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Cornel West is Gone

By Sterling M. Bland, Crimson Opinion Writer

My freshman year, I ran across a soggy, wet poster, taped to an announcement board in the Yard.

“Life Matters,” it read.

A few days later, I attended the conference of this name: a life-transforming public conversation featuring guest speaker Cornel R. West ’74, whom I had never heard of before the event. An unashamed Christian and an unflinching Democratic Socialist, West beautifully orated the meaning of love, the necessity of refusing to conform, and the radical-revolutionary power of Jesus Christ, which required him to love “the least of these.” He coupled his love for Christ with a resistance to homophobia, to inequality, to white supremacy and militarism, in a way I had never heard before. He put Harvard’s two sides, the school at its best — a place that develops and challenges students to think outside of the box and imagine a new, more just world — and at its worst — a merch-producing, “Harvardite”-creating school emblematic of social stratification, global exploitation, and superficial “learning” — at odds, uplifting its better side.

These ideas were all new to me. In 1918, my great grandfather, Chester Morgan, traveled to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to establish the first Church of God in Christ in the state. Years down the road, Colorado Springs would grow to become the evangelical world’s “Christian mecca.” It hosted a wide range of conservative faith-based organizations. My mother grew up in the historically Black Church of God in Christ, but in exploration of her own faith, turned to what was available in the surrounding, white-evangelical world. She found refreshing theology and a new angle that seemed more systematic, with more emphasis on scripture and seemingly less unnecessary rules and regulations.

I grew up as a Black church boy transplanted in white churches. My Christianity — though it emphasized salvation by grace through faith, as a beautiful gift separate from anything one could earn — took on a white, conservative worldview. I quickly learned the rules of some white, non-denominational churches. Topics of race? Insignificant. God didn’t see color. We needed to talk out against abortion and same-sex marriage instead. This so-called “Christian worldview” was venomous. As I grew in knowledge, my autonomy, my perspective — subconsciously, perhaps — was diminishing. In a new, racialized way, I re-learned the legalism my mom so desperately ran from at my age. So long as I didn’t handle that, touch those, or, God forbid, look at that, I would be fine. The only problem was, too often, the unspoken “that” was tied to just existing. I learned the subtle delicacies which I — a tall Black boy at the time — had to follow for acceptance.

Thus, when I heard Cornel West speak — being the Bible-quoting, politically startling, free, intellectual Black man that he is — I was shaken to the core.

He helped me see that I could both be a Black Christian and hate homophobia. I could be a Black Christian and be race-conscious. I could be a Black Christian and call out injustice. I could be confident, even if it made others uncomfortable. And, as a matter of fact, it wasn’t just that I could be — it was that I should be.

This way of Christianity seemed more real to me.

The following semester, I enrolled in African and African American Studies 10: “Introduction to African American Studies” with Professor West. The class introduced me to one of West’s favorite Greek words, “paideia”: a deep, painful educational experience that requires death to oneself. The type of education that makes us question who we are. I remember reading the three “pillars” of the class: Lorraine Hansberry, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin, and finally seeing my feelings and experiences fleshed out on paper and pen. I brought the books home to my mother, who had read them, but long ago, and watched as she re-awakened. We left my church and helped start a new booming, multi-ethnic, justice-oriented church in Colorado Springs.

Then, Cornel West requested to be reviewed for tenure. Shockingly, it was denied. He left.

In unflinchingly speaking out on behalf of the oppressed, Cornel West found himself in trouble with Harvard. In an interview with The Crimson, West rightly identifies himself as an “undisciplinable” — one who refuses to conform to an institution’s expectations — and that is just what he is. The fact that Cornel West is gone is a tragedy for current and future Black Harvard students, but it is no surprise. He did not belong here. But in his leaving, Professor West left a flame just bright enough to kindle prophetic fire in those students ready to answer the call and hold Harvard to its better side, envisioning a brighter future.

Sterling M. Bland ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and African and African American Studies in Quincy House.

This piece is a part of a focus on Black authors and experiences for Black History Month.

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