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Vol. LXIII, No. 42
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
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“I Am Who I Am Because Somebody Loved Me:” Cornel West Discusses New Memoir at University

Dilshanie Perera

Princeton University’s Class of 1943 Professor of African American Studies Cornel West spoke about his new memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, in McCosh Hall on Monday, with WNYC doing a live broadcast of the event. The packed auditorium held a rapt audience, which included second through sixth grade students from the Cornel West Academy of Excellence, who had come from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Professor Imani Perry introduced Mr. West by reading excerpts from his memoir detailing moments in elementary school when the young Mr. West was prone to picking fights, getting a call from Toni Morrison inviting him to “form an intellectual community in Princeton,” and the relevance of paideia, or deep education, to Mr. West’s life.

“I am who I am because somebody loved me, somebody attended to me,” Mr. West said at the start of his talk, calling himself his mother’s child and his father’s kid. “We’re all born of circumstances not of our own choosing. I had the wind at my back.”

Having a tendency toward a “Panglossian cosmic optimism,” even as a child, Mr. West said that simultaneously he “couldn’t stand that the weak were constantly being crushed,” which fueled the sense of rage that lead to the grade school fights.

Laughing, he said “I have the same rage now that I had then, but it has been channelled, and turned into a righteous indignation.”

The love of justice, the love of wisdom, and black love were all mentioned by Mr. West, who underscored the power of love as a central theme of his memoir. “Love is no plaything, even in the halls of the academy.”

While studying at Harvard, he managed to “maintain a deep attachment and intimate connection” to his family, faith, and music. In addition to the power of love, Mr. West said that the power of paideia and that of music are recurring themes in the memoir.

Describing paideia as “a fire inside of you that you want to share with other people,” and a constantly evolving process of education “that has no fundamental moment of termination,” Mr. West characterized himself as “a blues man in the life of the mind, and a jazz man in the world of ideas, always connecting it to the struggle for justice.”

“Justice is love that has legs because it spills over into the public square,” Mr. West said.

Speaking about joy associated with loving, and with serving people, Mr. West lamented that there is “not a lot of joy in late-capitalist society.” He noted that those in charge of the banking system were suffering from “spiritual malnutrition and moral constipation.”

Praising fellow professor and economist Paul Krugman for his “tendency to tell the truth,” Mr. West said that they both “tilt toward the weak, the working people, the poor, gay brothers and sisters,” and other oppressed groups.

When he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer when he was 48 years old, Mr. West reasoned that he had already lived a dynamic life, and had grappled with questions like “What is it like not to be? Who am I going to be in the meantime?” from a young age. Simultaneously, he vowed to fight the disease.

“Here I am, eight years later,” he said, to applause.

“When you’re a blues man, it’s very hard to fit into the academy,” Mr. West admitted, noting that his background in philosophy and his interests had taken him to Princeton, Harvard, Union Theological Seminary, and Yale Divinity School. “Wherever you teach, your calling remains the same.”

Encouraging people to find their own voice (“the most difficult thing to do”), Mr. West said that his memoir details how he came to find his own. “This book is in the tradition of a blues people...responding to catastrophe, responding to the calamitous, but refusing to succumb to bigotry, fear, revenge, or hatred.”

The title of the memoir comes from a chance encounter with Bob Dylan’s drummer in an airport, who remarked to Mr. West that Mr. Dylan had said that “Cornel West is someone who lives his life out loud.” It was natural to add love into the title to produce Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.

Mr. West said that the process of writing a memoir had made him acknowledge the extent to which his Christian faith contributes to his life. “The best you can do is try to love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”

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