Conference honors Cornel West's work

by Debora Hyemin Han | 7/20/18 2:35am

First published in 1993 on the anniversary of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, Cornel West’s “Race Matters” offers a critical examination of multiracial democracy in America. Twenty-five years later, West’s work still informs race relations in the United States — an observation that was highlighted by speakers at the Race Matters@25 conference hosted by Dartmouth at the Hopkins Center for the Arts from July 13-15.

The conference — which was sold out in person but was also livestreamed in Alumni Hall and live-transcribed online — was attended by approximately 200 activists, artists, students and community members from a range of races and age groups. Panelists and attendees said that the focus of the conference was to celebrate West’s seminal work, as well as build upon the foundation it laid by applying its principles to the present day.

Dylan Rodríguez, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside who spoke during the roundtable discussion on the final day of the conference, said the in an interview that “lasting intellectual impact” of West’s work informs the political and spiritual relevance of matters such as race, gender and power in 2018. Two of the panels during the conference focused on this topic, including the panel on “Why Race & Racism Matter Now More Than Ever.”

Brandon Terry, an assistant professor of African and African American studies and social studies at Harvard University who was a panelist for this subject, said that he presented a diagnosis and critique of the sources of racial pessimism, drawing on West’s work to show why those forms of pessimism are “indefensible.” In an interview after the conference, Terry said that despite the “ostensible defeat” of forms of racial oppression such as Jim Crow laws or child slavery, there seems to be a persistent challenge for African American political rights. Thus, when African Americans have been shot and killed, the responses from many have been ones of “callous indifference” or giving up on activism altogether.

One of West’s contributions, however, was offering a critique of “pessimistic reason” — namely, arriving at a conclusion of pessimism after analyzing the people and situations that oppress others. Terry says West teaches people that pessimism leads them to miss the virtues of refusing to give up political and spiritual hope.

“I think these things are haunting a lot of political commentary at the moment, and people are deducing from them reasons that they should just kind of give up on political struggle altogether to maintain … what they imagine to be a sanity or purity,” Terry said. “But again I think [West] gives us lots of reasons to reject that.”

While West’s work informs the structures and institutions of society, it also informs the sense of self on an existential and psychic level, according to Andrew Prevot, assistant professor in theology at the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences at Boston College. Prevot, who spoke in the “Black Prophecy in a Transnational Context” panel, said he presented on the Christian mystical tradition that developed an account of divine love that can respond to nihilistic threats to human existence. He argued that while race functions to marginalize certain groups — including African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans and Jewish Americans — the Bible can offer a prophetic mode to show that God is present in the struggle on behalf of those people and “on behalf of human dignity.”

“[The Bible shows] that even if society is treating them like nothing, that they’re not nothing to God — and in fact that they’re loved by God,” Prevot said. “That theological insight can be the basis for a call to solidarity and a struggle for justice.”

Ayub Sharif ’19, who came to campus from Boston to attend the conference, said that the speakers balanced a discussion of negative developments with optimism for the future well.

“Cornel West and some speakers didn’t fail to mention or have optimism and hope for the future in the middle of pretty bleak [topics], in terms of the scholarship that a lot of activists and scholars are writing about or speaking about,” Sharif said.

Sharif added that the conference provided a space for people who desire to have a conversation about these issues but find it difficult to voice their opinions without being marginalized.

Rodríguez agreed that conferences such as these “incubate paradigms and structures” that people can take with them and use to change how they lead their lives.

“These kinds of conferences are the site of experimentation, of incubation of … daring and radical and potentially explosive collective thought,” Rodríguez said. “The scale of this particular conference was such that I think was … pretty remarkable.”