Philosopher Cornel West on “Wrestling With What it Means to be Human”

Philosopher and professor Cornel West speaking at the Ath, facilitated by Briana Toole.

Author, professor of philosophy, and public intellectual Cornel West on the Athenaeum stage in conversation with CMC Prof. Briana Toole on March 23.

Photos by Sidney Smith IV ’25

Cornel West, a prolific author, professor of philosophy, and Black public intellectual, visited the Athenaeum on March 23 for a wide-ranging conversation on race, sponsored by the Presidential Initiative on Anti-Racism and the Black Experience in America and the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies. With decades of experience teaching at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and currently at Union Theological Seminary, West greeted several colleagues and friends in attendance and engaged openly and warmly with many members of the packed audience.

Briana Toole, assistant professor of philosophy, facilitated the conversation, which was notable for West’s intellectually provocative and extemporaneous remarks as well as its near sermon-like delivery. Plucking stories and examples from his expansive knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, religion, and the arts across the ages, West mixed in messages of hope with an acknowledgment of deep despair.

Toole and West noted that it’s been 30 years since the publication of his book Race Matters, and that the students in the audience hadn’t even been born then. Nor had they been alive when riots erupted after Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of the 1991 beating of Rodney King, sparking nationwide unrest that led to a national conversation on race relations, which West acknowledged, continues today.

Philosopher and professor Cornel West speaking at the Ath, facilitated by professor Briana Toole.
Prof. Toole asked West to reflect on his influential book Race Matters, published 30 years ago.

“What Race Matters was an attempt to do” said West, “[was] to make a very, very small intervention…[pointing readers toward] a moral and spiritual choice that you can make that connects you with the best of traditions that have shaped and molded you so that you can be courageous enough to think, courageous enough to laugh, courageous enough to love, serve and even live and die for something bigger than you…that’s something that we all have to wrestle with [and] that was very difficult to do in a moment of such spiritual decay in 1993 [sic] and it’s even worse today…”

Still, West shared with the audience his advice that “[you] somehow unflinchingly come to terms with evil and injustice and forms of death and dread and despair in your moment and still have the courage to authorize a different way of looking at the world.”

Philosopher and professor Cornel West speaking at the Ath.
Union Theological Seminary Professor of Philosophy Cornel West poses with Athenaeum Fellow Rukmini Banerjee ’24.

Fluidly weaving in references to the works and lives of Martin Luther King Jr., singer Mahalia Jackson, Greek philosopher Socrates, screenwriter Nathanael West, poet Pablo Neruda, Palestinian political scientist Edward Said, and author Lorraine Hansberry, among many others––West offered that “all of them were wrestling with what it means to be human.”

Questions from the audience covered the distinction between hope and optimism, whether West would entertain running for president of the United States [probably not], and the rising level of depression among students, which West acknowledged as concerning.

Author quote: “[Think] for yourself against the grain of conformity, having the courage to be right as well as wrong but being adventurous enough to acknowledge your fallibility as you attempt to build on the best of those who came before you…you have to have heart, you have to have soul.”

Sarah Kidwell

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