Part 1: Dr. Cornel West APHA Opening Session 2010

Uploaded by aphadc on 09.11.2010

Dr. Cornel West: What a blessing to be here. What an honor, what a privilege to be here
at American Public Health Association. Yes, weíre here in Denver, Colorado ñ 138 years
of struggle, 138 years of bearing witness, trying to keep alive the banter of public
life in a nation obsessed with private sensibilities and material toys and titles and honors. But
you represent America at its best. I pay tribute to you. You constitute part of the glue that
holds the fragile experiment called the US democracy together. You really do constitute
part of 11 in the democratic loaf that allows it to expand.
I want to begin by acknowledging my dear, dear brother, who spends so much of his time
and energy, so many years of his life ñ my dear brother Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive
director. I want to salute you, my brother. I want to acknowledge sister Yvette as well
in Washington, DC. I want to acknowledge my dear sister. We spent time in the same city,
Sacramento, Calif. ñ not a city known to be on the cutting edge, but I love Sacto.
But Dr. Carmen spent a little time in Sacramento, graduated from high school there, St. Francis.
I graduated John F. Kennedy. I wanted to salute her. She is your president. Give her a hand.
I love my dear sister. And assistant secretary for health ñ my dear brother, Dr. Howard
Cole. We spent time together both in Cambridge, and heís at Yale Medical School graduate.
And I was first tenured at Yale, so I shall forever be thankful to Yale University. Give
him a hand, assistant secretary for health ñ dear brother Howard Cole. Then there is
the legendary professor Bill Jenkins. What can I say? Words fall short, and Iím sure
you heard his message. He is still on fire for justice, and itís a beautiful thing to
see someone so intellectually sophisticated and empirically oriented to still be on fire
for justice. Itís not in any way oxymoronic to be in high places, to engage in the most
abstract formulations and refined interpretations, but keep your eye on those Sly Stone called
everyday people. Those the late, great James Cleveland called ordinary people. We love
you, Brother Jenkins. Give him a hand ñ professor Bill Jenkins. We love you, brother ñ been
at it a long time. My dear sister Lois Caps, going at it in Congress, and thatís so very
difficult these days. I donít know about you, but weíre in such deep trouble. Anytime
I see a congressman or woman still associated with the American Public Health Association,
concerned about justice, I feel inspired. Give her a hand. Last but not least, there
is a brother in our midst. Heís the grandson of one of the greatest scholars, one of the
greatest freedom fighters produced in American civilization. Iím talking about W.E.B. Dubois.
Heís the grandson of W.B. Dubois. Please stand, brother Arthur MacFarland. Where are
you, Brother Arthur? There he is. Put the cameras on this brother. Put the cameras on
him. Look at his heart, his mind and soul, and see Dubois and A. Phillip Randolph and
Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker and Martin King and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Dorothy Day,
I have to call the role. Sorry about that, brother. Every time I hear the word Dubois,
Iím on fire. Then when I see the connection through the flesh, here in Denver of all places,
way up high in the sky ñ a mile high. We love Denver.
Iíd like to say something that not only empowers and enables you, but I also want to say something
that unnerves and un-houses you because we live in times in which we must put the accent
on courage. We need courage. Too much apathy, too much complacency, too many folks well-adjusted
to injustice, too many folks well adapted to indifference. Thatís why I begin on a
Socratic note to talk about the public health imperatives connected to social justice means
bringing in the grand example of Socrates in line [inaudible] Platoís ìApology,î
the unexamined life is not worth living. I can hear Dubois in the background ñ the examined
life is painful. Learning how to cut against the grain to wrestle with the most fundamental
and terrifying questions that any one of us have to come to terms with, beginning with
that question of what does it mean to be human. The Greek actually says in line 38A of Platoís
ìApologyî ñ ìthe unexamined life is not the life of a human.î Our English word human
draws from the Latin ìhumando.î Humando means what? Burying and burial. Thatís where
our word humanity and humility come from ñ being tied to the earth and the soil unpretentious,
willing to tell the truth and acknowledging the condition of truth is to allow suffering
to speak. There is no serious talk or engagement with the truth about our lives ñ individually,
collectively, nationally, or globally ñ without allowing suffering to speak, all the priceless
and precious ones, no matter what color, no matter what civilization or sexual orientation,
allowing their voices to be heard so that their wounds and scars and bruises can be
transformed and transfigured into a voice that helps us determine our democratic destiny.
Thatís what weíre talking about. Thatís what Iím here for.
So what is that fundamental question? What does it mean to be a featherless, two-legged,
linguistically conscious creature born between urine and feces? Thatís who we are. Put on
my three-piece suit if I want to, talk about my Harvard degrees and Princeton degrees if
it wasnít for my mamaís love push that got me out, I wouldnít be here. I am who I am
because somebody loved me, somebody cared for me, somebody attended to me. And one day
my body will be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms ñ just like yours, unless youíre up
for cremation. So the fundamental question in talking about justice is ñ what kind of
human being will you choose to be? What kind of virtues? What kind of character? What kind
of values do you want to exemplify in your life so that when they look for you in the
coffin, they can say, ìShe lived a life with Socratic energy. She mustered the courage
to raise deep questions, to interrogate certain assumptions and presuppositionsî? I tell
my classes at Princeton all the time ìWhen you come to my class, you learn how to die
in order to live a more decent, compassionate, critical and healthy life.î One of the great
paradoxes of a healthy life is learning how to die ñ what the Greeks called ìpaiedia.î
Not just schooling, deep education. And you learn how to die by what? Calling into question
those assumptions and presuppositions, those dogma and doctrine that impeded and obstruct
your ability to flower and flourish. We know the history of America has been one what we
will lock whatís into certain dogma. Dogmaís like white supremacy. Brother says people
didnít want to use the word racism. I talk about the vicious legacy of white supremacy.
Thatís what it was. Thatís what it continues to be in new forms. Thereís dogmas of male
supremacy. There are dogmas of gentile supremacy, visa vis our Jewish brothers and sisters.
There are dogmas of protestant, visa vis our Catholic brothers and sisters. And there were
dogmas of unfettered markets, unregulated markets that somehow the invisible hand of
free markets would generate a healthy public life. Well, the history of public health in
America is a history of a sick market. It doesn't deliver based on sheer, unfettered,
unregulated markets. Itís sick. Something else needs to intervene. Weíre not trashing
markets. Weíre being Socratic and questioning certain dogmas that out of delivered ignorance
and willful blindness don't allow us to keep track, especially of the least of these, especially
of our poor brothers and sisters of all colors. Our red brothers and sisters ñ let us never
forget our indigenous brothers and sisters.