Part 3: Dr. Cornel West Opening Session 2010

Uploaded by aphadc on 09.11.2010

West: She said, “We’re going to keep this casket open.” The president and governors
and city counsels said to keep it closed. She said, “No. We’re going to see the
underside of American democracy. We’re going to keep the focus on the funk. We’re not
going to highlight this deodorized talk about American freedom when my baby lies in that
coffin.” And what does she say to the world? She stepped to that lectern with Socratic
energy that she had some scrutinizing to do, but she also had that love inside of her that
you hear in John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme.” What does she say? She looked over his head.
His head was five times the size of his ordinary head. Tears flowing, she said, “I don’t
have a minute to hate. I will pursue justice for the rest of my life.” She spoke on behalf
– not just of black people or America. She spoke on behalf of the best of humanity. She
didn’t even have to read Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice” to know the difference
between justice and revenge. She didn’t call for hunting them down like cockroaches,
stuffing them out. That’s one reason there's no black Al Qaida in America.
After 350 years of being terrorized and traumatized and stigmatized, black folk keep talking about
love, knowing is what loves looks like in public anyway. If you love the folks, you
hate the fact that they’re being treated unjustly. You hate the fact they’re being
treated unfairly. So justice also becomes fire inside of you. America, do you understand
that when you’re talking about social justice, it’s in no way confined to black people.
But look at the history of black folk, like Dubois’ “Souls of Black Folk” or the
“Gift of Black Folk” or black reconstruction. You’re talking about reconstructed conceptions
of freedom for everybody, reconstructed conceptions of democracy for everybody. But it should
begin by focusing on the least of these or most weak vulnerable citizens and human beings.
If not, they will be left out. We can't leave anybody out. As the National Council of Negro
Women says, “Lift as you climb, but make sure you touch somebody and everybody.”
I applaud the president. I know my dear brother Barack Obama. He’s been catching hell ever
since he declared his candidacy. There’s no doubt about that. I was blessed to actually
engage in 65 events for my dear brother from Iowa through Ohio. I told him from the very
beginning – I will be a Socratic supporter, which is to say critical. If you side with
the weak and the poor and working classes, I’m with you 120 percent. If I see you siding
too much with the Wall Street bankers, if I see you spending too much time with Geithner
and Summers and others, you’re going to hear some critique coming out of me – deep
critique coming out of me. If you don't stand up for that public option, I’m going to
be upset. If you don't push through single-payer, I’m going to be real upset. Bu I still love
you, brother. I know that. My love goes deep. I want to protect you against the vicious
lies of the right wing, and some of these news channels that I won't mention, like Fox
News. I want to protect you – too many lies coming at you. I want to respect you as a
human being, a fellow citizen, and as president. You are in a situation that I know not of.
That love also connects, protecting, respecting and correcting you. You need to be corrected
if you’re not zeroing in on working people and poor people the way investment bankers
have been zeroed in when they receive their welfare.
Yes, taxpayers’ money to do what? Too big to fail? Does that mean working people are
too little to rescue? Could you break it down for me? I want to know what the priorities
are. Love has to do with priorities. It’s a matter of national security. You know what?
When I look at poor and working people’s health and education and depression, like
levels of underemployment and unemployment, that’s a matter of national emergency, national
security, too. It depends on the lens through which you look at America. Let’s have not
just a conversation. Let’s have some kind of overlap in what we’re doing – with
an attempt of course to always protect the rights and liberties.
My dear right wing brother and sisters have a right to be often wrong. I will protect
their right to be often wrong. In a democracy, it’s not a matter of just unanimity and
agreement. We don't want the whole terrain to be shaped in such a way that poor people
and working people generation after generation after generation experience social neglect
rather than social justice, social abandonment rather than social justice. I salute each
and every one of you for sustaining this tradition. I don’t want to end on a blue note. It’s
like I began on a Socratic note, because I am a blues man in the life of the mind. I
try to be a jazz man in the world of ideas. The blues, as Ralph Waldo Ellison, one of
the greatest literary artists of the 20th century, author of the “Invisible Man”
and “Juneteenth” and other powerful works –he used to say the blues are an autobiographical
chronicle of a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. So blues forces us to confront
the catastrophic. We look at public health systems – catastrophic; public education,
catastrophic. But it doesn't allow catastrophe to have the last word. I can hear BB King
–the king of the blues, 84 years old. I was just with him just a few weeks ago on
his birthday. Love that brother. He used to say, “Nobody loves me, but my mama. She
might be jiving, too.” That’s the blues. And that’s the B-side of “The Thrill is
Gone.” Catastrophe, strange fruit that southern trees
bear, that Billie Holiday sang about. American terrorism for any people – indigenous peoples,
poor people, black people. That’s catastrophic. America often specializes in deodorized discourses
that are sentimental that always want to talk just about those who are successful and downplay
those still stuck in the basement wrestling with catastrophic circumstances. There’s
a difference between Guy Lombardo and Duke Ellington’s band. One of them is very nice
and sugarcoated and sweet. The other is full of dissilience and minor keys, and the chords
are a little bit off, seemingly wrong. But as Monk used to say, “Sometimes wrong is
right.” That’s called the blues. You have to have a blues sensibility because I know
as workers in the public health system, you all have made catastrophe and sorrow your
constant companions. And somehow you have to keep moving anyhow. That’s a blues sensibility.
How do you bring together the Socratic to prophetic? But in order to be a long-distance
runner, you have to have a blue sensibility. That’s why for me, I have nothing to do
with optimism or pessimism. But the blues is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. The
blues have been down so long, the down don’t worry me no more. That’s why I keep keeping
on. That’s Curtis Mayfield’s “Keep on Pushing.” When I run into people who are
optimistic in America, I know that individually they’re doing well, but they have forgotten
their fellow citizens who are catching hell. We’re in this together. We hang together.
We hang separately. In a democracy, we’re on the same ship. It’s so easy these days
with our market mentalities and market sensibilities. Somehow we think it’s just about me, me,
me, I, I, I rather than we, we, we – cross color, cross culture, cross class. Blues sensibility
says no optimism, no pessimism. We’re going to be prisoners of hope. We’re going to
be veterans of hope. Never confuse hope with optimism. We’re going to be ambassadors
of hope, which means we decide to be human beings in such a way that’s Socratically
we’re going to think critically against the grain, that prophetically we’re going
to bear witness to justice, but motivated by deep compassion. If the loves is not in
it, then it’s all nothing but sounding brass and tinkling symbolism. It’s all about your
own individual ideological project or political aim. No, it’s about getting outside of yourself
and connecting with others and then being a blues person and saying “I decide to be
faithful until death, no matter how dark time are. I’m going to allow my life to shine
because I'm a member of the American Public Health Association.”