Cornel West was one of my go-to theorists, back in university when I was writing cultural studies essays on race, communications, or sociology, and needed some good solid quotations. Along with Stuart Hall and bell hooks, Cornel West was someone who articulated exactly what I needed to help me figure out my own college-aged thoughts on black history and social progress. He was--and still is--that dude.
I was pleased to recently find a publication of his that I hadn't yet encountered. Written in 2008, "Hope on a Tightrope" is a 237-page book featuring "Words and Wisdom" broken down into short paragraphs, single quotations, and themes like "Philosophy," "Leadership," and "Freedom."
The first few pages gave me goosebumps, partially because I instantly remembered how much he would enlighten me back in the day. Books like 1994's "Race Matters" helped me uncover new understanding and theories on culture. So I was not surprised that on one of the first pages, his thought: "It takes courage to interrogate yourself." made me stop reading for the rest of the evening, as I thought about that quote alone, and what it meant.
That one initial quote made me remember that my mind is something that I need to regularly exercise, and be aware of the content that I allow in, and the superficial information that I easily waste time on. Cornel West reminded me that creating a "structure of meaning" in my life would involve the constant reception of information. Of wisdom.
The book was published in 2008, when Barack Obama was still a senator, and America was overflowing with rhetoric of hope and change, and new beginnings, and future aspirations. And while West shares these sentiments and his support of the ideologies, he also strongly reminds his readers that it takes more than simple hope or the acceptance of social scripts and routines. He reminds readers that they must train themselves in critical thinking, and avoid complacency.
I learned a new word that easily summarized West's message in "Hope on a Tightrope," and that word is PAIDEA. It means to have a deep education: "cultivating yourself and maturing your soul... realizing the difference between superficial and substantial."
His message is clearly supported throughout the book, and his wish is that individuals learn to think for themselves, learn to respect the traditions and struggles of their ancestors, and have the bravery and strength to make changes and make a difference through knowledge and its application. And at the root of it is education, seeking information, and seeking to understand that information.
"Hope is no guarantee," said West. It takes more than just wishing and praying for things to happen...it takes an awareness and what he calls the "deep education of the soul."
Looking at the current state of black youth, and the influences of this generation, West notes that the young seem to be disconnected from their rich history of sacrifice and commitment. He takes personal responsibility in helping to keep the legacy of our ancestors alive, for the younger generation, and also holds the current role models accountable for their actions.
In recounting a conversation with hip hop mogul Jay-Z, West stated: "You are successful now...but are you great?" He feels that courage and power should be demonstrated, and not obtained too easily. Again, themes of accountability, and creating and maintaining a strong cultural legacy are key.
He called hip hop the "most powerful cultural force" and believes that the youth need a cultural renaissance of self-respect, and cultivation of activists at a national level in order to re-build the moral fabric and reconcile the "fundamental tension between a commitment to truth, and a quest for power."
Born in the early 50s, West is of a generation that was built on struggle, unification, and earning respect every step of the way. He's a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. from Princeton, who currently teaches at Princeton as well as religious studies at a Seminary college in New York. As I quickly learned in my own studies, Cornel West is an expert in race, class, and gender: a respected philospher, academic, and writer.
I think I understand the passion of West (even when I don't agree with his actions, such as his recent criticism of President Obama's use of Martin Luther King Jr's bible for his Inauguration oath) because it is so deeply rooted in well wishes for his people, a first-hand understanding of the past, and a sincere hope for the future.
His unique position as an observer of the passing of generations,has given him the authority to recommend that the community should shift from a "bling bling" mentality to a "quest for wisdom." It's a sentiment that many of us share and a logic that is easily understood, but as he mentioned....the lack of activists at a national level is limited.
So while he believes in hope, and believes that enlightenment is possible, he also believes that "hope is linked to combative spirituality"...it takes more than just wishing, it will involve dedicated actions, backed by sound intelligence.
I feel that Mr. West is so full of knowledge, opinion, academic intelligence, and historical understanding, that even the pages of this book couldn't contain his passion. But I GOT IT. I got the frustration, I got the praise, I got the message loud and clear. Each thought was emphasized through the chapters, and yet they all tied into the overall theme: progress.
Thinking back to my school essays and my intial impression of Cornel West...not much has changed. His words still have the power to move me, and still make me think and "interrogate" myself about what I am doing in my own life, who my actions will affect, what impact it will have on my culture, and to what extent.
It's easy to push social responsibility into someone else's hands. It's easy to look at Mr. West, Mr. Obama, or even Mr. Jay-Z as those in power, those with success, and those with the means to make change...and expect them to make it.
But just as President Obama can't change the collective mentality of Americans and their actions on his own...we all have a personal responsibility to make improvements to our surroundings, to educate ourselves, and to apply that knowledge appropriately.
West mentioned that there is a false notion that the [black] community must be homogenous to be strong, and to be unified. He said that progress for any group can not be made without the assistance and understanding of other cultural groups as well. Again, it comes back to the renaissance of self-respect. The renaissance of self-understanding. Education. Sharing that knowledge, and strengthening the moral fabric. Understanding others. Understanding the inter-connectivity, despite differences.
"Hope on a Tightrope" is truly a motivating collection of thoughts and spiritual recommendations. West didn't need to provide strict guidelines on how or why, but instead leaves it up to the individual reader to assess their contribution to society, and to understand the [North] American culture and what kind of collective conciousness it would take to strengthen it.
Hope is not a guarantee...but it is a pre-requisite, I believe. As West said, we must find sources of vision and hope...and through this inspiration, create and build upon our own structures of meaning.
As much as I admired these great thinkers over the years, and admire the Obamas, and the artists, and those in positions of power...I am also continuously being reminded that a great deal of power also lies in my own actions, and personal dedication to "PAIDEIA"...if we all make a pledge of higher learning and critical thinking to ourselves, change and progress will be inevitable.
The hope will be less abstract. The tightrope will become broader. West has reminded me that this is all possible...starting with self.