Cornel West and Robert George on Black history, resistance and joy
In honor of Black History Month, two intellectual giants and close friends, Cornel West and Robert George, join “The Gloria Purvis Podcast” to talk about what Black joy and resistance mean to them. Dr. West, a philosopher, political activist and social critic, is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair at Union Theological Seminary. Dr. George is a legal scholar, political philosopher and the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
Gloria Purvis: The theme for this year’s Black History Month celebration is Black resistance and Black joy, with Black joy also being a form of resistance. I’m wondering, Dr. West, if you might give a definition of Black resistance and a definition of Black joy as you see it.
Cornel West: I think that at the center of Black history in Black History Month is wrestling with what it means to be human. These are particular people whose humanity may have been called into question. When you raise it in that way, then you’re gonna talk about Black love, Black courage, Black resilience, Black resistance. Now also, if we’re honest, we can talk about Black thugs, Black gangsters, Black cowards. Because anytime you talk about humanity, any of us, no matter what color, gender, sexual orientation or national identity, you’ve got the best and the worst. So we embrace the full-fledged humanity of a people whose humanity has been so viciously attacked by white supremacist ideas and ideologies and institutions.
And in the midst of all of this, here comes this revolutionary artist named Louis Armstrong, who is overflowing with not just genius but joy everywhere he goes. But Ossie Davis says what? “He’s the saddest man I’ve ever seen.” See how complicated and mixed and complex that is? Which is to say: It is us.
Cornel West: “We embrace the full-fledged humanity of a people whose humanity has been so viciously attacked by white supremacist ideas and ideologies and institutions.”
You know, look at Sister Gloria, that magnificent smile. It just lights up the whole cosmos. We know you’ve got some sadness somewhere. We know you got some sorrow. So Black history is a way of inviting all of us, no matter who we are, into these stories.
GP: Dr. George, as you hear us talk about Black joy, Black resistance, are there any figures that come to your mind?
Robert George: My own field is philosophy of law and constitutional law. I’m something of an amateur student of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the efforts of Black people to overcome the legacy of oppression, the legacy of slavery. So when I think of Black resistance, I can’t help but first think of Frederick Douglass. And I don’t get very far along with that before I’m now thinking about some Harriet Tubman-type figures. As a matter of fact, some years ago, I served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. And when I was being sworn in for that post at the Supreme Court of the United States by Chief Justice Roberts, I asked Cornel if he would do me the honor of holding the Bible for me.
He kindly agreed to come along to the ceremony and hold the Bible for me. But I wanted there to be a special Bible, a Bible associated with the noble cause of human rights. And so, being a great admirer of Harriet Tubman, I got in touch with the Harriet Tubman House in Auburn, N.Y., and asked them if I could borrow Harriet Tubman’s Bible. The lady on the other end of the phone said, “Well, we do have that Bible.” And I detected just little hesitance in her voice. And I can understand—sending a relic like that down in the mail to somebody you don’t even know. So I thought I’d just interject very quickly. “My dear friend Brother Cornel West is gonna be holding the Bible.” And she immediately said, “Oh yes, we’d be very happy to send that Bible there.”
Now, when you think about Black joy, of course, the first name that came to my mind was the first one that came to Cornel’s mind: Louis Armstrong, that great genius. I’m a musician as well. Every musician, no matter what instrument you play, no matter what style of music you play…when you hear Louis Armstrong playing that horn, you know you are in the presence of musical greatness. And of course, he brought that joy of music, his music, all over the world.
This is right in the middle of the Jim Crow oppression. So many of us think of the late Armstrong, when things had gotten relaxed a little bit. [Yet] he lived through the worst parts, and he brought nothing but joy. There was a deep sadness inside of him. No question about that. But there was also that joy.