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Philosopher, activist, writer was in McKeesport for Penn State event
Author, teacher and philosopher Cornel West meets with Penn Staters prior to Friday evening's discussion at Wunderley Gymnasium in McKeesport. (Photo courtesy Penn State Greater Allegheny via Facebook)
Cornel West is not optimistic about the triumph of equality and justice. But he's hopeful.
There's a difference, he said.
During a discussion Friday night at Wunderley Gymnasium of Penn State Greater Allegheny Campus in McKeesport, West, a philosopher, author and activist, was asked if he found reasons to be hopeful and optimistic about the future lives of Black Americans.
“There is a difference between hope and optimism,” he said. “I'm not optimistic at all, I've never been an optimist.”
"I don’t know one blues song that's optimistic, but hope is something different,” he said. Optimism is "not part of the blues sensibility," West said.
A professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and professor emeritus at Princeton University, West was in McKeesport to deliver the keynote address as part of Penn State Greater Allegheny's Crossing Bridges Summit.
West said he's lectured on Black activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois and many others. None of them were optimists, he said, “but they never gave up hope.
"The alternative to giving up hope is caving in, giving up or selling out," West said. "Anybody who sells their soul is going to live a life of emptiness.”
James Jaap, an associate professor of English at Penn State, introduced West as a man who “does not just talk the talk, he walks the walk.”
He noted that West, then 64, was a participant in the counter-protests to the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017.
Unite the Right was organized by local Charlottesville “pro-white” activist Jason Kessler. West and the group confronted a planned gathering of white nationalists, who were protesting the city's removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park.
In a press release prior to the rally, West said he was coming to Charlottesville to “stand against white supremacy and bear witness to love and justice.”
One of the counter-protesters, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed at the rallly when a car was deliberately driven into a crowd in which she was marching.
Penn State Greater Allegheny's Crossing Bridges Summit program is designed to bring faculty, staff and students together with members of the community to understand and address racial divides in the Mon Valley region, said Jacqueline Edmondson, the campus' chancellor.
Tom Poole, a visiting professor at Greater Allegheny, said the summits serve “as a resource for the community, particularly around the issues of racial justice and economic justice in the Mon Valley.”
Previoius speakers in the Crossing Bridges series have included McKeesport native Brandon Short, a former college and NFL football player; author Michael Eric Dyson; and '60s radical icon Angela Davis.
Poole, who retired after 41 years with the university in various senior level positions, said racial division is a national issue as well as a local issue.
“We probably are seeing days where overt hostility among a number of sectors, not just racially, (is) predominant in this society,” Poole said. “(It's) very visible and open now. What we are trying to do is get communities to get together with one another to rally around one another and to help reach common solutions to problems that we have in the local area.”
Poole said in addition to issues of racial division, society is divided by economics, politics and ethnicity.
“Unless communities can be brought together to talk about these issues and address them, we will never be able to solve them,” he said. “We have come a long a way and we have a long, long way to go. As a matter of fact, I think the last two or three years will show we were over-estimating how far we had actually come.”
The loss of blue-collar jobs in western Pennsylvania in recent decades have hit minorities harder, Poole said. “I think (economic downturns are) always harder on racial minorities, ethnic minorities and also poor white families,” he said. "Even when things are going well, history will show there are still discriminatory practices in hiring."
Poole said the Mon Valley region needs jobs that will provide middle-class incomes, “the kind of jobs that our parents had, that helped raise families and build communities and put kids through college."
Without those, Poole said, we are probably facing a generation that’s “not going to do better than their parents.”
West touched on economic problems as welll.
Success in our time, he said, is defined in terms of how much money a person makes and the size of their home.
In reality, West argued, even if materially, someone is doing well, they may become “well adjusted” to injustice and “well adapted” to indifference, resulting in an underdeveloped spirituality.
(Richard Finch Jr. photo)
Human history is centered on envy, resentment, contempt, hatred, domination, oppression and exploitation, West said. “When you love, you're transforming the world, you're not conforming to those dominant ways, you have to learn how to stand,” he said.
West said human beings cannot survive “without the cultivation of civic virtues, that has to do with integrity, honesty, a public good and a common interest being at the center of what you do.”
West challenged his audience to consider, on a political, economic and psychic level, “What kind of human being do I want to be, on this short track from womb to tomb?”
West was joined on stage by Johnathan White, a lecturer in history at Penn State, who helped lead the discussion.
West talked about the meaning of "soul" in the lives of black people. “Black people have been a tremendously tender people, a gentle people, a sweet people," he said. "Soul is the sharing of a soothing sweetness against the backdrop of catastrophe.”
West said Black young people need to recognize they come from a great tradition of “a people who've been wrestling with grimness and despair.
"The best of them never allowed that grimness and despair to debilitate their sense of struggle and the need to pass on their best to the younger generation,” he said.
One of the lessons West said he learned in Vacation Bible School as a kid was the classical Christian maxim, "hate the sin, love the sinner."
“You hate the sin and still love the sinner, you hate the injustice but you still gotta stay in contact with the humanity of the person who perpetuates that injustice,” he said.
Simply dismissing someone as a "devil" because you disagree with them doesn't allow you to engage with them, West said.
“If a person is a 'devil,' that gets you off the hook, because he's not on a human continuum," he said. "Now if he's a gangster, gangsters are human. Donald Trump is not a devil, he's a gangster, there’s a difference.”
West challenged the audience to “stand up” in the workplace, against human rights violations and against indifference to the suffering of others, and to know where they are in relation to the “human continuum.”
Those who struggle with truth and justice, regardless of what the circumstances are, need “to seek truth, bear witness and go down swinging," West said. "Hope is a verb, not a noun, it's motion and movement, it's active.”
Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from McKeesport Area School District and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published October 29, 2019.