So did Nietzsche. We could go on and on. But at the high moment of Brother Sly Stone that he might bounce back like I might be a crack addict next week, you never know. Nothing but the Holy Ghost holding me back here, so I don't talk about anybody. Don't know where I end up. But that sense of standing is very important. Crucial. We're told over and over again, "Don't walk around with your back down, thinking you're less beautiful and less intelligent, even given all the white supremacist lies told about black people for four hundred years. Straighten up your back. Folks can't ride your back unless it's bent. You've gotta straighten it up yourself. It's the choice you make. Call in the question of self-doubt. Call in the question of self-disrespect. Call in the question of self-violation. Call in the question of self-destruction. That's the tradition that I was blessed to be a part of. Got it in the West family, got it in Shiloh Baptist Church with Reverend Willoughby Cook, deacon head and head of deacon. Boy, Sarah Ramos, Sunday School teacher. By the time I got to Harvard and Princeton, I was already straightened. I was just ready to confront now the major minds and figures of the West! They had very little interest in my background, and that's alright. Just hang around for a while, and see what Dubois has to say. Hang around for a while and read the essays.
One of the finest writers of the 20th century from Harlem named James Baldwin. Again, never went to college, at least one went through him. Listen to Zora Neale Hurston. Not just because they're black. They're wrestling with what it means to be human in light of catastrophic circumstances. And of course, it's no accident that any time the American Empire has found itself in deep crisis, it's been those Socratic, prophetic, blues-like figures who raise their voices. Abraham Lincoln, what do you mean in your first inaugural address when you endorse the first proposal for the 13th amendment that says, "Slavery forever in America," called the "unamendable amendment." Frederick Douglass buys his ticket to go to Haiti; he says, "I'll never live in a nation that has as part of its constitution, 'slavery forever.'" Oh, that's the Lincoln we don't know. Put that on television. Lincoln becomes great; he was a great statesman. It's so rare to find a great statesman in American democracy given the mediocrity that is so hegemonic among our politicians. The spinelessness, the confusion of pragmatism and opportunism. Lincoln becomes great: why? Because he is pushed by a movement, an abolitionist movement, the Frederick Douglasses in the window, Phillips and the Charles Sumners, New England's white sister named Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Mr. Lincoln, you were cowardly to make that concession to the South. How are you going to preserve a Union when slavery is the cancer at the very center of its truncated democracy? Are you going to be an opportunistic politician, or are you gonna be a visionary statesman? Think it over, Brother, we'll give you some time. We recognize the dilemma in which you find yourself. Voices, disproportionate black voices, saying what? We have been enslaved for 244 years, but we decide not to create a black version of Al-Qaeda. We've been terrorized for 244 years, but we're not going to create a counter-terroristic organization, going around and terrorizing white slave holders who have been terrorizing us. No! In the face of terrorism, Frederick Douglass says what? "We want freedom for everybody." Where does that come from, Socratic legacy? Prophetic legacy? We've got to get out of the gutter, break the cycle of bigotry and violence and hatred and domination and manipulation. We'll always do it imperfectly, yes.
Democracy is always a proximate solution to end soluble problems, as long as we're human beings with propensities and proclivities toward envy and resentment and insecurity and fear and anxiety, we're always gonna fall short. But Samuel Beckett is right when he says in his last prose fiction, "Worstward Ho," "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Try again, fail again, fail better: that's the story of our lives, the tragic story, the tragicomic story of American democracy. Just keep trying to get up. You will fall on your face, but just keep trying to get up. The black folk in the South of America keep trying to get up, even though we've been under for 244 years. The same was true during Jim Crow time. American terrorism, as I mentioned this term before. This is very important after 9/11. A lot of people: "New York! 9/11! My god, it's the first time terrorism has visited our land! This is overwhelming! Get me a drink! I can't take it! Suicidal, homicidal, can't take it!" Read some Louise Gluck. She's a great poet of deep despair. Lyricism. "I can't take it!" Black folk, indigenous people say what country are you talking about? Terrorism against indigenous peoples? As American as cherry pie. With 400 treaties, each one violated. Some of them, shot in the back - chiefs - after they'd signed the treaties. Black folk? Some black child, black woman, black man lynched every 2 and a half days for almost 45 years? That's just the peak of the iceberg. Sisters of all colors: domestic violence. Gay and lesbian brothers and sisters terrorized psychically, physically. What are we talking about? That was very problematic, even when I heard Brother Barack Obama. Now, I supported him intensely and criticize him just as intensely now. Brother Barack said, "Oh, America is a magical place!" I said, he's gonna have a Christopher Columbus experience. That black man is gonna discover America! Nothing magical about this place! We've got human beings here, just as we've got human beings in Ethiopia and Brazil. We've got different conditions and different circumstances.
What is distinctive about America is we've been able to hone out through tremendous blood and sweat and tears a fragile democratic experiment that could easily slide down a slippery slope to chaos. That's courage, commitment, conviction. Nothing magical about that. Go to Disneyland if you want magic. But that's precisely what the American Hamlet is all about, isn't it? Y'all know the American Hamlet's Blanche Dubois? The right literary bluesman Tennessee Williams, "A Streetcar Named Desire," you all remember her? What does she want? A world of make-believe. A house of cards. Escape from reality. Escape from the catastrophic. Look what you did to Allen, girl. You contributed to his destruction. Denial. Avoidance. No slavery in the U.S. constitution. Denial. Avoidance. No reference to the institution. Denial. Avoidance. Jim Crow for 90 years. Land of liberty and democracy, but we're terrorizing these Negroes. That's just an afterthought. Other than that, things are nice. No, it's a lie! Even immigrants from Eastern Europe are being exploited in the cities and factories and banks, and the sisters of all colors locked in the patriarchal household.
What are you talking about? Your working class doesn't even have a right to organize until the 1930s when the whole system collapses. Argentina gave their workers the right to organize in 1836; America did in 1936, and Argentina isn't known for being on the cutting-edge of social justice. It's a great place with wonderful people but different history. What are we talking about here? The same fundamental, elemental issues: the courage to think critically, the courage to love in the substantial sense, the steadfast commitment to others, and, most importantly, creating context for candid dialogue. To engage in intellectual exchange, mediated with civility and respect, and that's very rare these days. I'm not just talking about Brother Rush, or Brother Hannity, or Sister Ann Coulter, but I can start there. Or Brother Glenn Beck.
It's difficult to emerge out of the Age of Reagan, where greed was running amuck bringing difference to the poor and working class became the norm, and where polarization of the body politic by use of fear, the politics of fear, the demonizing of those viewed as "other," usually the most vulnerable. Being mesmerized by the most powerful, the lies of the rich and famous, and the end and aim of life in land and the lap of luxury became pervasive in every coach and every region: black, white, red, yellow.
Success, success, success, and very little talk in the deep, humanistic sense of greatness. Sense and greatness are two very different things. Every once in a while they can coincide. Abraham Lincoln was successful in defeating the white supremacist confederacy, not to be confused with the South, but the white supremacist confederacy with the army and the addition of 180 black soldiers to finish it off. But his greatness was not just winning the war, but how he dealt with the catastrophe. Read that second inauguration. You see the growth from the first to the second. You'll see the self-criticism, Socratic. The empathy and compassion, tied to the legacy of Jerusalem, and the blues-like quality of it. Lyrical in the face of catastrophe, but not drinking of the bitter cup, of the cup of bitterness.
This is one of the great contributions, a tradition that produced me. Black music, prophetic black church, intellectual issues tied to Anton Chekov. Arthur Schopenhauer means so much to me, wrong conclusions, profound insights on the way to wrong conclusions. Samuel Beckett is what the book is about. Now why is that important? Because if we don't have way of Socratic, prophetic, tragicomic, blues-like awakening than even given the end of the era of Reagan -- which I applaud, I applaud -- greed, which is always racially and ideologically and regionally promiscuous, cuts across all of our communities and so forth. But when it is viewed as good and permissible, it leaves for a rut. It reads your business page. Scandal, or what I call gangster activity. There are a lot of people down on gangster rap but it just mirrors the culture. They looked on Wall Street and saw gangster activity. Looked in the White House and saw elections stolen. Looked in the churches and saw preachers pimping the people. Looked in synagogues and saw people so assimilated into upper-middle class American culture that they couldn't even hear Amos when he talked about justice, especially when he talked about justice for Palestinian brother and sisters.
Thank God we still got some progressive Jewish brothers and sisters that recognize that justice cuts across the board to any people who are under occupation or whatever it is. The universal value -- and it cuts across even our secular-atheistic vote, Brother Christopher Hitchins and others -- it's a kind of undergraduate atheism, you know. No wrestling with Spinozan-huge dialogues on religion. No, its just religion versus science and science is always right because it had tremendous success in predicting nature. Future light of the past. Anybody who believes in God must be childish and needs to grow up, just like me. Arrogance. Oh no, what about Santayana who says maybe religion is the love of life and the consciousness of impotence. All of us have situations in which we're helpless. Death, dread, despair, disappointment, evilness, loss of the beloved, the sweet shipwreck of the mind, the heartbreak of the soul and so forth. The things about which religion wrestles must be grappled no matter what kind of narrative and story you have. You're still a human being who will treasure something, whether it be idolatrous like "Kurtz in Heart of Darkness" by the great Joseph Conrad, or would it be love and justice?
You don't need to be religious to have a monopoly on that, but some religious folk do. Accidentalists in light of the best of their text. Not the worst, I don't know of the scripture, the set of scriptures that doesn't have some things as worthy of rejection. But I know some scriptures that have some sublime and majestic moments that accent something that is worthy of our treasuring, bigger than us, grander than us. It's very difficult even in this now early moment of the Age of Obama, and I do believe it was a major breakthrough to bring the Age of Reagan to a close, the Era of Conservatism to a close, now the Age of Obama. What are we going to do? How are we going to proceed? Will it be Socratic, prophetic, tragicomic blues like enough so that the awakening that we saw that facilitated my dear brother, Barak Obama, to become the head of the American empire, the commander in chief. Not what he will solely do but he will do in relation to a citizenry that is still awakened and I wonder sometimes whether the very folk who put him in office are now beginning to go to sleep again. It's a real problem. And I looked at his economic team, my dear Brother Geithner and my dear Brother Summers, God bless him, Brother Thurman, others have no history whatsoever putting poor people and working people at the center of their vision. They were deregulators during the Clinton years, these recycled Clintonite elites now running the economy. Look at its foreign policy team: Susan Rice, the black sister who is so brilliant and elegant in her own way but still tied to a neo-liberal, neo-Clintonite view of U.S. foreign policy. Holbrook, Dennis Ross, you say oh, Brother Barak, I though that the Age of Obama was going to be the Age of the Empowerment of those slash so-called everyday people. I see neo-liberal mediocrity so far but I'm waiting to see more.
Maybe it's too early. Health care discussions, the public option is negotiable, already made a deal with the insurance and the pharmaceutical companies before the bill was even hashed out in the Congress. Why are you so mesmerized by the establishment? Why are you so seduced by Wall Street elites? You were put in there in order to act on ordinary people. Symbolically it's magnificent; you're so charismatic, you're so brilliant. When you go around the world, you give lovely speeches, and I like those speeches. I like those who can speak, which means George Bush, I prayed for him but it didn't happen, but we can't confuse the Democratic rhetoric with the technocratic policies that are often still neo-liberal and neo-Clintonite and what happened? Unemployment rates escalating ten percent on the books, probably fifteen percent, and in black and brown and poor white communities 25, 30, 35 five percent and it's been like that for 40 years, getting worse. How much suffering can they take before the whole thing begins to snap? Then we get our right wing brothers and sisters upset because he's a black man and he's pro-government. I mean, it's not just one fact and President Carter made a point. And they're very upset and they're showing up with shotguns at his speeches.
We have a right to walk around with guns, then do it in front of the banks and police departments, don't do it at Barak's speeches. You show up at the police department with all your guns and see what happens to you, or the bank on the corner, just three of you sit there with your loaded guns in front of the bank and see what happens. But no, you can show up at Barack's speeches because this is freedom of expression. Oh, really? No, we have to protect our dear brother, he's president, even given my intense critique of him he's still the president. I don't believe in killing presidents. I don't believe in killing anybody. Actually, I think Barack is wrong to say he ought to kill Bin Laden on the spot. I believe democracies bring gangsters back to court for rule of law, that's the difference, that's the crucial difference. Well, this is a war, okay, but let's argue it out. Democracies ought to have distinctive features that have a moral high ground, you see.
Now say well, Brother West, why do you say that? Because I come from a tradition of a people being terrorized for so long, if we just went out shooting folk who we know shot Negroes and didn't bring them to court, there would've been chaos. In fact, on a deeper level, we wouldn't have an American democracy if black people had responded to U.S. terrorism the way many U.S. elites want to respond to the terrorism from gangsters like bin Laden and others. That's very important to keep in mind. That's a major gift of black people to the modern world in the Age of Terrorism. When you are systematically hated and despised, what's the response? John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme;" Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On," love shot through every nook and cranny of the album; James Baldwin's "Love Talk;" Martin Luther King Jr. saying, "Love is the key to unlock the door to ultimate reality." What is it about these people when they're hated so that they still keep dishing out? Not Bin Ladens, but Martin Kings as major spokespersons, you see. What about the Black Panther Party? They were terrorizing; no, they were just trying to police the police. Your arbitrary police power in poor communities making sure police are accountable. That was really the issue with my dear brother, Henry Louis Gates, but it got trunked, end up with a little petty beer summit in the White House. No, there's arbitrary police power that needs to be curtailed; that's the first task of a democracy: to make sure your rule of law is fair across classes and race and regions. Yes, there's black gangsters, they deserve to be punished; 62 percent of young black brothers in jail in there for soft drug sentences. The same level of enforcement for soft drugs sentences in the black 'hood at work as opposed to Princeton (not Hobart and William Smith Colleges). The same level of intense enforcement in black communities, vis-Ã -vis Princeton, the jails would be more colorful. 'Cause there is a whole lot of folk of all colors, flying high in the friendly sky. You all know what I'm talking about? It's the enforcement. The differential treatment.
That's what we're talking about. I'm going to bring this to a close. You've all been very patient. But what I'm trying to do is, to link this Socratic note, the courage to think critically, with this prophetic note, the courage to bear witness, to a quest for unarmed truth you never could possess. An unconditional love in the form of fairness, justice and, for me, deep democracy, is what justice looks like in practice. All the voices are heard. That's why jazz is a form of democratic, symbolic action. Every voice must be heard in Duke Ellington's band for the band to pull off high quality, collective performance. It's not fallow-centric with one conductor controlling the whole thing. No, Duke is on the same level, its horizontal. He's both conductor, participant and fellow voicer. And the awakening, even after the historic and unprecedented election that I think many of us celebrated, and rightly, rightly so, it showed that white brothers and sisters in America were not post-racial, but much less racist then their grandparents. That's worthy of celebration. That's worthy of celebration, there's no doubt about that. Worthy of celebration. I mean, I won't give out moral prizes for it, but it's worthy of celebration.
But the empire still wobbles. War in Afghanistan escalating; will it be Obama's Vietnam? War in Iraq deescalating, but still there. Wall Street elites stealing salad. Green still seems to be running amuck, no transformation of the system when wheat-thin forms of regulation bonus compensations still running a muck and working people pushed against the wall, poor people too invisible. What are we going to do? I don't believe anyone of us has a solution. To be a deep democrat, let alone for me to be a Christian, we definitely don't have a solution. Engage in dialogue with one another, with our perspectives laid bare: vision, argument, interpretation, formulation and so forth, you see. But most importantly, the awakening has to be one in which, as voices emerge out of echoes, as, in fact, creation emerge out of imitation, and as vision emerges out of the flat spares of too many of our fellow citizens, you see, then you get ferment. You get a flexibility and a fluidity in that conversation listening to views that you haven't heard before as, you know what, something like a Marshall Plan, yes, but maybe a new version of it: to rebuild cities, to rebuild production units and so forth.
What kind of investments in education? Well, maybe yes, maybe private and public combined, sure, but the focus, the priority, must be there. And for me, more than anything else, there has to a priority on the precious children. Not just children being 100 percent of the future, but the ways in which because they have no literal, political voices in the public square, you see. When you actually look closely at the lives of so many children, they could be well-to-do in vanilla suburbs or they could be very barely making it in our chocolate cities, you see it's very sad, it's very sad, you see. Who not just speaks for them, but who loves them enough the way Marvin Gaye reminded us. Save the babies. Who loves them enough to ensure that their well-being is at or near the center of our discussion in regard to environment? I'll be long-gone, I don't plan to live that long. When I go, I go with a smile 'cause I been taking up a lot of space for a long time. But the children, ecological crisis; the children, increasing wealth and equality; the children, farther removed from greatness, quality of service to others. More obsessed with success, getting over by any means. Do we have what it takes? Open question. We don't know, but in the history of this very rich and fragile and precarious experiment called the USA and democracy, let alone in the larger span of the human species trying to make its way through space and time. In the language of those who came before plantations, cities segregated, they say, Brother West, all the brothers and sisters at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Socratically, prophetically, tragicomically, keep your heads to the sky. Mahalia Jackson used to sing, "Keep your hand on the plow." Do what you have to do in order to be your best Socratic, prophetic, tragicomic self and keep your eyes on all those freedom singers and freedom fighters in the sixties. White, black, catholic, Jewish, agnostic; all hold hands together, say, we keep our eyes on the prize. And the prize is what? Common good, public interest, the prize is what? Predicament-enrichment of the earth? In Africa, Asia, each life precious? And the prize is also your sense of having a quality of integrity and character and virtue as you meet your end knowing that you have done something in your life that you can bring before the highest value that you have in your vision and not be so ashamed. What a beautiful thing. Thank you all so very much.