By Genoa Barrow | Senior Staff Writer
Dr. Cornel West decided to leave his position at Harvard University’s Divinity School four months ago, but needed to officially resign. The letter was expected to be a formality, a simple one-liner putting a closing stamp on his latest stint at the prestigious institution.
There was no way that Dr. West, one of the nation’s leading Black intellectuals and social critics, was going to go out like that. Not after watching the continued “decline” and “decay” at the Divinity School and especially not after he says the campus community disrespected his beloved mother upon her passing in April. The letter was a mic drop moment.
The Sacramento OBSERVER spoke to Dr. West, a native son, last week, about the “candid letter” he shared on Twitter, how Ivy League universities must do better for Black students and what’s next for him, now that Harvard is once again in his rearview mirror.
(Also Read: Conversation with Dr. Cornel West)
“I just thought it was very important that people know what the internal dynamics are of some of these institutions, so it might help somebody and empower somebody else who’s struggling in their own workplace,” Dr. West shared.
“Our anthem is ‘Lift Every Voice’ and we lift in that every voice in order to help somebody and empower somebody and I was thinking of so many of the professors and assistant professors and adjunct lecturers who are not being respected. I was thinking of everyday people in a variety of different workplaces being disrespected and not treated the way they ought to be. (Them) reading this and saying, ‘God, I’m not in this alone and I’ve got to be part of some movements, some organizations, some collective effort to change things.’”
Dr. West accused Harvard of “spiritual rot,” a diss of Shakespearean proportions.
“Remember Shakespeare in ‘Hamlet?’ He says, ‘Something is rotten in Denmark.’ And that rot, what is tied to spirituality is the lack of care, concern or an overriding indifferent callousness. That’s really what we’re talking about.”
In his attempt to “tell the unvarnished truth,” Dr. West pointed out witnessing “the scattered curriculum, the disenfranchisement of talented, yet deferential faculty and the disorientation of precious students.” The resignation was also fueled by the inability to request tenure, but the lack of support when his mother, Dr. Irene B. West, died at age 88, was the last straw.
“It’s one thing to disrespect me, that’s already bad enough, I go ballistic, but you start acting as if mom doesn’t mean anything or doesn’t matter? Christ I come out swinging and make Joe Frazier look like a Boy Scout.
“When you’re messing with mom, that’s just a whole different level that goes beyond whatever politics, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nation, when you start messing with mom, that’s a whole different plane.”
Dr. Irene B. West was a revered educator in her own right. She was the first Black teacher in the Elk Grove Unified School District and went on to serve as principal of several schools. An elementary campus is named in her honor. Her passing was noted in a faculty newsletter by the chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department, but Dr. West received little to no condolences from his colleagues. People get more responses, he says, when they announce upcoming lectures or book talks.
“I said, ‘What the heck is going on? These people are sick.’”
Dr. West’s letter was a critique of both the Divinity School and the Afro-American Studies department. Black people, he says, don’t speak up for fear of jeopardizing their own situations.
“They are so close to the Harvard administration, that they couldn’t really come out and be too supportive of me because they’re so tied to the goodies, the status, the position, the power administration. Opportunism and careerism gets in the way of some sensitivity and concern for your friends when your friends are on the outs,” Dr. West said.
While he had made his decision prior to the University of North Carolina’s decision to not award tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, Dr. West makes reference to the award-winning journalist and lecturer in his letter that went viral. The two met decades ago when she was a student at the University of North Carolina, he recalls. Similarly, he says, his request to begin the tenure process was thwarted earlier this year. He hasn’t really been given a reason why, beyond him being “too controversial,” he says.
“They’ve come back, they offered me a big title, a Frank Thompson professorship, and they offered me big money and tried to throw so much more money at me and I’m saying, ‘Ya’ll don’t understand who Cliff and Irene West and Shiloh Baptist Church really is. Ya’ll don’t understand ‘the best of Glen Elder,’” he said of his family and neighborhood roots.
“This ain’t no money thing, I don’t try to negotiate with respect. That’s not how you live your life.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones is headed to Howard University, adding her name to the list of African Americans who are choosing historically Black campuses. Is a position at an HBCU in Dr. West’s future?
“I’ve always had close relations with so many Black colleges and universities, and I’m talking now actually about doing something with Morgan State, but we’ll see,” he said.
“I just kind of remind folks that as precious and important as our Black colleges and universities are, that you’ve got Black folks, who are doing good things in a variety of different contexts. They could be at UC Davis, they could be at City College, Cosumnes River College, whatever it is.
“I tell folks that I’ve taught for 44 years in a historically Black institution called the prison system and I want to be able to save time to continue to lecture and teach in the prisons wherever I am,” he continued.
He’s now at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem, teaching and serving as its Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair. This is Dr. West’s third time returning to Union Seminary, where he got his first job 44 years ago.
“Dr. West lives and breathes the values that Union aims to instill in all of the future leaders, scholars, ministers, and activists we educate. His esteemed legacy of engaging the most pressing problems facing our world — including racism, poverty, sexism, and so much more — is an inspiration to all, and illustrates the power of faith to create profound change,” President Rev. Dr. Serene Jones shared in a March announcement.
Dr. West is excited to be walking in the footsteps of James H. Cone, whom he calls the “great founder of Black liberation theology” and will occupy an office Cone was in for more than 50 years.
“I can feel his spirit in that office,” Dr. West shared.
Cone authored such books as “God of the Oppressed,” “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” and “Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare.” Dr. West is the author of such books as “Race Matters,” and “The American Evasion of Philosophy” and “The Rich and The Rest Of Us: A Poverty Manifesto,” written with frequent collaborator Tavis Smiley. His latest efforts were editing “The Radical King,” a workbook by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2016 and “Black Prophetic Fire” in 2015. He’s currently working on a highly prestigious series of Gifford Lectures, based in Scotland.
“They preserve it for the so-called top brass in philosophy, religion and theology, but it’s quite an honor in the profession,” Dr. West said.
Wherever he lands, Dr. West continues to drive his own narrative. Black students should do the same, he says, adding that his alma mater still has a lot to offer.
“You’ve still got decent folks at Harvard, very much so. All of these institutions are shot through with racism. You just try to support the folk in these racist institutions who are doing the right thing.
“I would encourage parents, if they think Harvard is the best place for their kids and the kids really want to go, then you go and do your thing, but don’t go in a naive manner. But that’s also true for California State University, Sacramento. It’s a wonderful place, you got decent folk, but we know racism is operating there like any other institution.”
Ivy League schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale have a reputation of being traditionally White and “better.”
“That’s wrong,” Dr. West said. “Whiteness doesn’t make anything better. What happens is that they get extra money, say an endowment, 40-some billion dollars, and a Black institution has an endowment of $120 million; there’s certain things you just can’t do when you don’t have the money.”
With professors of his and Ms. Hannah-Jones’ caliber leaving, some will ask, who then will hold the university accountable for change and why they don’t stay and battle from within?
“Each one of us has to make an individual choice,” Dr. West said. “ In my case, once it reaches a certain line in the sand, when you get disrespected, then I’m gone.”