Last Thursday, Professor Cornel West visited the University of Puerto Rico to give a talk with his Union Theological Seminary colleague, the Reverend Samuel Cruz. It was under the auspices of a group called Mesa Diálogo Martin Luther King, extraordinary in itself, and aimed, according to its spokesperson Juan Ángel Gutiérrez, to encourage dialog between communities, specifically the Puerto Rican diaspora in the U.S., the African American community in the U.S., and the Puerto Rican community on the island.
I’ve embedded the entire event in this post, and my remarks are intended to isolate some of my favorite moments of the talk, and hopefully this will serve to encourage you to press play and watch the whole thing for yourself. My perspective is one that is skeptical about organized religion, although I wouldn’t call myself an atheist or agnostic. I recognize that I am a spiritual being and fully embrace that, but I am unsure how I feel about churches and Christianity per se, even in its manifestation, as West seems to promote, as a liberation theology, or as Cruz mentions, inclusive of African-based forms of spirituality and reverence for ancestors.
Still, one of the reasons I admire West and his thinking is that he rightly identifies that the central tenets of Christianity give great moral strength to advocating for the poor and powerless, and in that way subvert the false morality of conservative Republicanism, which focuses its judgement and, frankly, attack on women, gay people, and the “sloth” of those who have been marginalized by both the imperative of the global economy and the military-industrial complex. He understands that religion is part of the larger world of philosophy, and he makes philosophy practical activity by showing us how moral revelations are relevant only if they are acted upon by principled and compassionate human beings. And I’m hearing one of my favorite dichos coming through every time he speaks, Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach: The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
Here are some talking points that we can talk about forever:
1) West calls the UPR auditorium he’s speaking in a “consecrated space,” which makes him think of “400 years of arrogance of the Spanish empire and 115 years of the American empire.” “How are you going to keep that tradition [the one of Puerto Rican critical thinking, nurtured at the University] going within the context of the neoliberal ideology of a globalized world that is beginning to disintegrate.” Of course, one might say we are only in the midst of one of several economic crises engendered by the modern world system, but I think this remark is more than just one to encourage people to reflect and use the moment of crisis for constructing positive change. It’s a necessary shedding of light on the grave seriousness of this particular crisis.
2) He brings up the vision of African American writer and activist W.E.B. Dubois, and how in 1951 he was indicted by the US government, which claimed that the Peace Information Center he created was an agent of a foreign government. He asked “How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? What does virtue do in the face of brute force?” West used these questions to draw a parallel between the African American Civil Rights movement and the Puerto Rican resistance to colonization by the US.
3) He insists that many great moral-political thinkers of the 20th century, including Martin Luther King, Jr. (Baptist), Malcolm X (Muslim), bell hooks (Buddhist), and Toni Morrison (Catholic) would have not had efficacy without being part of a prophetic tradition. He admitted that “all of those religions in their dominant institutional forms have been sources of barbarity and atrocity.” (Agreed.) But he said, “We’re talking about a prophetic slice.” To illustrate what he meant about what I imagine to be the presence of divine inspiration in the actions of these figures, he came up with his first extemporaneous line that audibly moves the audience. “Lolita [Lebrón] said a prayer before she moved on Congress. ‘I didn’t come to kill anybody, I came to die for Puerto Rico.’ She came to bear witness.” He went on to say that “we are living in a moment of spiritual blackout caused by market culture because it reduces everything to buying and selling, reduces everything to wealth, power, and status.” This statement has been central to my thinking of late, and it made me wonder whether I had failed to acknowledged whether some kind of divine force had lead me to this notion, or whether it was just a logical assessment of history. It’s an old idea, of course, the idea of chasing the money-lenders out of the temple.
4) West references Wu Tang Clan’s classic “C.R.E.A.M.”: “You know Wu Tang was talking about cash rules everything around me, but you know it doesn’t have to rule me.” I went back to listen to the track, and that “Dollar Bill Y’all” refrain reminded me of that 1983 Jimmy Spicer track they were copping the lyric from. Someone on that youtube page had posted a comment that the almost-forgotten Nuyorican mixmaster and producer Jellybean Benitez debuted on this very same meditation on “Money.” Without intending to, West had brought together the narrative of African American/Latino crossover in hiphop with his spiritual critique of soulless materialism.
5) One of the more moving remarks for me was West’s attempt to talk about “piety,” more in the way of “Plato, or John Dewey.” Again, it was a simple point, that seems obvious in communities of color, or people who have not been fully absorbed by the Western global project. He cited a progression of “remembrance, reverence, and resistance,” the kernel of what some people call respecting the elders. This reverence for ancestors, those who came before, teachers, is so necessary as a starting point to any worldview of human liberation. “When you emerge in time and space you have to connect with the voices of the dead,” he said. “That’s what’s so important about our humanities department and our universities. The word human comes from burying. To be human is to be indebted to someone who came before. The aim of market culture is to erase historical memory.”
6) Later, West offered a measured correction of Cruz’s affirmation of “ancestor worship.” “Ancestor appreciation rather than worship,” he said. “One of Montaigne’s essays said to philosophize is to learn to die. There is no life without death, no maturation, no development without death. The problem with market culture is that nobody wants to die. So you’re unprepared. Something in you dies when your mama dies.” This comment had great impact for me. I’d recently gone through the experience of a death in my family, and I found myself unprepared and immature. I remembered times when I scoffed about the importance of knowing how to confront death and I came to realize how foolish that was.
7) The second big rise West got out of the audience was when he complained about the flack he’s gotten for criticizing President Obama. “People say I’ve been hard on Brother Obama,” he laughed somewhat painfully. “Didn’t Martin Luther King teach me not to judge by the color of his skin, but to look at the moral content of his policies?” This is so useful for movements of the marginalized. If one of us comes to power, we can respect them, but also reserve the right to be critical when the goals we fought so hard for are not being met with the persistence and precision we had hoped for.
8) Finally, he alluded to the importance of love in what we do to liberate ourselves and our communities. And alluded to how the resistance of Puerto Ricans fighting for decolonization, from Lolita Lebrón to Pedro Albizu Campos and the currently imprisoned Oscar López Rivera is first and foremost motivated by love. “The history of the Puerto Rican people is one of militant tenderness,” he said. “That’s why I like Pedro Flores and Rafael Hernández. There’s a gentleness, a sharing of militant sweetness as you fight for justice under barbaric circumstances.” And then, the reason the Puerto Rican point of view is so important in world politics. “This is why the US likes to keep the Puerto Rican predicament under cover, because it [would be] so humiliating if the Puerto Rican situation were projected across the board. America would be nekkid. Did you really do that to those people and say you believe in liberty, equality, and freedom?”
The crowd loved it. Everyone knew what he meant, and had known, since the first time they saw our island nation on a map, with that parenthesis that says (U.S.).