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  • Writer's pictureSam Needleman

Cornel West

Before the worms get your body.

By Sam Needleman

I went to see the good doctor late in the evening. He works long hours near the top of a tall Gothic tower on 120th and Broadway. Who knew a great progressive theological seminary stood across from the Northwest Corner building? Who knew it looked a bit like Yale?

Through the glass doors I went. “Listen closely—closely,” the security guard told me. “You’re going to go all the way to the end of that hallway, then take the elevator to the fourth floor. Don’t take the stairs—they go somewhere else. When you get off, go up the stairs. I’m not sure how far up, but you’ll know when you’re there.”

Illustration by Rosaline Qi

I knew from the three students strewn across the stone steps, deep in heady conversation. More came. God was mentioned, and Baldwin, too. They made their way, one by one, two by two, into the doctor’s office, and the hour of my appointment slipped by. It was 9:00, then 9:15, then 11:00; someone offered me falafel. Just when a cancellation seemed inevitable, the doctor ducked his head out, confirmed that I would go last, and asked, “You stayin’ alive, my brother?”

I was. And soon, he was ready to see me. Inside, there were Saarinen chairs and photos of Louis Armstrong, but mostly just books that looked like they teleported from Cambridge. The ailment was Undergraduate’s Cynicism, the prognosis was positive and negative, the prescriptions were adrenaline and Melville and Morrison, the method of administration was osmosis.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


The Blue and White: Who are your radical ancestors here at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia?

Cornel West: When you think of my ancestors, my intellectual ancestors that cut very deep to the bone at both Union and Columbia, it would be Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, it would be John Dewey. It would be Edward Said, it would be Sydney Morganbesser, Arthur Danto. These are people who are part of my intellectual ancestry in a very profound way, no doubt about it. And in the present mode, it would be Farah Jasmine Griffin. I think she’s one of the great intellectuals that represent the best of my own tradition.

B&W: Is anyone else here keeping any of the many rich intellectual traditions you belong to alive?

CW: Oh, sure. She would be one. Brent Edwards is a very important figure in this regard—very, very much so. I don’t give a whole lot of weight to relatives because for me, it’s much more about soulcraft. And when you think of intellectual soulcraft, you think of the examples of highest levels of intellectual and moral and spiritual excellence who helped you aspire to the best that you are. Now, of course, you know, when I think of Mom and Dad—Irene West, Clifton West—my brother Clifton, Cynthia, and Cheryl, and so forth, these are relatives that mean the world to me. But intellectually speaking, it’s been the ancestors existentially speaking love, wisdom, integrity.

B&W: What is the best of Columbia and UTS?

CW: Oh, it’s the best of any university or institution of higher learning, which is a genuine quest for truth and beauty and goodness and, at Union, the holy. This is always a fallible quest. It’s always a finite quest embarked by fallen people. But it’s joyful, it’s self-critical, it’s self-correcting. It’s endless, incessant, always incomplete and unfinished. University is what William James called the true Harvard versus the regular Harvard, and the true Harvard is always exilic. It’s in, but not of, the university. The true Columbia is always in, but not of, the social Columbia. Edward [Said] would probably agree with that, but he would still call it home. As much as I love Union Theological Seminary—it’s the closest institutional expression of my identity as a Christian thinker and Christian truth-seeker, Christian witness-bearer—but home is where the fundamental heart is. That’s at home, with your loved ones, your mama and your daddy and your brothers and sisters and wife and kids and things. Edward’s a very complicated thinker. He really is. He was my dear brother. He, along with Noam Chomsky and Stanley Aronowitz and Susan Sontag and a few others are in a very, very high level of American letters the last 50 years.

B&W: You prefer the term “democratic intellectual” to “public intellectual.”

CW: Absolutely.

B&W: What do you mean, and what’s the role of the democratic intellectual?

CW: There are so many different publics, and publics themselves tend to be a bit more vacuous and hollow and shallow. Now, when John Dewey talked about the public and its problems, he really meant “democratic public.” So I’m just using Dewey’s language and legacy here. So, democratic intellectual: I’m very concerned about creating a context in which, in the language of Walt Whitman, we enter public space without humiliation, trying to respect those with whom we disagree, but pushing our discussion toward the empowerment of everyday people. So there’s a certain normative force in a democratic intellectual who conceives of publics as sites where you’re actually highlighting the dignity of everyday people. A democratic intellectual ought to be more humble, ought to be much more intentional in terms of focusing on poor and working people, whereas anybody can enter a public, you know, and have a variety of different kinds of respect.

I have great respect, for example, of Leo Strauss as a deeply conservative thinker. He’s not a democratic intellectual. He was a public intellectual in Chicago that had tremendous impact on shaping the policy of the American empire in a very conservative direction. He’s still a towering figure, he just tends to be wrong on a lot of issues. But he’s not a democratic intellectual. But even as somebody who seemingly confined himself to the academy, was concerned about esoteric and exoteric forms of writing and what have you, but he had tremendous public consequences with his students. I think being a democratic intellectual is being a little bit more explicit in terms of the direction of one’s vision and one’s orientation.

B&W: What is the direction of your vision?

CW: It’s always one of acknowledging the dignity of ordinary people, the sanctity of human beings. It’s tied to the genius of Hebrew scripture, which is the spreading of hesed, the spreading of steadfast love and loving kindness—especially to the orphan and widow, and the weak and vulnerable, the oppressed and dominated. And as a follower of a Palestinian Jew named Jesus—some people call it “Christian”—it builds on that prophetic Judaism. My particular understanding of Christian faith is a very rich footnote to prophetic Judaism because it focuses on this particular Jewish figure, this Jesus of Nazareth, who builds on and is deeply shaped by prophetic Judaism, but takes that hesed and … runs money-changers out of the temple, the largest edifice of Western Rome, with hundreds of troops protecting him, with a ragtag team of disciples. And for doing that act, he’s put on the cross of the most powerful empire in the history of the world up to that time, the Roman Empire. For me, Christian is a noun, it’s not an adjective. So I’m not a Christian democratic socialist. I’m a socialist Christian. I’m not a Christian revolutionary, I'm a revolutionary Christian.

B&W: Once, at the Oxford Union, you gave a beautiful summary of your politics. You told the audience, “You start with the tears of those who have been terrorized and traumatized and stigmatized. This is no academic game. This is no theoretical puzzle. You’re talking about, What kind of human being are you going to be in your brief move from mama's womb to tomb?” You’ve always claimed that universities are key for shaping good humans, but I’m convinced that Columbia is so financially incentivized and so committed to churning out money-makers that undergraduates actually can't trust our college to give us a real education unless we're deeply critical from start to finish. In the face of what I would consider a real-estate behemoth masquerading as a school, what should undergrads demand of our college education? What should we set out to learn?

CW: It’s a wonderful question, brother. I mean, so many of these institutions of higher learning have become so commodified, so bureaucratized—top-heavy with administrators, rather than focusing on the high-quality education of students, with teaching as a fundamental element … for professors, rather than just research—that I think it's a beautiful thing that students bring power and pressure to bear. Oh, absolutely. But Columbia’s not isolated. It's part of a larger system of commodification, bureaucratization, but also specialization. It’s hard for students these days to get a sense of the whole—what the forest looks like, not just the polishing of isolated nuts in that forest. So you get a disciplinary division of knowledge that's offered to students in terms of majors and so on, so that history's not connected to economics, economics not connected to history. So you get the rich young folk coming in hungry, dealing with ecological catastrophe, possible nuclear catastrophe, grotesque wealth inequality, and what happens? These universities become too often just professional-managerial sites that dispense skills and connections on the way to financial sector jobs with big money-making, and none of the big questions of what does it mean to be human? Where are you going to do with your life? What are you going to do with your money? What are you going to do with success? And most importantly—and I’m old-school here—what about spiritual and moral greatness?

B&W: You cited your support for justice in Palestine as a primary reason that Harvard denied you tenure. Columbia is, as you know, the home of the Center for Palestine Studies, the only one of its kind in the country. Whether at Columbia or Harvard or anywhere else, what would an honest, courageous intellectual engagement with Palestine and with the occupation look like?

CW: It would just be to not just take seriously the rich humanity of Palestinians, but to presuppose their humanity and therefore to routinely and regularly keep track of their suffering. This is true for anybody. I would say the same thing about Jewish brothers and sisters in Jew-hating Europe of decades past and Jew-hating Russia, where the anti-Jewish sentiment remains. We want all persons, we want all oppressed persons, to have their humanity taken for granted and therefore allow their suffering and their pain and hurt, as well as their joys and their ecstasies, to be taken seriously. And, of course, Palestinian humanity is like any other humanity—you got the best and the worst. You got Palestinian heroic figures of integrity, you got Palestinian gangsters and thugs. You got Jews—rich humanity, exemplars of integrity, you got Jewish thugs and gangsters. Just like Black folk. You got Black folk—heroic exemplars of integrity, you got Black thugs, and you got Black gangsters. That’s what it is—you just presuppose one’s humanity. Too often, Palestinian humanity is rendered invisible, and then that becomes the source of the stereotypes of terrorists and so forth. That’s the kind of thing that Edward spent so much of his work and life trying to call into question.

B&W: I know you’re a great fan of Austen.

CW: Oh, Sister Jane! Constancy, constancy! Virtues, virtues, brother! Oh, yes.

B&W: What living or dead writers are you turning to right now for spiritual, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic fulfillment?

CW: Paul Celan. I think he’s the greatest post-World War II poet. He's about as dark and grim and dim as it gets. But he’s got some blues in him, he’s got some Chekhov in him—wrestling with trying to find the space for compassion and courage, even given the suicide. His voice is very important. I just read a new book by Raymond Geuss, who’s one of the great philosophical figures of our time—was trained here at Columbia. And his philosophy is so deeply inflected, influenced by Adorno and Celan. Celan's always meant much to me as a poet. But let’s think of some other folks. Of course, we mentioned Chekhov. Toni Morrison, for me, is probably the great—she and Thomas Pynchon would be the two giants of American literature in the last 50 years. Melville is deeper than both of them. He’s the only American deeper than Toni. He’s the only one. She would agree, I think. Read her reflections on Melville in Playing in the Dark. Why? Because Melville, from Moby-Dick to Confidence-Man to Benito Serino to The Encantadas to The Bell Tower, he already is wrestling with what the great Tennessee Williams would call the unlighted dimension of the human condition, of the American predicament. That’s Melville already. We’re trying to catch up with him. We live, in some ways, in the age of Melville, in this particular moment in the American empire, just like the species lives in the age of Chekhov, if we’re going to use these two towering European and American figures.

But you know, there’s also music. Music, to me, is not in any way marginal or ornamental. Music ought to be constitutive of education at Columbia. Many of my classes begin with music. It could be Bach, it could be Schubert, it could be Beethoven, it could be Stephen Sondheim, it could be Dinah Washington or Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan or Barbra Streisand. Music has become the last form of transcendence in the capitalist civilizations, especially among the youth. And therefore, so much of the storytelling that takes place is mediated by sound. Toni says sound breaks the back of words.

You see, I come from the greatest modern tradition of spiritual fortitude, artistic creativity, and moral courage in the twentieth century, which is the Black musical tradition. I’m nothing but a bluesman in the life of the mind. The blues is still American. There’s a taint of what Gatsby would call the green light—the next to last paragraph of that great novel, The Great Gatsby. Believe in the green light: tomorrow will be better, tomorrow will be bigger, tomorrow will solve our problems. You don't get that in Chekhov. The blues has a sense of futurity still having that kind of high, high status. Like pragmatism—the future has metaphysical status. It’s all about consequences, it’s all about results, it's all about the future.

Well, no, not really. It can go either way, you know, either way. But the music in the U.S. context, which has disproportionately shaped the whole world in terms of sound and culture and forms and styles and how people walk, how people talk—see, that’s a Black imprint. That’s my tradition. And it has to do with confronting 400 years of chronic hate and still producing high-quality love warriors like Martin King and Fannie Lou Hamer. Four hundred years of terror, and still producing freedom fighters that want freedom for everybody. They don’t want Black versions of the Ku Klux Klan to just terrorize white folk. Wounded healers and joy-spreaders like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald! And these days, you can find it in a number of the great Black artists, that healing and joy become very important. That’s my tradition.

B&W: I’m in a class with Barbara Fields.

CW: Oh, she’s another towering figure! Oh, lord, yes she is.

B&W: To use your word—I was going to say!—a towering historian of the nineteenth-century United States. She makes the case, week after week, that race is an ideology. It’s a historically traceable fiction that we constantly reproduce and that we have the power to abolish. At the most personal level, at the level of Cornel West, what does it mean to abolish the ideology of race?

CW: Well, it means, from my own Christian perspective, that we call into question any form of idolatry that loses sight of the humanity of people. To be human is to be in time, in history, in concrete experiences and bodies. So this is where I agree with my dear Marxist sister. What I share with Sister Barbara is this pervasive fetishizing of race, ascribing magical powers to white supremacy rather than historicizing it and contextualizing it and situating it within predatory capitalist processes and settler-colonial tendencies in the shaping of the modern world: 1492 and 1945, the age of Europe, where European colonial empires tried to reshape the whole world in their own interests and image.

The problem is that Sister Barbara and myself, we’re losing out. The neoliberal fetishizing of race and caste—as if it’s some kind of immovable, permanent, almost eternal, ahistorical force—is predominant. That’s why I fight so much with my dear brother Coates. I respect his voice and so on, but he doesn't situate it within predatory capitalist processes. He doesn’t understand it as historically contingent and therefore variable and even changeable. Now, it’s difficult to change—yes! The Afro-pessimists come along: “Black people will always be abject.” Quit lying! We ain’t never been totally abject. You don’t get a Billie Holiday if you’re abject. You don’t get a Curtis Mayfield if you’re abject. You don’t get a Romare Bearden if you’re abject. You don’t get a Jacob Lawrence if you’re abject. You don’t get a Du Bois.

But the Afro-pessimists are right, Brother Coates is right: White supremacy cuts so deep that it can appear to be forever permanent. And when you change it, it just takes on new transmutations. So that’s part of our conversation, that’s why Coates’s voice is still important. But he ain’t no James Baldwin. That was part of my initiation of my critique of my brother. He’s far removed from James Baldwin. James Baldwin was a great writer; Coates is a clever wordsmith. There’s a deep difference between that. We lose that difference, you don’t know the difference between John Coltrane and Kenny G. You lose your standards. What I represent—somebody who upholds the blood-stained standards. I don’t meet the standards. I ain’t no James Baldwin, I ain’t never been no Du Bois. I’m Cornel West. I’m lifting my voice, which is the anthem of Black people. Everybody’s voice is different. Coates’s voice is to be lifted. He ain’t no Baldwin. So what? He got an important voice. He don’t need to be Baldwin. But all of us are accountable and responsible.

When you fetishize race, it’s easy to weaponize it in a neoliberal way that becomes a means by which a Black professional-managerial class, or a Black bourgeoisie, can gain its entrée into the American empire, into Wall Street, into Silicon Valley, to make the empire more colorful, to make the capitalist structures more colorful in the name of diversity. And the poor and working people still suffer—who are disproportionately chocolate, but not exclusively. And so that part of my own tradition of how the Black freedom struggle is tied to solidarity with poor and working people all around the world.

B&W: One of the things that makes your critique, and Barbara Fields’s critique, so interesting and so compelling to me is that it’s targeted at precisely the people who are championing Coates, and maybe also who championed Baldwin back in the day: that effete, smug, neoliberal class. It’s dominant in the Times. What do we do about that left-of-center sector?

CW: Given the shadow of Obama, the Baldwin revival needs to be critically examined. Because Baldwin is—he’s the genius of Harlem, he’s the genius of America, he’s the genius of the modern world. He is, in many ways, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American Montaigne—who created the essay—the master of the essay. But there’s two aspects to the Baldwin revival that we need to call into question. One is that Baldwin never has a sustained critique of the Black bourgeoisie and its attempt to accommodate itself to American empire, American capitalist structures. They just want to fit in. So racism becomes simply the one issue, and if they can overcome that, they fit right on in. You get a Colin Powell, you get Obama, and you get Black professors, you get Black Wall Street people, and Black cowboys. Baldwin does touch on it, but he doesn't sustain it. So in a moment in which Obama’s shadow is cast, if you don’t have a critique of the Black bourgeoisie, you’re not going to understand the relation between race and class and gender and sexual orientation.

The second thing is a critique of empire. Now it is in Baldwin, but there’s no sustained critique of empire. That's why the same folk who talk about Baldwin as such a radical figure won’t say a mumbling word about drones being dropped on innocent people in Pakistan and Somalia and Libya and so forth. They won’t say a mumbling word about the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex and 53 cents for every one dollar that goes to militarism. Baldwin was critical, but he didn’t have a sustained critique because he’s so autobiographical, because he’s so tied to the heart as well as structures. That’s good. We do need to be tied to the heart. As a Christian, of course, I’m tied to the heart. But I read Weber, I read Marx, I read Lukács, I read Simmel, I read Du Bois, I read Simone de Beauvoir. If you can’t come to terms with structures and institutions as well as the heart and the individual, then you got a truncated view—you can’t see. You know, there’s a wonderful letter that the great Henry James wrote to Robert Louis Stevenson—January 12, 1901. He said, “No theory is kind to us that cheats us of seeing.” James was the great novelist of perception. And the problem is that you have a Baldwin revival and you can’t see class struggle, you can’t see drones being dropped on innocent people. You can’t see military budgets gobbling up resources when we don't have enough healthcare and education and schools. All you see is racial discrimination, police brutality. And we need to see that, but if that’s all you see, that theory’s not kind to you. You got to broaden it. You got to deepen it. And the end and aim of education at Columbia and any other place is to see more deeply, clearly, in a nuanced way, to feel more profoundly with a genuine care and compassion and love, and to then act more courageously and not be spineless and milquetoast when it comes to struggle.

I would say the same thing about the strike going on right now at Columbia. I stand with the workers! Not because I’m some do-gooder, some purist, and so forth. You’ve got a major behemoth that can’t treat its workers fair in terms of providing them with conditions that would allow them to flourish. Please. Please. We got to be able to see—not just the budget of the University, see the lived experience of the working people and the graduate students. That’s not any kind of arrogant, PC stance. And I think John Dewey would say the same thing in his day, and I can imagine a host of other great figures in the history of Columbia. C. Wright Mills! C. Wright Mills was a towering figure. He means much to me—I have a whole chapter on him in my book, The American Evasion of Philosophy. He represents so much of the best of Columbia. And Columbia has the greatest living American historian alive, and his name is Brother Foner.

B&W: Here and also across the country, the major social movement and the major theoretical movement is abolition of police, prisons, and capitalism. Maybe all social movements have theoretical counterparts, but abolition seems especially tied to the academy. You’re someone who has always been proud to move between the ivory tower and the streets, so have you learned what the ideal relationship between the two is in terms of bringing about justice and radical change?

CW: I don’t really look at ideal circumstances. It’s like my dear teacher John Rawls, who’s obsessed with ideal circumstances of a liberal society. I move straight in history. I moved straight into context with all of its messiness and all of its funk. And what that means, then, is that it’s bricoleur, it’s improvisational. You’re flexible, you’re fluid. I believe in being multicontextual—I’ve taught in prisons for 42 years. That’s a crucial context for my teaching, just as my beloved Union Seminary, or be it Columbia or Harvard or Princeton or whatever. But I don’t see it as ideal. Each day, each year is different, and you’re trying to negotiate and navigate with a certain kind of integrity and practical wisdom as to how you proceed.

B&W: Saidiya Hartman said that from her office window in Philosophy Hall, New York looks like a museum. She said, “All I see on the streets is private capital and rapaciousness moving people of color out of New York.” So I want to ask you the same question I asked Professor Hartman. How can students and faculty think and organize against this racist, classist violence?

CW: Well, I tell you, I learned so much from my dear sister Saidiya Hartman. I recall having a reading course when she was a graduate student at Yale. She and the great Farrah Jasmine Griffin—just the three of us reading “Can the Subaltern Speak?” at Yale, 1986. And I think Sister Hartman would be the first one to say that when you look closely at what’s outside of that window, you also see some forms of resistance and resilience against the rapaciousness of the market. You also see some people fighting back, including herself in her works—the great refusal in her magnificent work Wayward Lives.

Any time we see and look, you’re not going to see domination without resistance, you’re not going to see subordination without resilience, you’re not going to see rapacious market activities without non-market enactments of fighting back. Some forms of love, some forms of friendships, some forms of fidelity to something bigger than just one’s pocket and one’s ego. And it’s true that the non-market forces are weak and feeble. But that’s the history of the species. Most of human history is the history of domination and oppression, of institutionalized hatred, personal contempt. It’s the crime of Nietzsche. He could see it so clearly, but he didn't have enough love and courage in his heart to want to stop it. We see it so clearly, and yet the countervailing forces against it are constitutive of history, too. It’s just that we tend not to have great triumphs, and when we do, it’s three steps forward, two steps back.

The new elites, the new oligarchs—whatever color, whatever continent! The greed takes over. The corruption sets in. But the crucial thing is not to reduce it. You can’t capitulate to a misanthropy, a contempt for humanity just because you have an acknowledgment of how contemptuous so many human beings are. You’ve got to hold onto some focus on the countervailing forces and make sure you are among those forces before the worms get your body. That’s what we pass on to our students. Our students oftentimes are interested not simply in the texts that we teach, but they’re interested in the lives that we live that bring those texts alive. That’s why Said, imperfect as he was, is an important figure. And we can go on and on. That’s why Barbara Fields, that’s why Farrah Griffin, that’s why Brother Foner. It’s not just the wisdom and the brilliant scholarship, but it’s also the kind of human beings they are. And that’s a beautiful thing, man. You know, that really is a beautiful thing. Beauty’s never reducible just to politics. Art’s not reducible just to public policy. And in the end, love is never reducible to some contingent personal historical moment. It grabs us at the deepest level. All you gotta do is think about your love for your mama and your daddy, and you say, “Ooh, yes. Something is going on there.” Then put on some John Coltrane Love Supreme and understand what he’s blowing his horn about. You know what I mean?


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