Philosopher Spotlight: Cornel West

Dr. Cornel West with fellow protestors outside the Ferguson police station in October 2014.

Dr. Cornel West is an American intellectual who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who grew up taking part in the civil rights demonstrations occurring throughout America during the 1960s. Having received a PhD from Princeton University, he now maintains a career as a professor of philosophy, religion, and African American studies. Beyond this, West is known for his political activism and social criticism regarding the role of race, gender, and class in American society – specifically from a democratically socialist and morally Christian perspective. West is also a social activist and servant, regarding each he has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public,” and “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”

Arguably West’s most prominent work is his book, Race Matters. This is West’s analytical treatise on the philosophy, politics, and spirituality of the Black experience in America. In it, he covers a multitude of issues Black Americans face and how they intersect with matters of politics and identity. These include the role of Nihilism in Black America, the reemergence of conservatism in Black Americans, the straining relationship between Black and Jewish people in America at the time of his book’s publication, and the treatment of Black sexuality as especially taboo.

At the root of West’s activism and philosophy is a commitment to humanity through love and truth. In his writing, West’s socialism interacts with our contemporary and turbulent life as he analyses and discusses how society has been encouraged to reduce itself to follow the rules dictated by the powers that be. West encourages the thinker to consider that which we have forgotten about a rich life: it consists fundamentally of serving others and trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. He emphasizes the courage it takes to question the powers that be – whether government, oppressors, or the frequent intersection of both – as well as the courage it takes to be impatient with evil, patient with people, and to fight for social justice. In the current state of society, West says that more often than not, the courageous person steps out onto nothing with only a slight hope that there will be something to land on. But that, West insists, is the very struggle of life, “To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”

So, I’ll ask you this: Is it better to live in normalcy that promises to remain safe and familiar, or to step out onto ‘nothing’ that might prove to be joyful ground?

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