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Photo by Jeanine HillHe's a rangy little guy: five foot, seven inches tall, I'd guess, maybe 135 pounds, with a proud Afro, Malcolm X glasses and a filigreed goatee. He's wearing a good Italian suit, slim Italian shoes, and a dandy black cravat. He's natty, and he knows it. At a lectern in front of a crowd, he's as commanding and at home as Vince Carter is shooting hoops—you're in his house now. Pent-up like a bantam cock, his voice shifting registers from better-concentrate-now highbrow to comic street kid to Sunday preacher, he's bouncing on the balls of his feet, hitching his pants and, for some reason, always sticking his hand into his inside coat pocket. He did it 20 times the night I saw him, and each time the hand came out, there was never anything in it.
Maybe he was just making sure he had ID. I didn't blame him. He's an intellectual, he's black, and he's a self-described "radical democrat." In Orange County, that makes you the Invisible Man. Except on March 13 at Chapman University, in the—of all places—George Bush Conference Center, Cornel West, who is a Harvard professor of religion and Afro-American studies, had one of the most powerful presences of any speaker I've ever seen. He was a one-man argument against cybereducation: there's no way what he conveyed to the completely riveted standing-room-only crowd of 400-plus could possibly be transmitted digitally. There's a whole passel of theory out there saying the author's dead, the self is dead, that language speaks us rather than the other way around, and it's philosophically sound stuff—until you hear a man like West, who opens his mouth and makes you feel that people who don't believe in a self probably don't have much of a self to believe in.
Or properly speaking, a soul. West believes in the soul, and his lecture was less a talk than a demonstration of what an embattled soul is. During his 25-year academic career, he has cut through the thicket of poststructuralist skepticism—he did his time with postwar European theory, took from them what he needed, then put them aside—and has come out a rededicated Christian humanist, one of the few public intellectuals who can pull that off.
Titled "Restoring Hope" and delivered noteless, improvised in the manner of Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane, whom West couldn't help but constantly allude to, and whose music his own phrasing sometimes imitated, West's lecture about race in America had two touchstones: Socrates and Jesus. Socrates, for saying "the unexamined life is not worth living" and "the condition of truth is to allow the critical intelligence to become manifest." Socrates, for teaching Malcolm X that "the examined life is painful" and for helping W.B. Yeats toward the recognition that "it takes more courage to look deep into the abyss of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield." Socrates, who knew that, finally, philosophy is "a meditation and a contemplation of death." West quotes like crazy. In an hour, his mind threw out bits of Plato, Josiah Royce, Goethe, Martin Luther King Jr., Montaigne, Seneca, St. Paul, Billie Holiday, Herman Melville, Coltrane, F. Scott Fitzgerald, F.O. Matthieson and a few dozen more—and never pretentiously. There's a problem with Socrates, though: "What I find fascinating," West said, "is that given his profound commitment to critical questioning, we never really see him . . . cry. And I don't know about you, but anybody who never cried ain't ever loved. And anybody who hasn't ever loved—it isn't clear they've ever lived."
Enter Jesus because "Jesus wept." Jesus is compassion toward suffering and mortality. So West ended up revising Socrates so that "the condition of truth" is not just allowing the critical intelligence to make itself heard but also "to allow suffering to speak." Critical intelligence plus Christian compassion becomes the credo, and, West says, "if you want to know what this sounds like, listen to Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme,' and I'm all done here."
Except he wasn't done because now his task was to connect this up to race in America. He began by saying that the problem with white American prosperity (and the attitude it fosters, which is "sentimental innocence") is that it loses touch with real suffering. He bulleted the audience with stats: "19 percent childhood-poverty rate in America; 40 percent for non-white children." It gets complacent with its toys, its distractions, and it loses touch with death. But American blacks have never been able to escape suffering, and they've never been able to stop thinking about death. ("Every two and a half days for 51 years, some black child, some black woman, some black man was hanging from some tree.") Which makes blacks perfectly placed to be the kinds of philosophers West has in mind. I'm going to quote him at length now because no paraphrase will do:
To talk about race in America is to talk about death. . . . The paradox of race relations in American civilization . . . is that black people have been on intimate relations with death in a civilization that is death-dodging, death-ducking and death-denying. That can drive you crazy . . . black folk dealing with forms of death. Slavery: social death. No legal status. No social status. No public value on the body which can be bought and sold. Jim Crow: civic death. No rights. No respect. And then psychic death. Every authority in the culture—from Christian ministers, Jewish rabbis, and professors of psychology to journalists and scientists—all agreeing that [blacks] were less than human, that they had the wrong hips and lips and noses and hair texture and skin pigmentation, and that they ought to hate themselves because they're hated by a people who are better than them—namely white folk. Psychic death. How do you deal with that in a black body and be bombarded every day, every day, every day of your life?
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.