Cornel West: There Is Joy in Struggle

May 31, 2019
Cornel West: There Is Joy in Struggle
Professor Cornel West speaks during the Multireligious Commencement Service on May 29. / Photo: Justin Knight

What an honor to be here! What a privilege, what a blessing to salute the Class of 2019, Harvard Divinity School.

The first thing we want to do is to acknowledge that we are who we are because somebody loved us. Let’s give it up for Mom, let’s give it up for Dad. Let’s give it up for Grandma, let’s give it up for Grandad. Let’s give it up for the rabbi, for the minister, for the imam. Let’s give it up for the friends, for the partners. Let’s give it up for the comrades. We don’t stand here alone! 

I come from a tradition that says the spirit would not descend without song—that the music that you heard, the poetry that soaked your soul, it is in no way ornamental. It is in no way decorative. It ought to be constitutive of who you are. It ought to be integral to who you are. Because we, in fact, are those who have been shaped by the very rich traditions and voices and perspectives as laid bare in the prophetic vision that this class manifests in this program.

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.

That’s quite an audacious motto for a university, isn’t it? Truth itself. The condition of that truth is to allow suffering to speak, and when that suffering speaks, there must be a Socratic dimension that brings critique on the one hand, but also the prophetic ones that said: Are we willing to enact and embody to the best of who we are?


November 10, 1965. Class of 2019, I hope you get a chance to read or reread this great presentation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at Union Theological Seminary with the historic lecture “No Religion Is an Island.” No religion is an island.

Religious isolationism is a myth. We are all affected by the various traditions and, in fact, we’re all part of one garment of destiny tied to one network of mutuality across our religious traditions. But the largest ecumenical movement in the world right now, our dear brother Heschel said in 1965, was nihilism. That’s the largest ecumenical movement. And he said the choice is between interfaith or inter-nihilisms. And we know there are nihilistic expressions within our own various religious faiths. That battle has intensified, and what he was trying to get us to do, what we tried to do to the best of our fallible ability, here at the Divinity School at Harvard, was to try to awaken in you the intellectual courage, the moral courage, the spiritual courage to somehow be able to keep track of not just the problematic, but the catastrophic.

Catastrophe! Impending ecological catastrophe is no joke—unique in many ways for your generation to have to live it every day. Nuclear catastrophe we have been on intimate terms with for over half a century. Impending. Economic catastrophe, grotesque wealth inequality—yes, we know about it. Indeed, indeed, we keep track of the least of these. We keep track of the precious and priceless poor, the wretched of the Earth in the language of Frantz Fanon; the ordinary people in the language of James Cleveland; the everyday people in the language of Sly Stone. We’re aware of the political catastrophe. We could begin at the White House, but we wouldn’t stop there. It’s in Congress, too. Courts, too. Churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, too. Universities, too. Harvard, too. All the critiques got to go all the way down through ourselves and through the institution that we inhabit. How do we keep track of the best and hold at arm’s length the worse?

So, Class of 2019, my message to you is three-fold. First, hold on to your version of subversive piety. Piety has nothing to do with uncritical deference to dogma or blind obedience to doctrine. It has the mature recognition of the degree to which you are dependent on those who came before, and you remaining attuned to the sources of good in your brief trek from womb to tomb, to be able to hold on to the best of the past, given that past is so much of a wreckage, so much of a ruin, and yet still has something to give to you.

How do we deal with the dialectical interplay of both recovering tradition but acknowledging most of us are trying to recover from tradition, too? And as you recover from tradition, don’t think you’re out there all alone. There’s no such thing as a tradition of one or a tradition of the new. It’s just another tradition. You’re still in space and time and you’ve got a death sentence in space and time just like everybody else, be they precious Uighurs in China wrestling with concentration camps; be they poor white brothers and sisters in Appalachia; be they black people right here in Roxbury; precious Jews wrestling with vicious anti-hatred in France and Germany; precious Ethiopians coming to terms with an authoritarian government; priceless Palestinians wrestling with occupation. We could go on. Dalit brothers and sisters, Roma, or our precious trans folk.

And that’s not political correctness chitchat. There ought to be more. There ought to be more conviction when we talk about our fellow human beings. Even as we’re rooted in our own distinctive traditions, where’s that subversive piety? It can be quietistic in terms of being in a private space. It can be activistic—on the street or going to jail. It can be intellectual; it can be emotional. It can be vertical if you still believe in a god going up. It can be horizontal—hold on for dear life. Solidarity. Oh, there’s a richness there.

But what brings all these traditions together? Well, the great Charles Baudelaire defined the materialist as someone who loves instruments and utensils and fears the perfume of flowers. And what we’re talking about is the invisible things—the love, the integrity, the honesty, the decency—the things we all fall short of, but know those are the most precious things in whichever tradition that we’re talking about: secular, agnostic, atheistic, Protestant Christian like my own, Buddhist like my dear sister Bell Hooks, Hindu like Mahatma Gandhi, and others. Precious indigenous brothers and sisters, my comrades at Standing Rock, we could go on and on, and Judaism, go on and on and on. But the first message I have is: Hold on to your subversive piety. What is that? Remembrance. Don’t let this market-driven, commodified culture somehow sever you from the best of your past. Hold on to the relation between the present and the best of the past as you try to authorize an alternative future, a radically different, qualitatively different future than the catastrophic one in which we find ourselves.

Edward Gibbon, in his masterpiece Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he raised a fundamental query. He said: Is history but a record of crimes and follies and misfortune of human beings? We know most of human history is a history of domination and oppression and exploitation and degradation. Most of human history is a history of hatred and contempt. Where are the courageous ones? Not the self-righteous ones, the courageous ones who want to be in that world but not of it, based on whatever tradition you decide to land in, but recognize whatever tradition you land in, you’re landing in the same human abode that shot to it the same kind of proclivities, both wretchedness and wonderfulness at the same time. James Baldwin said what? Oh, we are all disasters but also wonderful miracles. Can we keep track of both simultaneously?

Second brief message to you, beloved Class of 2019: Hold on to your existential humility. And that is so rare and scarce these days because we have such a toxic, masculinist conception of what it is to be strong and hard and phallocentric. Thank God for the Me Too movement. Not just to humble we brothers, not just to keep us accountable, but to get us in contact with the best of our humanity, given the patriarchal socialization that has been so hegemonic.

That’s not political correctness chitchat. That is Socratic interrogation and prophetic summoning, and it still accents our capacity to be better human beings, the kind of linguistically sophisticated primates that we are, made in the image and likeness of God for some of us. Indeed, indeed. But that existential humility has everything to do with intellectual fallibility.

As we look around in our empire these days, and what do you see? Ooh, we see a lot of right-wing brothers and sisters of different colors and classes, so often so callous, so often so indifferent to the suffering of the least of these—of poor people, of poor children, folks locked into hoods and boroughs and ghettos. The working-class people overlooked, looking at the world through the lens of the stock market. Oh, our economy is doing so wonderful because the stock market is breakdancing and the statistics look good. Well, let’s look beneath the numbers. What is the quality of life of our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings? That’s the kind of interrogation, but is rooted in, an acknowledgment that humility is a function of our spiritual maturity. To be spiritually mature is to acknowledge your own limitations, your own inadequacies, your own very limited perspectives that can still provide insight so that that existential humility ought to go hand-in-hand with a spiritual tenacity of knowing how to fight, but acknowledging that, lo and behold, you still got much to learn.

As I look at myself, I can see the white supremacy in me. But oh, when I was at Charlottesville, looking in the eyes of those sick, neo-Nazi white brothers, gangsters, thugs, I didn’t lose sight of the gangster in me. I just try to reconquer it every day, and they need a little more work. But they’re still made in the same image of the god that I serve, and they can kill me as they kill so many others in my tradition—talk about me, trash me, misunderstand me, but I’m not going to stoop so low that I lose sight of their humanity, and they’re still on the same continuum. That is a fundamental challenge for the younger generation, because in these Balkanized and polarized times, it’s so easy to go off in your corner, in your own silo, and think somehow you are so empowered and enabled and able to engage in serious, effective work on the battlefield when you yourself have spiritual emptiness. So, it’s hard for you to be the change you’re talking about. That’s what is required of all these various traditions, as deep human challenges.

Last but not least, in celebrating you, I want you to never, ever forget that you have the capacity to preserve your revolutionary joy. We live in a culture with a joyless quest for insatiable pleasure. Whole lot of titillation and stimulation possible, but when it comes to that which endures—the deep stuff, the joys that are beneath the pleasures—don’t let anything or anybody take your joy away. I told the undergraduate class at the Black graduation yesterday, I said: Don’t let anybody take your funk away. They want to deodorize you and sanitize you and sterilize you and make you just another example of Harvard graduate and success. No, don’t confuse success with greatness. 

Somewhere I read: He or she that’s greatest among you will be your servant, and if you’re servant, you have to be bold. You’re going to have to take a risk, you have to pay a cost, you’re going to have to cut against the grain. It’s not going to be fun, but there’ll be joy in that kind of struggle, joy in your intellectual courage exercise, joy in your moral and spiritual witness enacted even as you fall on your face. As Samuel Beckett always reminds us: We try again, fail again, and fail better.

As you embark on the next stage, fail so much better. Fail with all of your revolutionary joy. Fail with that subversive piety. Fail with your intellectual humility and with your spiritual intensity. Class of 2019, are you ready? Are you ready? Let me know! Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you really ready? Then let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!