Black Issues in Philosophy: An Interview with Cornel West

By Rosemere Ferreira da Silva

In 2009, I interviewed a group of black intellectuals in the United States while I was researching for my doctoral degree on a study of the writings of Abdias Do Nascimento and Milton Santos in Brazil.  Now an Associate Professor of Literature, I recently returned to the United States to continue that additional research.  As some of the intellectuals were philosophers, I’ve decided to devote part of the project to discussing the unique challenges they face in the production of their work.   Below is an excerpt from my June 29, 2009 interview with Dr. Cornel West, who was at Princeton at that time and has since returned, after teaching at the Union Theological Seminary, to Harvard University, where he was previously University Professor of Divinity and African American Studies.  Although it was nearly a decade ago, the interview offers reflections that are still pertinent to those interested in black issues in philosophy.  It also occasions retrospection since it was conducted during the first year of the Obama presidency, and it could offer some illumination on Dr. West’s concerns that have unfolded since then.  I thank Dr. Takiyah Harper-Shipman of Carnegie Mellon University for her assistance in the transcribing of those past interviews.

 

Well, this is my sixth interview related to the project, Black Intellectuals Respond.  We now interview Dr. Cornel West. Good evening, Dr. West.

Good evening to you, my dear sister. It’s a blessing to talk to you.

Ok, thank you. So, the first question is this.  In the article “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual” published in Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, in 1993, you write: “The reasons some black people choose to be serious intellectuals are diverse. But in most cases these reasons can be traced back to a common root: a conversation like experience with a highly influential teacher or peer that convinced one to dedicate one’s life to the activities of reading, writing, and conversing for the purpose of the individual’s pleasure, personal worth, and political enslavement of black and often oppressed people.” What are the features of a serious intellectual? To what extent can your own formative experience in becoming an intellectual be compared with those of others and used as a guide to encourage other young, black, would-be intellectuals?

… First on a personal level, you see that man right there [pointing to a photograph], Martin Kilson? He was my mentor. He’s the first black professor to gain tenure at Harvard University, in 1968. And Harvard’s been around since 1636. He’s the first black professor to get tenure. He’s my mentor. He was partly responsible for my conversion experience. He and a great scholar named St. Claire Drake—[a] towering black intellectual. He was at Stanford for many years. Those two were responsible for my conversion experience, which is to say that I underwent a transformation in which I became fundamentally committed to the life of the mind, to the world of ideas, to reading and writing and lecturing and reflecting and thinking and trying to seek truth, trying to gain access to knowledge for the aim of making the world a better place. So, it’s a fundamental calling on one hand, you see. And …  it’s a very serious calling because it means you stake your all on what your calling is. You’rethinking; you’re loving; and living and everything, you see. Again it’s like the jazz musician. Like that genius right there [pointing to another photograph], John Coltrane—dead at 40 years old. He staked his all. He played his horn for 18 hours [each day], went to bed with the horn in his mouth, [and] wake up blowing. Staked his all. That was his calling. Wasn’t just his career, you see? That was his vocation.  Being an intellectual is different [from being an] academician. An academician is a profession. An intellectual is a calling. You can be an intellectual and an academic. Or, you can be an academic and not an intellectual.

I see.

You can be an academic and just specialize, [acquire a] skill, no [i.e., without] deep questioning; no deep calling. Just go to the job as a day job. It’s not a life task, you see. Ah, you can be an intellectual and not an academic. You have the calling. Sunday academy, like James Baldwin—who was just so. He never went to college. College went through him. He taught himself. Became the finest essayist in this language in 20th century America. [He] never went to college. No college degree. Nothing. Calling. Hard work. Michael Jackson never went to school. Not one day in school. Five years old, from then on it’s private tutoring. Dead at 50. Listen to the songs he wrote. Prince, my dear brother, who’s on the CD—we did a duet together—dropped out of high school. Listen to the lyrics he wrote. And I know there’s a number of great Brazilian thinkers, poets, writers, who never went to college, ’specially black ones expressing their voice, vision, because of their calling, you see. So for me, the distinctive feature of an intellectual is a fundamental commitment to the calling—a willingness to pursue truth wherever it goes and at the same time an attempt to engage the suffering and misery that one finds in one’s heart and soul and in one’s community, nation, and the world. . . .

When you explain what constitutes the “insurgence model” or black intellectuals who function as “critical organic catalysts” you argue, “The major priority of black intellectuals should be the creation or reactivation of institutional networks that promote high-quality critical habits primarily for the purpose of black insurgency. An intelligentsia without institutionalized critical consciousness is blind, and critical consciousness severed from collective institutions is empty. The central task of postmodern black intellectuals is to stimulate, hasten and enable alternative perceptions and practices by dislodging prevailing discourse and powers. This can be done only by intense intellectual work and engaged insurgent practices, praxis.”  What kind of insurgent praxis do you think is necessary to dislodge prevailing discourses and powers?

Oh, that’s a good question. Yeah it’s a tough one because there’re so many different kinds on so many different levels. There are first those of discourse that have to do with trying  [to] excavate or … dig out truths that are buried in a society’s past and present, bring it to the light. That’s at the level of discourse. That’s very important. That’s scholarly and it’s intellectual. It can be also poetic. It can be musical. It can be sculptural because artists have truths to disclose too in their own way; sculptures disclose in certain ways. Musicians do in others ways. Poets in others, painters in others. Scientists can do it. Anthropologists can do it and so forth. [But] that’s at the level of discourse. That can take place in a narrow context, like the academy and literature, [which] have very little impact on the larger society unless those truths are taken to the larger society. And that’s what social movements do. You see? Look, these working people have been subordinated for too long, OK? These women have been terrorized by cowardly men under patriarchy. You don’t want to deal with the truth or the suffering of these women for too long. Now they gonna have a counter voice, you see? That’s the woman’s movement. Gay, lesbian the same way. In Brazil, specifically, the black people are awakening. It’s a beautiful thing.

Yes, it is!

You see, because Brazil for the first time on a massive scale may have to come to terms with the deep truths of white supremacy and black suffering that’ve been buried in the political unconscious of the nation. And once that comes to the surface, then all the lies about racial democracy and all the lies about miscegenation and so forth are swept away. And when lies are swept away, people are disoriented. And they have to undergo transformation because they can no longer rest on shifting sand. And when that happens, then from the academic and intellectual world, you get the truths that become more widely disseminated in the larger society. And so all of a sudden people begin raising questions, like I noticed that there are all these black people in Brazil, but I don’t see too many in the parliament or the constituent assembly or at the highest levels of the professoriate. . . . We know black folk are brilliant just like any other people. Something must be standing in the way. How come we haven’t raised these questions with seriousness and urgency? Everybody knows in Brazil that if black people had been running things and white people had been subordinated, to tell the truth about black people running things would be heroic. How come when black people [are] subordinated, when black people tell the truth about white folks subordinating things, they’re not viewed as heroic? They’re viewed as threatening, crazy, out of touch with reality. Ah, we see the hypocrisy of it all. Let’s tell the truth. But let’s do it with love. You know, we’re not talking about demonizing people. You know white brothers and sisters can accept the truth like anybody else. You know they got certain interests that are entrenched so it’s harder for them to really act on the truth. White brothers and sisters are human like anybody else. Red, indigenous brothers and sisters in Brazil, they have a right to have their voices raised too. Let’s hear their view of the development of the Brazilian empire. And then Brazilian democracy, given their land, disposed. Their babies crushed like cockroaches. Let’s hear their story. Can you stand it white Brazil? Are you ready for it? You see? And to some degree, can you stand it black Brazil? Because black Brazil participated in the dispossession of the land of indigenous people in the same way black people in America participated in the dispossession of the land of indigenous people. That’s why when Barack Obama gave that speech in Philadelphia on March 18th, [2008] he was telling a lie. But it’s a lie Americans like to hear. The original sin of America is slavery. No. The original sin is genocidal attack and dispossession of precious indigenous people’s lands and their babies. He didn’t want to say that on television. So that all of a sudden, red peoples are just invisible. Just like white people make black people invisible. [Think of] Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man. That was so easy for black people to make red people invisible.You see? And anybody who uses black suffering or any other suffering to blind us to other people’s suffering doesn’t want to face the truth. They scared. They don’t want to confront it, you see? And so, uh. What I’m talking about here is these different counter hegemonic forms of insurgency. The level of discourse, truth seeking, knowledge, facts, new frameworks, new paradigms. But, you need social movement to carry those truths into the larger society, you see. And you have to have both. That’s why Antonio Gramsci is so very important for me. Because that’s an organic intellectual. You always have one foot in a possible social movement, one foot in discursive analysis—that is, discursive work. Writing books and so forth and so on you see. Because ideas matter. Ideas do matter. Truth matters.

Yep. . . .  So, let’s continue on this question. Why do you refer to such intellectuals as “postmodern”?

You see, by “postmodern,” I just mean post-1945, which is the age of the American empire. ’Cause, see, you got 1492, [which] is the age of Europe. Right. This is a period when those small nations between the Euro-mountains and the Atlantic Ocean have breakthroughs in oceanic transportation, military technology, the huge boats, and canons, begin to explore the world and reshape the whole world in their image. And so 1492 is the encounter of Europeans with indigenous peoples. First time in the New World. By 1945, [however, the] Age of Europe is over. Hitler [tried to] exterminate Jewish brothers and sisters, you see. Fifty million dead as a result of World War II, [of which there were] 6,000,000 Jews. Millions of communists, socialists, and others. You see? Europe devastated, depended, divided on what?  Between 1945 up until roughly 2008 the age of the American Empire, that’s postmodern. That’s what postmodern means. It’s a historical category, you see? And one of the reasons why Brazil becomes so very important here is because Brazil is the great power to emerge in what was once the U.S. back yard under the Monroe Doctrine in which the United States could do anything [it] wanted to the other countries in the hemisphere, including Brazil. And Brazilian elites often went hand in hand with it. The CIA, the FBI, corporate interests and so forth, you see. But as the American empire begins to wobble and waver and decline, China, India, Brazil begin to move up, ascend. Japan had already made its move—went back down, come back again. You see? But, American empire [is] still at the center of things.  But it’s in decline. There’s not doubt about that on every level, financial, economic, cultural, across the board. You see? But it’s got a long way to go. Because Brazil still got a long way to go. India still got a long way to go. China still got a long way to go….  I mean American empire is far, far beyond any of them put together. But I say that to say, by postmodern, we’re not just talking about style in architecture, particular rhetorical strategy in a novel, and so forth. We’re talking about deep historical transformations in terms of shifts of power. And to think that the age of Europe could last that long, 1492–1945, there’s a sense in which India’s independence signified because it was the British Empire, which was the greatest empire during the age of Europe, you see? And once India, this brother right here [pointing to a photograph]. You see this brother right here? He’s one of my heroes. You got to know this, this brother here.

Who?

You know, [Bhimrao Ramji] Ambedkar; he’s one of the greatest public intellectuals.

He was a communist right?

Well, he was a kind of religious leftist. But he was the only one more radical than Gandhi who started with the Dalit brothers and sisters, with the untouchables.

I see.

That was the starting point. And he was an untouchable himself. You see?

Oh, yeah!

So it’s from the bottom, cause even Gandhi had his distance from the untouchables. Untouchables like black people. See what I mean? We talkin’ about the filthiest, funkiest, stankiest, ugliest, most beautiful in the society. Blacks in Brazil, Negroes in America, untouchables. I love, I love this brother. Oh, yes. He’s a serious brother. Here’s another one, too [pointing to another photograph]. You all might know him as well. He’s a serious brother, too. But I say that to say India’s very important here in terms of the undermining of the British Empire, which was a major empire during that time. Once those began to collapse, then here came the Soviet Union and the USA, the [next] two empires. You see what I mean? That’s postmodern. Now, I wrote that essay in 1985. That’s 24 years ago. I wrote that right when the American empire was just taking off. [That was during the presidency of Ronald] Reagan. [It was full of] self-confidence. “Nobody messes with us”—cowboys of the globe, policemen of the universe. You know. Invading Panama and Grenada. Supporting insurgents in Nicaragua and lying about it and so forth and so on you see?  Reagan got away with all that there, see. . .

Yes

… It’s still a postmodern moment to the degree that we’re still in the age of American empire. I don’t want to suggest that the age of empire is over. But it’s a different arch now, you see. So if I was writing that essay today, I would be talking about a latter part of the age of the American empire. Here I was talkin’ about it’s just taking off….  [Today,] I think it has to be amended and revised because twenty-five years ago you didn’t have the Internet. You didn’t have breakthroughs in technology. You didn’t have new forms of communication. You didn’t have the crucial role of mass media being as central in terms of the mass media’s always been important. In 1985 it was still important. But 2009 with 24/7 news global talk about counter insurgency and so forth, you’ve got to talk about the media. You got to know how to master the art and the craft of communicating to people with moving images and sound with just TV. With moving and memorable words, which is rhetorical, powerful rhetoric on radio. With video, with CDs and then the Internet. From twitter to Facebook to all the different forms there, you see. And I couldn’t make any allusions of those kinds of things. I talk about culture in the broad sense in the essay. But I have to specify what I mean by culture and specifically market-driven media. Because that’s what so many of the masses, of everyday people receive their sense of who they are. . . .

Dr. West, do you think Black intellectuals have political responsibilities that are different than those of non-black intellectuals? Why or why not? Are the responsibilities of black intellectuals similar to those of Latino or women intellectuals? Why or why not?

Yeah, I think that there’s a sense in which anyone who has the audacity to pursue the calling of intellectual no matter what color, gender, what have you, has a responsibility to seek the truth. In seeking the truth, and thereby coming to terms with suffering and misery and the world, whoever it is, one has, I think, a responsibility to speak and often times do something about that suffering and misery. Now exactly what it is, it differs from person to person, context to context. So in that regard I don’t think that black intellectuals have any special responsibility that nonblack intellectuals have. Because black intellectuals are not concerned with just black suffering. Black intellectuals are concerned with the truth. Seeking the truth, seeking knowledge across the board. White intellectuals, brown, red, yellow ought to be concerned with seeking the truth. Now given that black intellectuals are in situations where the truth about black doing and suffering is hidden often times we have a special priority. We make a special priority of highlighting the lies that have been told about black people. And so you end up with Lewis Gordon, Molefi Asante, and other towering black intellectuals in the United States concerned about black life in relation to the modern life, American life, postmodern life and so forth. But I do think that you can be a white intellectual and do some marvelous work on black life. We’ve got a number of white intellectuals in this country. Eric Foner, for example, is probably one of the greatest American historians alive. He writes in the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois. His work is just magnificent. As a white brother concerned about the truth in relation to black people, you see. And you could imagine various Latina or [other non-black] women intellectuals seeking the truth in similar kinds of ways. You can think of black intellectuals writing about white Brazil. That needs to take place too. Because there’s some truths about white Brazil that some white Brazilian intellectuals don’t want to tell….

 

Dr. Rosemere Ferreira da Silva is Associate Professor at the State University of Bahia  (Universidade do Estado da Bahia or UNEB), where she has taught since 2012.  Her research focuses on Afro-Brazilian Literature. She is currently writing a book about black intellectuals.  Dr. Da Silva is a Research Scholar in the Philosophy Department at UCONN and part of the editorial team of Black Issues in Philosophy.

 

Announcements

The American Philosophical Association 2018 Eastern Division Meeting will take place 1/3/2018 to 1/6/2018 at the Savannah Convention Center, 1 International Drive, Savannah, Georgia  31402, United States:

Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers’ Sessions at the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division Meeting in Savannah, Georgia, January, 2018:

  • Academic Freedom and Race Under Trump (9B)
    Thursday, January 4, 2018:  7:30–10:30 p.m.
    Co-sponsored by Philosophy Born of Struggle
    Chair: Julie E. Maybee (Lehman College)

    • Speakers: George Yancy (Emory University)
      “I Am a Dangerous Professor”
    • Tommy J. Curry (Texas A&M University)
      “Attacked from Both Sides: Blackened, Maled, and the Dilemma of Anti-Black Misandry”
    • Naomi Zack (University of Oregon)
      “The Black Feminist Trolls: How Their Censorship Has Brought Down Hypatia and Philosop-her and
      What To Do About It”

 

  • Philosophical Reflections on Kendrick Lamar’s Afro-Jewish Subjectivity (10L)
    Friday, January 5, 2018: 9:00 AM–11:00 AM
    Co-sponsored by the Caribbean Philosophical Association

    • Chair:  Lewis Gordon (UCONN-Storrs)
    • Speaker: André E. Key (Claflin University)
      “Damnation and Identity: The Problem of Moral Epistemology and Ethnic Suffering in Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN”

 

  • Colloquium: Philosophy of Race and Identity (5I)
    Thursday, January 4, 2018:  Morning, 9:00 AM–12 PM 
    Chair: John Torrey (University of Memphis)

    • Speaker: Timothy Fuller (Yonsei University)
      “The Challenge to Race Eliminativism from Implicit Bias Research”
      Commentator: Lacey Davidson (Purdue University)
    • Speaker: William Paris (Pennsylvania State University)
      “‘We Know Nothing About Her’: Hortense Spillers’s ‘Ungendering’ and Frantz Fanon’s Unfinished
      Argument in Black Skin, White Masks”
      Commentator: Olúfemi O. Táíwò (University of California, Los Angeles)
    • Speaker: Vita Emery (Fordham University)
      “Thinning the Veil: Mills, Rawls, and Identity”
      Commentator: Darien Pollock (Harvard University)

 

  • Georgia Philosophical Society (G14K)
    Topic: Identity Traversing Technology, Gender, Geography, and Race

    Friday Evening, January 5, 2018:  7:00–10:00 p.m.

    • Chair: Creighton Rosental (Mercer University)
    • Speaker: Chris Lay (University of Georgia)
      “The Loss of Personal Identity in Things: Malafouris and Third-Wave Extended Mind”
    • Commentator: Jack Simmons (Armstrong State University)
    • Speaker: Katie Lane Wynn Kirkland (Georgia State University)
      “Feminist Aims and a Trans-Inclusive Definition of ‘Woman’”
    • Commentator: Isadora Mosch (Georgia College and State
      University)

 

  • Keynote Speaker: Gertrude Gonzalez de Allen (Spelman College)
    Friday Evening, January 5, 2018:  7:00–10:00 p.m.
    “Afra: Discourse on Womanhood, Migration, Blackness, and Latin U.S. Caribbean Identity”

 

  • Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World (G16B)
    Saturday, January 6, 2018:  11:30 AM–1 PM
    Topic: Author Meets Critics: Jerry Miller, Stain Removal: Ethics and Race

    • Chair: TBA
    • Critics: Rocio Alvarez (Texas A&M University)
    • José Mendoza (University of Massachusetts Lowell)
    • Naomi Zack (University of Oregon)
    • Author: Jerry Miller (Haverford College)

 

  • Invited Symposium: Philosophers Theorize Capitalism (17F)
    Saturday Afternoon, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM–4:30 PM

    • Chair: Nancy Fraser (New School for Social Research)
    • Speakers: Rahel Jaeggi (Humboldt University Berlin)
    • Charles Mills (City University of New York)
    • Cinzia Arruzza (New School for Social Research)
    • Cornel West (Harvard University)

 

  • Author Meets Critics: Danielle Allen, Education and Equality (17G)
    Saturday Afternoon, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM–4:30 PM

    • Chair: Myisha Cherry (Independent Scholar)
    • Critics: Derrick Darby (University of Michigan)
    • Howard McGary (Rutgers University)
    • Author: Danielle Allen (Harvard University)

 

  • APA Committee Session: Folk Race Concepts and the Pursuit of Medical Knowledge: Epistemic and Ethical Considerations (17H)
    Arranged by the APA Committee on Philosophy and Medicine
    Saturday Afternoon, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM–4:30 PM

    • Chair: TBA
    • Speakers: Sophia Efstathiou (Norwegian University of Science
      and Technology)
      “Big Data, Medicine and Race: Suffering the Tension Between Classification and Effacement”
    • Shelbi Nahwilet Meissner (Michigan State University)
      “Complications in Tracking Folk Racial Categories in Public Health Research: American Indian
      Identities”
    • Quayshawn Spencer (University of Pennsylvania)
      “Moving Beyond the Verbal Dispute: Are Human Continental Populations Useful in Medical
      Genetics?”
    • Sean Valles (Michigan State University)
      “Race Concepts Are a Cause of, and Solution to, the Health Effects of Racism”

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