Cornel West: Leading Scholar, Friend of the Oppressed, But Not Good Enough for Harvard

In the annals of the Dalit archive, West has created an admirable place for himself. For, very few people have held our hand just to be with us and for the sake of giving us company, at a time when many abandoned and betrayed us.

One can easily feel intimidated about commenting on the reputation of Professor Cornel West, the globally renowned scholar who has just been denied tenure at Harvard University. The body of his work speaks for itself and hardly needs the endorsement of those he has inspired to hope for a better world.

West is an intellectual who riffs on the themes of justice and inequality. He wrestles with the challenge of violence and the promise of resistance – a fine balance to walk if one does not want to fall off the cliff. In his life, he has faced many setbacks. But he has ricocheted back like a bullet of roses. That is why he is hunted, vilified and even feared.

The world owes much to prophets who turned their back on material values and greed and walked a path bearing compassion and an insistence on morality. West’s prophets are the poor people from the barren deserts of a contested land. A Jesus-loving, free Black man honours the complexity of the world by partaking of it, instead of obfuscating its hidden prejudices.

Balancing humility and love is not an easy art. West does it like it is meant to be, a natural quality of a human being. His mission to endow the next generation with wisdom and courage. He has given the world a percentage of what is good out there, be it in the universities, or the human street – Wall or walled.

Listen to his words on the joy of struggle, delivered as a commencement address to the Harvard Divinity School in 2019:

“I come from a tradition that says lift every voice. It doesn’t talk about echoes. It talks about voices. It’s tied to vocation and has everything to do with what it means to straighten your back up in the face of 400 years of being terrorized and still teach the world something about freedom; of being terrorized for 400 years and still teach the world something about healing; of being hated for 400 years and still teach the world something about love—love of Veritas.”

The Westian pedagogy serves the poor and identifies the oppressed as precious. He manages to brighten a common person’s humanity by creating a shrine of faith and rebellion in their house. One doesn’t lose the spirit to fight, no matter how weak. And West assures you that it is alright to be rebellious in the service of humanity. In a world when actions are policed and ideas are incarcerated, West adds his bass to the melodies of free-thinking, freedom-loving, nature-worshiping people fighting for ownership of the only planet we share. There is hardly any progressive cause that doesn’t carry West’s endorsement. His hug is   therapeutic and his pat on the back has fired up the energies of workers everywhere.

It would be unjust to say that West has inspired a generation. He has done much more than that. Living true to his words and never closing the door of accountability for his actions, West has exemplified the truth-telling legacy of his ancestors whose names were not meant to be remembered. Their life had a price tag that carried no value. The cruel European white slaveholder ensured their dignity was crushed and their life shamed. West lives his history in every word he lyrically composes. He is a proud descendant of his people. Dashing out of the pressures of prejudice and mendacity, West crafts a stylish aura and sartorial rap dressed in philosophy, religion and yet-to-be-named disciplines of enquiry.

West’s sincere investment in the vulnerabilities of every oppressed person around the world has put a lot on his shoulders. He has the task of correcting the past and chaperoning the unfinished work of his ancestors. That is why he wants to cast the net of the African American legacy as wide as possible.

Our life experiences are hidden in inexperienced, philosophical abstractions. Therefore, we seek urgent care in the form of spiritual diagnosis. In this quest, we confidently turn to West, whose Shiloh Baptist Church in Oak Park, Sacramento and loving parents shower blessings on our condition through the cooling metaphors launched by their able son – in the classroom, from the daises of congregations and television studios.

West is a great friend of 300 million Dalits whose story, definition, recognition and admiration are not yet known to the American public. After the 1950s, America forgot Ambedkar. Ambedkar is as much a son of America as Martin Luther King Jr and W.E.B. Du Bois are. It is to West’s credit that he proudly reclaimed his agency on Ambedkar and didn’t hesitate to walk with him – one of the most controversial yet truth seeking scholars of the past century. West was courageous enough to correct his position on Gandhi and go fully with the Dalit people and their epochal cause.

In the annals of the Dalit archive, West has created an admirable place for himself. He is immortalised in our cherished stories. For, very few people have held our hand just to be with us and for the sake of giving us company, at a time when many abandoned and betrayed us.

West has taught the world that to be courageous is to take risks. After all, not all have the spirit to bear witness to the truth. Let the sun sink and rise again, it will honour its duty to keep track of the world. The question for us is shall we betray the night from which arises mountains of hope? Time is the only arbiter and staying true to it is the only option some of us have.

Suraj Yengde is the author of the bestseller Caste Matters and is a Senior Fellow at the Initiative for Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability at Harvard Kennedy School, Massachusetts.