Montana Public Radio

Cornel West On 'The Fight For The Soul Of America'

Feb 2, 2020

"When you’re tied to gratitude on the one hand and dependence on the other, it gives your ego less space to operate inside of your heart, mind and soul. This is very important in our market-driven, celebrity-centered culture where people primarily are concerned about being the next spectacle, the next image, the next exemplar of success that that reinforces the egoism and narcissism. No: we begin with revolutionary piety."

Philospher, professor, author, theologian and social justice activist Cornel West has created a powerful scholarly catalog about race, but it's his public appearances - on television, in documentary films, in personal appearances and on recordings - that bring the topic of philosophy out of academia and down to ground level, for individuals and communities in the U.S. and around the globe. West opened the 2019-2020 President's Lecture Series at the University of Montana in August 2019, speaking (without notes) to a full house at Missoula’s Wilma Theater about revolutionary piety and Socratic prophetic traditions.

"I want to say something that so unsettles you that you say, 'My God, I’ve got to reevaluate who I am and what I’m doing in my short life.' Especially for the young brothers and sisters of all colors and sexual orientations and all cultures and yes, all national identities, because we live in a grim moment. It’s a sad moment. But it’s a moment when we can engage in significant bounce-back if, in fact, we are clear enough in our thinking, courageous enough in our action, and humble enough in our attempt to situate and locate ourselves in a tradition. So before we even talk about the fight of the soul of America, of a nation, we must begin with ourselves. What kinds of human beings will we choose to be in our short time from mama’s womb to tomb?"

"I begin with myself. I don’t begin with my name-calling and finger-pointing - yet. I begin with the name-calling and finger-pointing inside of me, the civil war taking place inside of me, the battlefield of my own soul. I have a notion of what I call revolutionary piety. Because piety is not uncritical deference to authority. It’s not blind obedience to the elders. Piety is the acknowledgement of the sources of good in our life that constitute the wind at our back in our attempt to live lives of integrity, honesty and decency. Critical historical situating."

"There’s a wonderful phrase in the great Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s text, Orthodoxy, published in 1908, where he talks about this “sublime dependence, tied to great gratitude.” When you’re tied to gratitude on the one hand and dependence on the other, it gives your ego less space to operate inside of your heart, mind and soul. This is very important in our market-driven, celebrity-centered culture where people primarily are concerned about being the next spectacle, the next image, the next exemplar of success that that reinforces the egoism and narcissism. No: we begin with revolutionary piety."

Cornel West is professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University, and holds the title of professor emeritus at Princeton University. He has written 20 books, including Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and a memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. His most recent book, Black Prophetic Fire, profiles nineteenth and twentieth-century African American leaders and their visionary legacies.

West made his film debut in The Matrix and was the commentator (with Ken Wilbur) on the official trilogy released in 2004.  He has appeared in over 25 documentaries and films, including Examined Life, Call & Response and Sidewalk.  West has produced three spoken-word recordings, including Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations, a collaboration with Prince, Jill Scott, Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, KRS-One and the late Gerald Levert.  His spoken-word interludes are featured on productions by Terence Blanchard, The Cornel West Theory, Raheem DeVaughn, and Bootsy Collins.

You can watch videorecordings of the University of Montana's President's lecturers from 2014 to the present, including Dr. West's, at MCAT's Video on Demand page.

Thanks to Ron Scholl of Missoula Community Access Television, Joe Richey of Alternative Radio and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana's President's Lecture Series.

Broadcast Sunday, February 2, 2020 as part of the Documentary Special.