Former Harvard Professor Cornel West Talks Black Politics

Cornel R. West ’74, American philosopher and former Harvard professor spoke Thursday afternoon in Emerson Hall about black political thought, philosophy, and religion at an event hosted by the Harvard Black Men’s Forum.

“For me, Dr. West has been someone who has really shaped the way that I experience and view the world,” said BMF Executive Programs Director Temitope A. Agabalogun ’15, who introduced West.

West spoke about his time as an African American student in the early 1970s at the College. West recalled the words his father said to him when he was dropped off at school for the first time: “‘Son, you shape this place in your image at your best, and allow yourself to be shaped in its image at its very best.’” Inspired by his father’s words, West said he was determined to spread messages of justice and freedom at Harvard and beyond.

West began the discussion by describing what it means to be a person of color and to come from a “terrorized, stigmatized, and traumatized people.” He shared four questions that have guided his life and work, “how does integrity face oppression, what does honesty do in the face of deception, what does decency do in the face of insult, and how does virtue meet brute force.”

West also discussed the role religion has played in his life. He defined himself as a prophetic Christian. He said he believes corporate media in the U.S. promotes materialism and greed, arguing that the it has created a society which is centered on becoming wealthy.

“Rich in what?...things, commodities, and money,” West asked the audience. “Or service and compassion?” He asked that the students in the audience question the pursuits they devote themselves to in the future.

West also spoke about black political class in the U.S., which he said should not worry about defining itself as an “interest group,” but should focus on promoting fairness, justice, and freedom across the board.

Still, West finished on a positive note, saying that “Harvard is going to continually produce some high quality folk,” who he is certain will spread the messages of justice and freedom in the future.

Previously a faculty member in Harvard’s African and African American Studies Department, West left Harvard in 2002 for Princeton after a dispute with then-University President Lawrence H. Summers.

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