In Venezuela that’s precisely how Cornel West was introduced — as a human hurricane. West admits that he “likes moving in 5 different directions at the same time.”
At 14 he was already operating at full speed: West ran the 2-mile in 10:12, one of the fastest ever for his age. “(I was) burning up the track and burning the midnight oil, reading books like they were going out of style….holding down that first chair violin for the orchestra…(and) reading philosophy like other kids read comic books — not to impress anyone, but to feed my soul.”
Who is Dr. West? When he was a professor at Yale, there was a time when he commuted between Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, and across the Atlantic to the University of Paris. He was also a Professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University, with a joint appointment at the Harvard Divinity School teaching African-American studies, Divinity, Religion, and Philosophy. Today he’s a professor at Princeton University, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University with a Ph.D. from Princeton — and author of many books.
Some might consider him to be a man of reckless conviction — others praise his courage, leadership, and strong beliefs. According to Maya Angelou, “Cornel West thinks like a sage, acts like a warrior and writes like a poetical prophet.” The New York Times praised his “ferocious moral vision.” He sees himself as “a bluesman in the life of the mind.”
When he was a student at Harvard, West said, “I was willing to die to emerge a more courageous, living, and decent human being.” By death, West meant having the courage to question — and be continually transformed. He believes that examination and rejuvenation go hand in hand — “critique and praise are inseparable.” Outspoken may be an understatement when it comes to West:
- He criticized the Black Panthers for criticizing Christianity.
- He risked his life when he stood up against a minister from the Nation of Islam’s for disrespecting Malcolm X.
- He was the first Yale professor to be arrested on Yale property — participating in the university’s clerical workers strike.
- He co-authored, Jews & Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, only to later challenge his co-author for not walking his talk.
- He voiced his outrage directly to President Clinton about the welfare reform bill (yet spoke at Clinton’s 2nd term inauguration).
- He stood up to Harvard President Larry Summers who had accused West of being unprofessional.
A man of tremendous achievement, West continues to raise the bar — in his own life and for the world. Featured in the film, The Examined Life, Dr. West exudes brains, intensity, and a passion for life — a self proclaimed “prisoner of hope, a fanatic of fairness, and an extremist of love.” Yet he’s acutely aware of life’s dualities, “We all got the blues. We all wanna lose our blues. We all gotta look for ways to do that.”
I’ve been reading his memoir, Living and Loving Out loud, a roller coaster life. It’s full of passionate debate, relentless inquiry, overcoming injustice, strong family bonds and the broken ones too.
Insights From the Life of Hurricane West:
1. Embrace Conflict — With Empathy and Hope
During an emotionally charged event at Harvard, West risked his life by standing up for respectful dialogue when a preacher from by the Nation of Islam referred to Malcolm X as a dog. The minister said to West, “you’ll be lucky to get out of this building alive.” After going into hiding for a few days, he reached out to someone in the Nation’s community — eventually finding shared values and empathizing with one another. “Empathy overwhelmed anger,” West explains, “Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”
What if we took action like that? It’s easy to discount West’s actions as youthful machismo. Risking my life like that isn’t something I would do, but sometimes we really need people who will! West inspires me to have more courage. I need to speak up and speak out earlier. I know there have been too many times in my past when I didn’t; thinking that avoiding conflict was the better route. He also reminds me to make sure I am actually listening and learning — rather than focusing on changing other people’s minds. West saw how intelligent protest can cause real change, but it requires “the courage to exercise constant humility in the pursuit of a noble cause greater than oneself.”
2. Depth of Support Is Essential
Ever since he was a young kid, West was a challenger and defender; he “bullied the bullies,” which was constantly getting him in trouble. Through it all he had “the voice of calmness and unquestioning integrity” from his parents — and unflappable support of his older brother and two sisters. When West was falsely accused of rape (he and his 2 roommates were all arrested for the same crime while attending Harvard), his brother Cliff said, “I’ll get on a plane right now; I’ll be there in the morning.” (Fortunately the next day, all charges were dropped.)
He also has a strong Christian faith, having had a spiritual mentor at an early age. At Harvard, he had a mentor too — the first black professor to gain tenure there (Martin Kilson). West continued to build relationships with exceptional colleagues and collaborators throughout his life.
That deep level of support is difficult to replicate, but we all can actively seek out mentors, colleagues, friends, and professional groups. Sure brains matter. Hard work matters. But when you need to muster the courage to survive the really tough times, nothing comes close to value of authentic emotional support.
3. Connect Your Voice to Your Vocation
How many of us knew precisely what we wanted from life? West knew himself; I had “to forge a unique style and voice that expresses my own quest for truth and love.” West encourages us to first find our voice and put forth a vision for it — and connect that to our vocation. Of course that’s easier said than done.
Early on, West was fortunate to find his calling: “connecting the life of the mind to the struggle for freedom.” It doesn’t guarantee life will be any easier, just more meaningful. West says, “It is clear that there are profound joys and unbearable sorrows that accompany being true to one’s calling. The comfort is in the knowing that by giving one’s heart and soul to uplift others through one’s art, one’s vocation, voice and vision are fulfilled.” I’d say there are sorrows and joys in every life, but it all seems more worthwhile if you’re doing something that matters to you.
4. Forget Perfection — Enjoy Life
With all his achievements, it would be easy to discount the challenges. I’m not talking about the external ones, but the internal ones. West openly admits to his humanness, which I find refreshing since we’re bombarded daily by superlatives and life’s realities lie hidden.
He says, “I must unapologetically reveal my broken life as a thing of beauty.” Despite all his success, West continually found himself coping with a bad case of the “IRS blues,” creating a “monetary mess” for himself. He didn’t bother with doctors, until someone suggested he have his prostate checked; he had aggressive, last-stage prostate cancer — and beat it. After his marriage to an Ethiopian Orthodox woman, they had to sleep with guns under their pillows and had militia guarding their house. When they divorced, he said he had nothing “except his ’88 Cadillac.”
Quite the life. Yet he seems to be a man that remains passionate — clearly hungry for more. He loves music (from Marvin Gaye to Beethoven), romantic poetry, his 1988 Cadillac Sedan Deville — and women (you’ll have to read the book).
He writes to his children “the most essential lesson I can offer from my twentieth-century life for your twenty-first-century lives is to find and sustain joy every day that you breathe by touching the lives of others and inspiring people through your example to reach higher and serve better.”
Just like the rest of us, West isn’t superhuman — perhaps more authentic than most. Whether you value his views or not, you know where he stands. While many know him more for his civil rights and social justice efforts, I value his willingness to fully embrace life.
So enjoy what life has to offer. Don’t get bogged down by cynicism; keep going. Forget the imperfections in your life, and focus on loving the people that stick by you. Chase what excites you and stand up for it — with empathy and hope.
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