(edited and condensed for brevity)
Mordecai Lyon: Dr. Cornel West, I’d like to thank you for joining us here at The Boycott Times to make this announcement. You have a long history at Harvard, and we’ve all been watching the ongoing saga of them denying your request to be reviewed for tenure. But first you were an undergrad at Harvard from 1970 – 1973, where you once saw Muhammad Ali speak, you helped fight for a Black studies department, and boycotted against apartheid in South Africa. Later, you left Harvard in 2002 after teaching there for many years and returned in 2017. Why did you come back?
Cornel West: It’s always a question of vocation and calling. Whichever context you find yourself, you try to tell the truth and bear witness. And so, I decided to come back to Harvard to see whether there was a space for a free Black man, who would seek the Truth and be willing to bear witness and be honest about, not just Harvard, but the American empire, with all of its spiritual decay, all of its moral decrepitude, its high levels of commodification and high levels of bureaucratization. So, will Harvard, as the site for elite formation and ruling class formation, will it be willing to be truthful about its own will to Truth? Its motto is veritas – Latin for the Truth – but will it be willing to seek the Truth?
CW: There are wonderful people at Harvard, we know that. It has a great tradition of Du Bois and so many others, but I discovered that I can only take so much hypocrisy. I can only take so much dishonesty. I can only take so much pettiness in terms of ways in which I thought I was disrespected and devalued. I found out that my return here, leads me to have to make a move … no doubt about that.
But there’s been so much love. Magnificent support here by Harvard students and graduate students and slices of the faculty – the Walter Johnsons, the Davíd Carrascos, the Ron Sullivans, the David Lamberths and the Stephanie Robinsons – and around the country (Robin D.G. Kelley) and the world (Suraj Yengde). But we are in such trouble that we don’t have time for this kind of a childish myopia of a highly commodified and bureaucratized Harvard that finds it difficult to follow through on its own seeking for Truth, not just intellectually, but institutionally.
Going Back Home
CW: Harvard has actually done very well in terms of bringing different peoples of different colors and gender at a high level into the administration. But it does not yet translate on the ground in terms of faculty. It does not yet translate in terms of being able to speak to the seeking of truth amongst the students. We were there together for many years and you can testify to that. And so, in that sense, brother, I’ve got to make my move to the great Union Theological Seminary. My perennial home.
I was hired there at 23 years old by a brother named Donald Shriver, who was the president at that time, he also brought in the great James Washington; and the towering James Cone was already there, as well as the inimitable James Forbes, Jualynn Dodson, Samuel Roberts. It was the center of Black theological education and liberation theology; Beverly Harrison, Robert Handy, Bob Seaver, Anne Ulanov, the Union Theological Seminary builds on the great legacy of Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Lehmann, Harry Ward and others. So, for me, it’s a going back home so I don’t have to be worked like a mule but underpaid and undervalued at Harvard. Those days are over.
Not Giving Up on Harvard
CW: Harvard can change. I’m an extension of Harvard in terms of my education and I have to be honest about it. And that’s why I’m making the move back to New York, and it’s not a move out of default. Not at all. I’m going with a smile. I’m going fired up. And I’m going with my focus on oppressed people around the world.
Now, it is true that I’ve always felt there are certain taboo issues at Harvard. And we got to hit taboo issues across the board. One of them is the Palestinian cause, wrestling with a serious moral spiritual political critique of the Israeli occupation. We’ve got to be as on fire, as if there was a Palestinian occupation of precious Jewish brothers and sisters, as there is an ugly Israeli occupation of precious Palestinian brothers and sisters.
So, we’ve got to be consistent, and I don’t mind paying any cost, of bearing any burden, while trying to keep track of the humanity of any oppressed people, no matter who they are. They could be Jews in Russia, they can be Dalits in India, they can be Roma in Europe, they can be workers in Haiti, they can be Muslims in China, or they can be peasants in Brazil or Ethiopia. It’s across the board.
Accountable to Truth
CW: I try to be true to my own experience when I feel disrespected. I have no tolerance for the disrespect of Black people, no matter where they are. That’s why the focus ought not be on me, it ought to be on the precious brothers and sisters in the hood, on the blocks, on the corner, or in the prisons. You disrespect them, then in the end, you disrespect me, because we are all in it together. And of course, I believe it ought to spill over; you disrespect poor people, disrespect working people, across the board, no matter what color, gender, sexual orientation, you’re still disrespecting me in a certain sense, but I’ve got a very intimate connection to struggling against white supremacy. And we’ve got to make sure that the Harvards, and other places, are accountable to veritas. Accountable to truth.
ML: All of these institutions of higher education are under fire right now, and they’re saying all the right words, language that we should be excited about, but their actions are not coming through. How was Harvard undervaluing you? And how can we move from here to demand that these institutions start to do the things they say they’re going to do?
CW: A place like Harvard needs to go back to the best of its own tradition. See when they booted Ralph Emerson out of Harvard after he gave the July 15th, 1838, Harvard Divinity School address, he was banned for 29 years for telling too much of the truth. That was the worst of Harvard. But when the great William James gave the presentation of “The True Harvard,” and the true Harvard has to do with the invisible Harvard that generates serious truth seekers who are difficult to discipline. They don’t fit in. They’re not well adjusted to injustice nor well-adapted to indifference towards the poor. That’s the best of Harvard. As William James put it on June 24, 1903: “Our undisciplinables are our proudest product. Let us agree together in hoping that the output of them will never cease.”
The Commodification of Education
CW: Right now, the market model has taken over. It’s about donor money. It’s about the public image. It’s about consumer reputation of students and it’s about top-heavy administration and bureaucrats who make big money. And yet when it comes to focusing on the souls and minds of students, there’s too little priority. Students have to be at the center, at the core. We are trying to unsettle them, trying to empower their souls, trying to get them to shatter indifference and callousness and not be mere careerists and opportunists that just can’t wait to make money and reinforce the organized greed and institutionalized contempt for common folk and for everyday people. This is the spiritual rot of the American empire.
That’s what Harvard needs to do. It’s not just going to be a matter of a PR move here and a PR move there. No, they need to reevaluate the whole market model. And of course, Harvard unfortunately is often imitated by others. And others need to be wise: learn from the best of Harvard, reject the worst of Harvard.
Quality of Leadership
ML: How is Union different? You mentioned Cone and a new chair that you’re coming into, could you talk a little bit more about why Union? And how do you see Union Theological Seminary moving into the future in terms of the struggle for the liberation of all people who are oppressed?
CW: Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, he’s a decent brother. I mean, he’s not a gangster the way my dear brother Larry Summers was, you know what I mean? He’s a different kind of brother. But he still, I think, falls short of Serene Jones, who’s a visionary and courageous leader of an institution that believes in robust conversation across the board, but has a fundamental tilt towards empowering oppressed people. And of course, seminary is different than a university in that regard, but the quality of leadership matters.
Sister Serene Jones understands that she has to be a caretaker of a very precious yet fragile institution like Union because we’re living in such reactionary counterrevolutionary times. She’s concerned about empire. She’s concerned about predatory capitalism. She’s concerned about patriarchy. She’s concerned about homophobia. She’s concerned about white supremacy. She’s concerned about ecological catastrophe. But she also has to preserve an institution at its best and hold at length its worst. And every institution has its bests and worsts, I’m not naive about that.
Full of Fire
CW: But a free Black man like me, a Jesus loving freedom fighter like me, I can stretch out at Union Theological Seminary, just as I began to stretch out there when I was 23 years old, when I first took that job. And that same Don Shriver who hired me, he’s the brother, with my sister Peggy Shriver, that gave every penny of their pension for the Dietrich Bonhoeffer chair. So, the same brother who hired me in 1977, Cornel West, now occupies that chair. I just wrote an introduction in honor of Don Shriver, who is 93 years old. He is a vanilla brother from Jim Crow North Carolina, and he, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two vanilla brothers, was fundamentally transformed by the Black church. Bonhoeffer is probably the greatest Christian witness against the evil thug Hitler – one of the greatest prophetic minds like Martin Luther King Jr., like Fannie Lou Hamer in the artistic realm, full of fire.
That’s what we want to leave people with: this is The Boycott Times, full of fire. And that’s why I come to The Boycott Times first. This is the venue to say, “I’m on the way to New York, the struggle continues, a luta continua, keep your head up, keep your soul on fire, be connected with the groups that are trying to bring power and pressure to bear against status quos.” Such that we can then look back and say, “we emptied ourselves. We donated ourselves. We served the ‘least of these’ to the best of our ability,” so when the worms get us, the worms have to say, that was somebody full of fire, almost like a burning bush.
Mordecai LyonEditor in Chief
Lyon is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and a contributor at The Undefeated & Boston Review . As a researcher he contributed to the publication of Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It by Wendell Potter and Nick Pennimen. Lyon spends his time between New York City and Cambridge, MA. Read Lyon's Boston Review interview with Cornel West here and his interview with Lorgía Garcia-Peña here.