Cornel West, Writer and Orator
Cornel West spoke at Clarkson University on September 21. It is always an interesting experience to meet an author whose writing you have come to admire. Over the years, I have read a number of West’s books, including: The American Evasion of Philosophy, Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and most of The Cornel West Reader. He is a lucid stylist who clearly loves ideas and uses them to produce provocative arguments. The question for me was would Cornel West be as interesting in person as he is on the page?
Meeting Dr. West included shock of recognition – I have seen him on television, on film, and heard him on the radio fairly often – and a sense that I was in the presence of intellectual royalty. We gathered in a room anticipating his arrival. Then, suddenly, there he was. I do not know if I have ever met anyone who loves people more than Cornel West. He moved around the room with ease and even joy. He hugged, shook hands, had his picture taken, and made it abundantly clear that he was happy to be with us. I thought to myself that this is an evening I would never forget, while, for Cornel West, this kind of event is a commonplace. I was moved deeply and genuinely.
West’s talk focused on poverty and the utter invisibility of this issue in the political mainstream of America today. According to the government’s own statistics, nearly fifty percent of all Americans live on or near the poverty line. That is one out of every two people. The suffering and pain is enormous, and it should shake us to the very marrow. We are failing to take care of one another. Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney has made the needs of the poor a part of their respective campaigns. Indeed, both major parties contribute to the invisibility of poverty by focusing economic attention on tax cuts for the very wealthy and the needs of the middle class. It is a stunning omission and moral failing.
Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have co-authored, The Rich and The Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. It is a plea for intellectual and moral awakening on the part of Americans to acknowledge the suffering and vulnerability of the poor, and, particularly, the challenges faced by their children. If you missed seeing Dr. West at Clarkson last week, then this book will give you a clear sense of his central message. Be warned, however. Once you acknowledge the plight of the poor in our midst, ignorance can no longer be employed as an excuse for doing nothing. We cannot wait for the major political parties to do something. The most caring response to suffering must be immediate and democratic.