Cornel West often inspires me. He is a man with prophetic imagination and he doesn’t mind speaking Jesus into the Jesus-resisting box of American media. The other day I tuned into a segment he made with Anderson Cooper on CNN. I was so encouraged by it, I decided to make a transcript for you.
I hope you will catch the Jesus West appreciates in the George Floyd funeral. I hope you will applaud the wonderful example of Floyd’s extended family and their church as they resolutely follow Jesus and choose love like the black church has done so well throughout its difficult history. I hope you will note the alternativity West highlights and suggests as the way to the future.
Circle of Hope has been agreeing with him since its inception. But West may say our thoughts spontaneously better than we say them after a lot of thought!
Here’s the interview:
Cooper: [At the funeral of George Floyd] what was going through your mind and heart?
West: It was a heavy day my brother, and yet I was buoyed up. Because I saw in the hearts and minds and souls, not just of the Floyd Family, but of the church, of the music, the preaching, a love. Not one reference to hatred or revenge, it was all about love and justice. It’s in the great tradition of the best of black people, a people who have been hated chronically, systemically, for 400 years but have taught the world so much about love and how to love. You saw John Coltrane’s Love Supreme in that church service. You saw the love of the children in Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. You saw Mama, Raisin in the Sun, a Lorraine Hansberry.
White people ought to give black people a standing ovation that after 400 years of being terrorized we refuse to create a black version of the Ku Klux Klan. After 400 years of being traumatized, we want to dish out healers. That’s Frederick Douglass, that’s Martin King, that’s Curtis Mayfield, that’s Fanny Lou Hamer. What is it about these black people, so thoroughly subjugated but want freedom for everybody? That’s a grand gift to the whole world, right at the bowels at the center of an American Empire that has enslaved, Jim Crowed, Jane Crowed, lynched them, still dishing out these love warriors.
That’s what I saw in the Floyd Family and I was buoyed up. It reminded me of the West family; it reminded me of Irene and Cliff and Cynthia and Sharol. That’s where we come from: Shiloh Baptist Church. You can put us down but you are not going to put us down in such a way that we are going to hate you because you become the point of reference. No, we are going to put a smile on Larcenia’s face. That’s his Mama. That’s where he is right now. He’s lying right next to Sister Larcenia, whose way of engaging the world was embracing it with all of the love.
Now I’m not saying we don’t have black thugs and gangsters. I’m talking about the best of our tradition. Because brother, brother, brother, if we had created a black version of the Ku Klux Klan there’d been a civil war every generation with terrorist cells in every hood. And that’s what Brother Trump needs to understand because it looks like he’s trying to push us to the race war. But the good news is if there was a race war, we’ve got a whole lot of white brothers and sisters on our side now. That makes a big difference. And we’ve got black folk and red folk and indigenous people and Asians and so forth. This is a matter of integrity and honesty, a matter of justice and love. They kept it on the high ground. That was a beautiful thing.
But I did break, though, brother, when I saw those brothers marching in, like the ushers in Shiloh Baptist Church and pick up that coffin and go and walk out. My daughter was there. Couldn’t take it man. I’ve been at this for over fifty years. And yet I got to bounce back. And I will bounce back. Because we’ve got a love the world can’t take away. The world, white supremacy may make being black a crime. But we refuse to get in the gutter. We’re going to go down swinging like Ella Fitzgerald, Muhammad Ali in the name of love and justice. We’re doing it for brother Wyatt, we’re doing it for my daughter, we’re doing it for the Asians, we’re doing it for the whole world because that’s the only hope of the world. And that kind of love is always tragic-comic and cruciform. You’ve got to get ready to get crucified with that kind of love, and yet you’ve got to keep dishing it out generation after generation after generation.
The Floyd Family lifted up that spiritual moral banner in the midst of a moment when we’ve got all these lies and crimes, be it Pentagon, or Wall Street, or White House, or even congress itself. We know they don’t represent the best of this country. It’s just that the best of this country right now seems to be so powerless. But in the streets of our nation we see this multiracial, multicultural, multigender, different sexual orientations, different religions – Jewish brothers and sisters holding up the Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Catholics holding up Dorothy Day, the Protestants holding up William Coffin and Lydia Maria Child and the agnostics and the others holding up the Norman Thomases and the Edward Saids and others. That was my mixed wrestling with what I saw today, my brother. And I think we’ve got hope in the form of motion but we’ve got to get ready for the backlash. Got to get ready for the neo-Fascist clampdown. Because it’s coming. It is coming.
Cooper: yeah. I’ve had the, um. I’ve got to say your…I’ve never had the honor of taking one of your classes. But, uh, I feel like I’m a student of yours. And I learn lessons every time you speak. And, um [sigh] I just think it’s [breaks down]
West: No. We’re in it together brother. And the beautiful thing about tears: Socrates never cries, but Jeremiah does and so does Jesus. We cries because we care; we’re concerned. It’s not about political correctness. It’s not about self-righteousness. We cry because we are not numb on the inside. We don’t have a chilliness of soul and a coldness of mind and heart. We cry because we connect. But then we must have a vision that includes all of us and we must have an analysis of power that’s honest. In terms of the greed especially at the top, in terms of the hatred running amok, in terms of the corruption – not just White House and congress, it’s in too many churches, too many mosques, too many synagogues, too many universities, too many civic associations and then the greed in us. You and I talk about this all the time, right? The gangster in us. Because we’re wrestling with this day, by saying that’s why we need each other brother.
Cooper: You know, you said something…I follow you when you aren’t on my program, I follow you wherever you go and I read what you have to say. And you said something a couple of days ago on somebody else’s program. You said, “Can we hold on to integrity, honesty and decency?” and it seems to me, as you’ve said, that there are a lot of people who have remained silent and have just been watching this. And as you said, there’s going to be a backlash and that’s something to be prepared for. Because I think there are a lot of people just waiting on the sidelines, waiting to kind of to start to chip away at this and cause doubt and divide people. But I think that is so important that at its core, this is about integrity. and honesty and decency and fortitude and courage which are two other things you’ve spoken a lot about.
West: Absolutely, especially the fortitude and courage. We must have the integrity, honesty and decency — not purity, no one of us is pure or pristine, we all have our spots and our wrinkles as it were. But it’s the courage and the fortitude. That’s what’s necessary, the backbone. We don’t need lukewarm folk, we don’t need summer soldiers. We need all seasoned love warriors. That’s the tradition that we saw represented in that church at the spiritual level. And my dear Brother Sharpton, I love Sharpton, we come out of the same black church tradition, and we fight all the time, but we come together and so forth. He was powerful.
But I always want to connect the police power and the police crimes with the Wall Street power and the Wall Street crimes. We live in a culture in which people feel as if they can do and say anything and get away with it with no accountability, no answerability, and no responsibility. We saw on Wall Street in terms of all that insider trading, market manipulation and fraudulent activity and predatory lending. How many people went to jail? Zero. Trump will say anything, do anything, thinks he will get away with it. Pentagon can drop drones on precious folk in Yemen, Pakistan and others and think they can get away with it. We have to have accountability. Our politician will seemingly tell us anything in front of our faces and we know what’s going on behind closed doors with their tie to big money. Just be honest. That’s what integrity is.
Malcolm X used to say, “Sincerity is my only credentials.” That’s why we love Malcolm. We did not always agree with Malcolm. But he said what he meant and he meant what he said. You see what I mean? That’s what we need. We need that in our lives. We need that in our communities. We need that in our civilization. And we need that as a critique of the worst of the American empire, the worst of American white supremacy, the worst of American predatory capitalism, the worst of American patriarchy and the worst of American homophobic and transphobic, any ideology that loses sight of the humanity of folk. I don’t care if they’re Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, Jewish or whatever, it’s got to be all the way down. You know, the English word human comes from the Latin word humando which mean burial. And that’s what we saw today. We saw the humanity. Because they were ascribing significance to this precious person made in the image of God whose body was now undergoing extinction and his soul ascending.
I am buoyed up, as well, by the thought of all the good people I know personally who are waking up, changing their minds, and changing their behavior. I am buoyed up by our church, full of people eager to make a difference and foment transformation. I am buoyed up by the thought the evils of the American way of life might have a collective knee on their necks, even while I prepare for the backlash – like Trump trying to go to Tulsa on Juneteenth. Lord help us join the Floyds and their church and demonstrate an alternative, an example of which we have the best of the black church to thank.