Dr. Cornel West
Transcript No. 441 (1 October 2015)
Good evening and welcome everyone. My name is Zeina Azzam. I am the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund & Palestine Center here in D.C. And I am very very happy to welcome all of you here tonight. Also, welcome to our livestream guests and those upstairs in the overflow room. This is truly an unprecedented event for us, to have so many people who want to attend one of our programs that we had to move it to a much larger space. It is a real testament to the scholarship and wisdom and engaged activism and charisma of Dr. Cornel West. Indeed, we are so fortunate to have Dr. West with us this evening. My warmest welcome to you, Dr. West. Our distinguished guest will speak for about 45 minutes, after which we will take questions for about 30 minutes. We have set up the two aisle microphones for your questions after he speaks.
I have just a few housekeeping details for you before we start. Please be sure to turn off your phones and other devices. If any of you would like to join the conversation about our event on twitter, you can tweet to #ESML15 – that is hashtag Edward Said Memorial Lecture 15. We would like to ask you not to take flash photography during the lecture, and please be considerate about using devices like iPads and tablets, holding them up and blocking the view of people around you. For your information, we are recording the lecture and will be posting it to our website in a few days.
Let me turn your attention to a table in the lobby. Make sure you look at it before you leave today. There are some pieces of information about the Jerusalem Fund and our upcoming programs. Feel free to pick up the flyers and donation envelopes. Note that we have our Annual Conference on Friday, October 23rd. It is titled “Palestine and the Palestinians: Media, People, Politics.” We invite you to the conference and to all our wonderful events in the next couple of months, and all of them are free. Finally, I would like to thank all the many people that helped organize and carry out this event, especially our intrepid staff and interns and volunteers. I so appreciate their cheerfulness, professionalism and hard work. And special thanks to the First Congregational United Church of Christ for hosting us here tonight, and to Byron Adams who has been most generous with his time, help and advice.
Now it is my pleasure to introduce Dr. Subhi Ali, who has been deeply involved in and committed to the work of the Jerusalem Fund & Palestine Center for over 15 years. Dr. Ali is a surgeon by training. He did his medical training here in D.C. at Howard University. He served as chairman of our board of directors for the last twelve years, and he will be introducing Dr. West.
Dr. Subhi Ali:
Thank you. Good evening. We can do better. Good Evening. There you go. It is my pleasure to welcome you to The Jerusalem Fund’s Edward Said Memorial Lecture, and it is my honor, on the behalf of the Fund’s board of directors and staff to introduce our distinguished lecturer this year, Dr. Cornel West. Dr. West, we are so delighted that you accepted our invitation to deliver this important lecture for the Palestine Center and that you are with us tonight. A hearty welcome to you.
Before I introduce Dr. West, I would like to say a few words about my friend and mentor Edward Said, who is regarded as one of the most illustrious of Palestinian public intellectuals. He wrote more than 20 books and was a passionate advocate for Palestine. Dr. Said was an acclaimed literary and music critic – yes, music- and theorist whose seminal work influenced generations of academics and scholars who study the Middle East and other non-western societies. Dr. Said passed away in 2003. We are all most proud of his ideas and analysis and writings, and therefore, the Jerusalem Fund wanted to set up an annual event in his memory. We know that he would be very pleased with our choice of Dr. West.
As the Palestine Center’s Edward Said Memorial Lecturer this year, Dr. West will discuss the profound legacy of Edward Said in social and political thought. Now, Dr. West is currently a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University. He has also taught at Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. Dr. West has written, also, over 20 books and edited thirteen including: Race Matters, Democracy Matters, Brother West and Living Out Loud, Black Prophetic Fire and Radical King. In 1993, Dr. West was the recipient of the American Book award. He has had a diverse career in academia and as a media icon. He has appeared in over 25 documentaries and films, and has made three spoken word albums. His latest spoken word feature reunited him with Terence Blanchard for “Breathless,” a tribute to the “I Can’t Breathe” movement. Dr. West says that his work has been shaped and enriched by a variety of people from all walks of life whom he has invited into his world of ideas, thus keeping alive the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., which is, and I quote, “That of telling the truth, and bearing witness to love and justice.” The title of Dr. West’s lecture is “The Legacy of Edward Said.” Please join me in welcoming Dr. Cornel West.
Dr. Cornel West:
What a blessing, what an honor, what a privilege to be here, invited by the Palestine Center to talk about my very, very dear friend and brother, Edward Said. I want to salute first the leadership of this grand institution, The Jerusalem Fund, and all the various activities associated with the branches and institutions. My new friend and brother, Dr. Ali, thank you so very, very much. And for my new sister, Zeina Azzam and also sister Samirah Alkassim, who’s been very important in facilitating my coming. And for any time I get a chance to talk about a close friend who happened to be the greatest public intellectual in the American Empire in the latter part of the twentieth century, who happened to be Palestinian, too, that cuts against the grain in the history of the USA. But also for any time I get a chance to speak out against any crime against humanity, and I do consider the vicious Israeli occupation of precious Palestinians as a crime against humanity – so it’s a moral issue. I speak as a revolutionary Christian, so it’s a moral issue, it’s a spiritual issue, so any occupation–Tibet under the Chinese— if it were Jews under anybody I would be here too. It’s a moral and spiritual issue and this is what America and the world need to come to terms with. You all have a sense of what happened at the UN yesterday, with the raising of the flag, trying to keep visible the plight and predicament of a significant slice, a crucial slice of humanity–the Palestinians. But we live in a world in which Palestinian lives matter so little. Just like I come from a people in the belly of the American Empire in which red lives matter so little, black lives matter so little, poor people’s lives matter so little and it was precisely this common ground that brought brother Edward Said and myself together.
It was in 1977 that I first met Edward Said. I wanted to attend his lecture. I read his masterpiece Beginnings. I had already read his Harvard dissertation, “Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography.” I had read it in the library. He has written it under Harry Levine – Harry Levine was one of the founders of comparative literary studies and the history of the United States. He actually was a Jewish brother from Omaha, Nebraska but he headed Comp Lit. Edward had worked with Harry Levine, of course coming out of Princeton undergrad and studying with Arthur Szathmary and the great Blackmur, Richard Blackmur, one of the finest literary critics, never went to college but a college went to him; professor at Princeton with just a high school degree, that’s very rare, that’s who Edward studied with when he went to Princeton. But I had to meet this Edward Said, because I could tell he was a dynamo. I was 23 years old and he was, at that time, he was 42, he was born in 1935, November the 1st, 1935. And I was in no way disappointed and he was lecturing on György Lukács and history and class consciousness, and then he moved on to Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and then he’d move back to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and then he’d move back to his favorite, Joseph Conrad, again. Right after the lecture I said, “My brother, we need to spend some time together. I’m a Cognac man, what are you drinking?” And he was so kind and I realize now, a 23 year old black brother, New York City, straight from Cambridge, and a Palestinian brother teaching, we came together and we remain together.
I recall when he sent me the transcript of Orientalism, I said “You’ve written a masterpiece, but I am still listening for the voices of the dominated. You’re too obsessed with the dominator. You come from an education that looks top down; I come from an orientation that is bottom up. So I want to know what the counter voices are, the counter forces are, in the constitution of this deeply dehumanizing discourse called ‘Orientalism’ that would devalue and demean the rich history and decency of those constituted outside of the West as ‘Orientals’ on that side of the globe.” He said, “I appreciate that critique, brother. I got another book coming: The Question of Palestine.” Yes, covering Islam, yes, let’s get into it. Here are the counter voices, After the Last Sky, the counter voices so that anytime we talk about the structures that subordinate, we want to hear the agency of those who are reacting and responding in such a way that those structures are always contingent, tentative, provisional, and therefore subject for transformation. Now he told me “Chomsky wrote me a letter very similar like that; he was very critical of that text.” And I still have brother Edward’s letter to me, and I say this, not to somehow elevate myself in relation to him, I’m just a fellow freedom fighter, we don’t compete with each other. I come from the Black tradition that says “lift every voice” whatever your voice is. But it is only your voice, like your fingerprint, it is distinctively and uniquely yours and Edward Said had a very distinctive and unique voice. He was the last great humanist intellectual in the American Empire, and by humanist, what I mean is those who go back to the legacy of Athens on the one hand and Jerusalem on the other and begin with what the Latins call “humando,” echoes of the last paragraph of Vico’s The New Science, that third edition in 1744-5 and not that first one – where Vico says, “humanistic studies begins with ‘humando’, and ‘humando’ in Latin means ‘burying and bury all’ and the very act of burying, which is a displacement, which generates mourning and the need for the objectifying of grief, connected to memory, which is tied to language. But first and foremost, guttural cries and wrenching moans and visceral groans that are transfigured into language.
And here our Jewish brothers and sisters are very helpful. There’s a wonderful moment in the Talmud where they say the fundamental human response to deep suffering is first tears, then silence, then song. And it’s no accident that for Vico, the first human language was poetic language that was linked to music. And Edward of course, the great musician that he was, the classical musician that he was, played beautiful Brahms, beautiful Beethoven, unbelievable. And his writing, his musical elaborations, wonderful texts on the limits of music. Very attentive to this issue of humando, how do we, featherless, two-legged, linguistically-conscious creatures born between urine and feces – that’s who we are – how do we deal with suffering in our brief moves from our mother’s womb to tomb? A short trek, trying to come to terms with our sense of what it means to be human, and for Edward Said as a humanist intellectual, following Vico but going back to Athens but specifically going back to Socrates. But Socrates was a hero for my dear brother, Edward Said, because Socrates embodied the willingness to interrogate, to criticize, to call into question, the most fundamental assumptions and presuppositions of his time and that’s also what Edward wanted to do. Socrates says philosophy itself is a meditation on the preparation for death, five loaves, Sofia, love of wisdom, philosophy. A lover of wisdom is always preparing for, wrestling with forms of death. But as a humanist intellectual, Edward Said understood that you have to learn how to die in order to learn how to live. Here he follows Seneca, “He or she who learns how to die unlearns slavery.”
Freedom is fundamental for Edward Said but it is not abstract like [it is for] Vico. It begins with the graves, the songs, the body, the group, the souls expressed given the brief move from womb to tomb. But when Edward talks about humanist critiques of narrow forms of humanism, when Edward talks about “I am one fundamentally committed to the dictum of Terrence, formerly himself a slave, who says nothing human is alien to me. And as an intellectual going back to modern times with the Russians over against the powers that be, going back to France and the Dreyfus affair, going against the powers that be like Emile Zola,” he says, “I am going to be an intellectual like Socrates,” echoing line 38:30 that says “An unexamined life is not a life of a human” and from 24 of that same dialogue of Plato’s Apology, Socrates says, “My unpopularity is caused by parrhesia.” What is parrhesia? Frank speech, plain speech, fearless speech, unintimidated speech. And for Edward Said, my dear brother, your dear brother, he took that seriously. He said “I am going to so thoroughly examine and interrogate myself, my society, my world; the structures of domination, the forms of oppression, but also the structures of feeling, what sets of prejudices and presuppositions are at work because any time you give up assumption, presupposition, any time you give up a dogma or a doctrine, it’s a form of death. And that is why humanism is so inseparable from what the Greeks called paideia, deep education, different than the cheap schooling that is so pervasive these days, because cheap schooling is market-driven, skill-acquisition, and oh-no, paideia is about learning how to die, giving up certain assumptions, presuppositions and letting them go so you undergo transformation to become more mature, more cultivated, more politically awake, and more spiritually sensitive, more morally courageous. And these are the things that brother Edward and I talked about over Cognac…and I won’t tell you what he was drinking but we both liked it. But this is serious talk because when you look at his social position, what does it mean to be a Palestinian in the Ivy League? Coming out of Princeton in 1957, PhD from Harvard in 1964, going to Columbia University in ‘64. Having friends like Lionel Trilling, and a whole host of others who will help facilitate your tenure and at the same time, being true to who you are and still being in solidarity with those who are suffering beginning with your own people. Not stopping there, but beginning there.
It’s so easy to be assimilated outsiders – Palestinian, black, brown, red, women – and love everybody but your own people. That might guarantee some success. I love brother Edward Said’s commitment; he was never satisfied with being successful. He was concerned about what he would be faithful to. How would he use his success in such a way that he could embark on frank speech and unintimidated speech? That would attempt to tell the truth? And as one of his other heroes put it, in the early part of the Negative Dialectics of Theodor Adorno, Adorno says the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. For humanists, [it is] beginning with burial linked to learning, to die into life but be faithful unto death in the quest for truth, to allow the voices of those who are rendered invisible to be heard. And it is in the early sixties that Edward writes his first reflections on predicament, journalism. But he is still very much tied toward, as you can imagine, his profession. And his blessed family, we should say a word about Hilda and Wadie, his mother and father; I don’t like to talk about figures without talking about their mommas and their daddies. They played a role, you know what I mean? Brother Edward wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Sister Hilda, his momma, and Brother Wadie, his father. You can imagine throwing that brilliant young Palestinian boy into U.S. circumstances in the fifties and sixties: what will be the result? Edward Said decides he’s going to be a humanist intellectual; that’s not some cheap title. It’s something to be earned. Just like Socrates. But Edward also knows that the legacy of Socrates associated with Athens has its own limits. The intellectual integrity of Socrates inspires Edward Said. But Socrates never cries; he never sheds a tear. Anybody who’s never really cried and never shed a tear has never really loved. Concrete human beings and classes with Vico. Socrates loves wisdom in the abstract. He doesn’t love concrete persons. Like Hamlet, he doesn’t love others and suffers with a spiritual malnutrition and moral constipation. Edward’s connection with the legacy of Jerusalem begins with tears. It begins with nakba; it begins with catastrophe. It begins with domination. It begins with internalized mis-self-perceptions among Palestinians themselves, vis a vis other Arabs, vis a vis themselves, vis a vis Israelis. Clarity, intellectual clarity, wedded to tears. And tears do what? Shatter the numbness. Tears do what? Reorient the soul. That’s what we love about the legacy of Jerusalem.
That’s what many of us love about Hebrew scripture: it begins with tears and cries of an oppressed people vis a vis a Pharaoh and a Covenant that says, “You are to be human at your best when you do justice, mercy, and walk calmly with thy God.” When you let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream for all of the nations, that’s the beginnings of a legacy of Jerusalem that says the world is to be looked at through the lens of an orphan and the widow and the fatherless and the motherless: the oppressed, those Franz Fanon called ‘the wretched of the earth’. It’s a very different orientation, a very different angle of vision of that of Socrates. Edward Said, the highly westernized brother that he was – and we can talk about this in question and answer, because I meet a lot of young folks these days, you know, and they say, well, that brother Edward Said, he was influenced a bit by the West – I said, “A bit?” Brother Edward Said was westernized through and through, but he had a magnificent Palestinian difference. And you could write a dissertation on that, too. So he wasn’t completely subsumed under the West, but he was so deeply rooted in the West, and he taught Western humanities every year of his nearly forty years when he was there at Columbia, and I was also blessed to teach both of his children at Princeton, Sister Najla and Brother Wadie. And the instructions they received from their father was that of a highly Westernized Palestinian brother. Of course, Sister Mariam, his wife, she brought in her wisdom to help create a balance. But my point is this: Athens on the one hand, Jerusalem on the other, beginning with tears, beginning with the angle of vision from the vantage point of the oppressed, but most importantly, allowing the expression of fearless speech to be said on behalf of oppressed people.
What does that mean for a Palestinian in the 1960s and 70s; what’s going on in the world? Well you can imagine: Soviet empire on the one hand, American empire on the other. Europe, the age of Europe is over, Europe is now a divided continent in the forties, dependent on either the Soviet empire or the American empire. The Middle East is undergoing transformation, anti-colonial sensibilities are spreading. Africa’s undergone decolonization. It is a different social configuration that is taking place, and it is one in which freedom and liberation are not just slogans; people are willing to live and die. In the United States American apartheid is being resisted with unbelievable courage. With lynchings and murders and so forth going on, but they keep coming, which is to say what? This is where Marcus Garvey is very important; you all remember at Marcus Garvey’s rallies he always would have at the beginning of the rally, “The negro is not afraid.” Even if they’re sitting there shaking, even if they’re shaking, sometimes, “The negro is not afraid.” Why is that important? Because in the Middle East, in Africa, in other parts of the world the oppressed people began to straighten their backs up and say, “We have broken the back of fear, we’re willing to tell the truth about our suffering, we’re willing to organize and mobilize, we’re willing to die, we’re willing to go to jail, we’re willing to stay in the streets. We are not satisfied.” They were becoming well-adjusted to injustice. That’s called a hot moment. It’s hard to imagine; we’ve been living in an ice age for 35 years. The neoliberal epoch is an ice age for most of the world, which is not to say that there hasn’t been resistance, collective and otherwise, in the West Bank and other places. But those are the pockets.
But Edward Said, he was coming of age in a hot moment, not just in the States but around the world. And what is most significant is that he was willing to make the connection between what is going on in the American empire, and the American empire is center stage, uncontested world power. Only the Soviet empire is in some ways competitive, in other ways very uncompetitive. It is trying to reshape the whole globe in its image and for its interests, primarily corporate interests. And Edward Said says what? He says, “Oh, but there’s a people locked into a settler-colonial experiment.” It’s complicated because it’s one of precious Jewish brothers and sisters who jump out of the burning buildings of Jew-hating Europe, but they land on the backs of some Arabs and they act as if these Arabs don’t exist. They act as if there’s land, but no people, but that’s a lie. That’s a lie. And the world is emerging in such a way that who can deny the depths of the evil and the suffering of millions of Jewish brothers and sisters in barbaric and bestial modern and civilized Europe? The land of Beethoven and Goethe and Brahms and Schleiermacher and Nietzsche and so forth. No, Hitler is for real. So they land on the backs of these people and their humanity is rendered invisible. And Edward Said says, “No, the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” We’ve got to ensure that their voices, both from the grave and from the quick has a role and place in this historical moment.
And I could speak for hours about the depth and scope of his courage. The death threats – each time you go to his office, he’s got bodyguards because they’re trying to kill him in his office at Columbia University. We were marching against the New York Times, we were talking about this in 1982 with the ugly invasion of Lebanon. The New York Times wouldn’t even use the word “occupation,” oh no, that’s “ideologically biased.” Please. Step by step by step we look back, and there’s no doubt that we’re still in a very difficult and nightmarish situation when it comes to precious Palestinian brothers and sisters, here and in the diaspora, in so many ways. But in those days, it was the dark ages, and Edward was a Socratic and a prophetic light. And he does it in the context of the academy. Literary studies, literary criticism, and he said we must be committed to secular criticism, and by “secular” all he meant was mustering the will, the heroic will, to be contra any method, any system, any orientation, any school of thought, that thinks it has a monopoly on truth, especially when it is rendering the voices of oppressed people invisible or marginal. By secular he had to fight against the post-structuralists, the Foucaults and the Derridas and Deleuze and others.
People run around and think, “Edward Said is a postmodernist;” no, that’s not true. He’s calling into question human will; he’s calling into question human volition. That’s not true; he’s using any insights he can from any form of intellectual weaponry, be it Deleuze, Derrida, or Foucault. But he’s got his own trajectory, and it is one of a radical, humanist intellectual trajectory. The same would be true of his talk about worldly criticism. You always begin with the complex circumstances. You always begin with being situated so you know formal system will make sense of the lived experience of persons. There’s no algorithm; there’s no framework that is deodorized that can do justice to the funk of everyday people’s struggles. That’s why he loved C.L.R. James, because James’ Marxism was always tempered by that which didn’t fit. That’s what he loved about Adorno, the cross-grains that are not subsumable under any system, what the Greeks call a topos, the unclassifiable things. That’s one of his reasons why he remained distant from Marxism, he and I had long discussions about this because Edward Said had a way of lecturing about Antonio Gramsci for an hour and a half, and you’d never know Gramsci was a Marxist. He just called him “counter-hegemonic,” in opposition. And I said, “Well, he’s more than that, he’s a Communist now, brother.” “Oh, that’s not important, Brother West.” Well, it is important, he’s got a class analysis here. But his formation was one in which he was always suspicious because his conception of Marxism was one of a method and a system, and his conception of secular criticism is to hold all methods and systems at arm’s length. To be flexible and fluid enough to keep track of what is true of the lived experience of people who are struggling, and at the same time ensure that those oppressed people are self-critical too.
And we can talk about his critiques of the PLO, his struggles with Yasser Arafat, his willingness to take a stand in the Palestinian context and ensure that self-criticism held across the board, even if that made him unpopular among Palestinians themselves, even as he was living under death threat in the American hegemon. Boy, that’s a special brother. Very, very special brother indeed. He and I had deep struggles over popular culture, and I think, when we talk about Edward Said and all of his genius, and all of his capacious imagination, there are a number of blind spots. I want to note just one or two before we move into the present situation. Edward Said had a certain disparaging view of popular culture. He was a high-brow radical humanist. He thought Adorno was right about jazz, which upset me deeply. Adorno had a very, very negative view about jazz. He didn’t see the genius bubbling up from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, but the jazz that he was talking about was Glen Miller, so I can understand. You just had to be very mindful which particular slices of jazz you are talking about. Somebody might write a dissertation about Kenny G. and say jazz is not worth spending a lot of time. I understand. Okay, fine. Listen to a little Coltrane, straighten you out. But it was popular culture in general, and this is very interesting, because really the first time that I saw Edward embrace popular culture was when he wrote about Palestinian culture. You can’t write about Lester Scott, you can’t write about the poetry, you can’t write about the songs unless you immerse yourself in, not just high-brow humanist culture, but the genius that is flowing from below as well. I would try and catch him on this. He said, “Well, I’m talking about Palestine, I’m not talking about America,” because he followed Adorno, and Adorno was about mass culture. Popular culture is mass culture manipulated from above, market driven, tied to instant gratification, body stimulation, and titillation. And he’s right about much of American popular culture, but that’s not all of it. That’s not all of it.
But the challenge is, especially with a younger generation who have been so shaped by popular culture, how will you connect with them, if your discourse is centered on Jane Austen and Flaubert and Gramsci and Kakfa and T.S. Eliot and does not in any way have something to say about the popular artists of the day. It could be a Bob Dylan or Carole King, Gil Scott Heron or the Last Poets or the Cornel West Theory these days. I’ve got brother Tim Hicks [who] is the leader of the Cornel West Theory. I say that not because they named the group after me, but because they are telling some musical truths from the bottom up. Mumia Abu Jamal and Angela Davis [are] on the album making that connection. It’s a challenge for Edward Said’s legacy, a very difficult challenge it seems to me. At the same time, given the changes that have taken place since he died in September 2003 in the United States as well as in the Middle East. how do we keep his legacy alive? Speaking truth to power, bearing witness tied to the most sophisticated analysis of the day, the economy of culture, but also of self-transformation. Edward was in no way hermetic or privatistic, but he was deeply individualistic in style and sometimes very lonely and isolated. How do you keep his legacy alive in a moment in which the market now saturates every nook and cranny of our culture including the academy. The corporate ties and commercializing and marketizing taking place in the academy. It’s a very different academy than [what] Edward Said was a part of – the culture in which everything is for sale, and everybody is for sale. Not just here, but in the Middle East, too. The need to muster, the courage to think critically, the courage to improvise, the courage to organize, the courage to hope is more and more difficult in such a market saturated empire and world.
And then, the other blind spot of Edward Said, which is that of religion. You can tell by his name, Edward, that he is named after the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII. He was very popular in 1935, when he was born. He grew up Episcopalian whose grandfather was a Baptist missionary. He married a Quaker. His own formation vis a vis religion was one that he pushed back in regard to any religious identity and affiliation. In the most market saturated moment in the history of the species, our moment, is also the moment in which religious revivals escalate and intensify. Therefore, an analysis of both market and religions, which go hand in hand, are necessary. But Edward himself was secular, and religion for him usually meant blind dogma. I would tell him over and over again, my dear brother, you’re wrong. Malcolm X was a revolutionary Muslim because he grew mature. He learned how to die in order to learn how to live. He called into question dogma and doctrine and remained a Muslim. Martin Luther King Jr. called into question dogma and doctrine, elements of himself, but he remained a revolutionary Christian. Bell Hooks, a revolutionary Buddhist. I can go on and on. Edward would always tell me, he would say, “Brother West, 95% of what you and I do together convinces me that you’re thoroughly secular.” I said, “No, brother, I am a Jesus-loving, free black man. Now, don’t try to subsume me under your secular project.” I’ll just add a quick footnote— when we got the call in September 1991 that he had Leukemia, we cried tears. I called him up and said, “My brother, I am going to bring some prayer warriors to your house.” James Ford, one of the greatest preachers and pastors of the 20th century, pastor at Riverside church. James Melvin Washington, the editor of A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. – the three of us went straight to Edward’s place, and we prayed in his living room, and he allowed us to pray. I told him, “My brother, you’ve got to get in on this.” Marian said, “I think that is a good idea, Edward.” It was quite a moment. The radically secular Edward Said with three Jesus-loving, free black men, and he knew it was about the love because we loved him and expressed a yearning. September 1991. He dies 2003. That’s twelve years. We don’t know if the prayers contributed to those twelve years or not. Probably not, but you never know! I’ve been praying for the elimination of poverty in the world — God doesn’t hear me. It was a solidarity felt. It was the affirmation of his vocation, of his calling as radical humanist intellectual telling America about the truth of its relation to a settler-colonial experiment, like America itself being initially a settler-colonial experiment losing sight of the people in the land, saying there are no people in that land, and sooner or later, truth crushed the earth will rise again, the voices will be heard, chickens come home to roost, you’re gonna reap what you sow. There was a parallel, you see, and Edward understood it.
Where does that leave us now? First, more than anything else, I want to end with this quote from the great W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois was at the end of his life. He’d been in handcuffs in U.S. courts by claims that somehow he had been connected to the Soviet Empire. This is the height of the Cold War, McCarthyism. He lived in 31 Courts street, Brooklyn Heights, the greatest borough in the world, Brooklyn, and he had one visitor that was the most popular Negro in the world in 1939, but he was under house arrest in Philadelphia. His name was Paul Robeson. Those two meet, and DuBois says, “I have to send a love letter to the world.” To come to terms with four questions, he had embarked on writing a trilogy of three novels. The first is called The Ordeal of Mansart. Turned to page 275 in that novel and Du Bois says, first question: “How shall integrity face oppression?” I’ve been wrestling with that intellectual integrity, moral integrity, spiritual integrity, political integrity. The second question: “What does honesty do in the face of deception?” We know that we live in a world of such massive mendacity and criminality of lies and crimes that are cast as normal. We are told to be indifferent toward it. The third question: “What does decency do in the face of insult?” And the last query, “What does virtue do to meet brute force?” Edward Said, the best since the radical humanist intellectual tradition, exemplifies an integrity in the face of oppression his whole life. Intellectual integrity, moral integrity, integrity is not purity; integrity is not always being right. What Jane Austen calls “constancy.” Edward has a fascinating essay on Jane Austen. It’s dialectical. It’s a critique. But constancy, having courage of your convictions regardless of the cost. To take a risk. Honesty, sheer intellectual honesty. “Bernard Lewis quit lying!” is probably what he was saying. No matter how much erudition you’ve got, the bias, the tilt, the hermeneutical orientation that you have loses sight of the humanity of Arabs and Palestinians in a significant way. Quit lying and be honest. Hermeneutics of honesty. Edward Said tried to be honest. Decency in the face of insult. All of the various narratives and analysis you see today.
Can you imagine 500 babies being killed in 50 days and there not being a wave of righteous indignation in every corner of the country or globe. It’s indecent that that could take place. And there to not be those kinds of waves of moral outrage and holy anger. Said says, “Honesty in the face of insult is disrespecting the folk.” To have that kind of relative silence given the dominance of certain conceptions of what is going on in the Middle East that allows the Israeli Defense Forces to do what they want in the name of self-defense. No, there are some moral limits. No, there are some ethical constraints. And there is some imbalance, asymmetry of power and domination when you’re talking about the clash of those peoples. And last but not least, virtue in the face of brute force. Said very much like those of us in the black freedom movement, we understood that when we talk about intellectual work it’s never just academic and abstract, because when you take a stand you better be willing to die because the repressive apparatus of the nation-state is coming at you. It will generate, not just character assassination, but actual assassination, brute force. Something that is hard for many of our mainstream liberal and neoliberal intellectuals to come to terms with because brute force is not part of their world. When I’m told that there are over a thousand white supremacist militia groups operating in America, and my name happens to be on half of them, that’s not an abstract issue. My momma loves me. When Said had to deal with the vicious attacks and threats that is not an abstract issue. Mariam, Cornel, Naja, Wadi loved him. We stand right with him because we loved him. That’s what we are talking about. That’s what Du Bois is talking about. That is part of the undeniable greatness— and by greatness I don’t mean Alexander the Great, I don’t mean Napoleon, and I don’t mean Julius Caesar— I’m saying he or she is greatest among you who attempt to serve in the form of the gifts that they have such that truth telling and witness bearing can be a force for real good, to use the language of John Coltrane, in the short time that we are here. And that is what is so magnificent about our brother, our comrade, our grand intellectual friend, Edward Said. Thank you all so very much.
Dr. Cornel West is Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He has also taught at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris. Dr. West has written over 20 books and has edited thirteen, among which are Race Matters, Democracy Matters,Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, Black Prophetic Fire and Radical King. In 1993, Dr. West was recipient of The American Book Award. He has had a diverse career spanning from academia to media icon. A frequent guest on the Bill Maher Show, Colbert Report, CNN, C-Span and Democracy Now, he also has appeared in over 25 documentaries and films including Examined Life, Call & Response,Sidewalk and Stand, as well as science fiction feature film, The Matrix – for which he was the commentator (with Ken Wilbur) on the official trilogy released in 2004. In addition, Dr. West has made three spoken word albums including Never Forget, collaborating with Prince, Jill Scott, Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, KRS-One and the late Gerald Levert. His latest spoken word feature reunited him with Terence Blanchard for “Breathless” – a tribute to the “I Can’t Breathe” movement. Dr. West says that his work has been shaped and enriched by a variety of people from all walks of life whom he has invited into his world of ideas, thus keeping alive the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. – “that of telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice.”