Western Philosophy

Is Cornel West the most hopeful man in America?

Nihilism and its screw-you-I'm-gonna-get-me-mine correlate is one reaction to this narrative of black death [this is the attitude most gangsta rap adopts, West suggested]. The other is the blues. Billie Holiday's blues. Aretha's, Ralph Ellison's, Toni Morrison's.

West told the story of some blacks in the early part of the 20th century whose idea it was to leave American misery behind and go to Canada. (Canada? West laughed. "Gets pretty cold in Canada. That misery mussa been pretty bad! 'We're goin' to Nova Scotia!' Got about two weeks of summer, you know what I mean?") But they scotched the idea in the end. Why? Because they realized that Canada was no deliverance, no promised land—that "for black folk, Pharoah lies on both sides of the bloody Red Sea."

And that attitude, West said, "is tragicomedy. That's a blues sensibility. That's a willingness to look darkness in the face and still somehow muster a critical orientation that raises questions about self, race, and nation—and still allowing the love to flow." And that's the kind of sensibility–not sentimental, not cynical, not pie-in-the-sky optimistic, and not, West insisted, confined to blacks—that is going to restore hope and begin to heal that gaping racial wound that has America limping well into the third century of its ongoing democratic experiment.

West is a rare bird—an American intellectual who's engaged up to his eyeballs. Besides his teaching and writing duties, he's currently part of a group helping bring a landmark suit before the federal government concerning reparations for descendants of slaves; he consults with Bill Clinton, the Black Congressional Caucus, and Sean "Puffy" Combs. He brings together Socrates in his white aristocratic robes with Jesus in his dirty sandals and shows how America needs both to survive. On March 13, he showed how he was the most alive, most hopeful, most visible man in the county.

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