Cornel West’s Commencement Address at Harvard Divinity School

This resonates with me on many levels:

Read the transcript here.

A taste:

As I look at myself, I can see the white supremacy in me. But oh, when I was at Charlottesville, looking in the eyes of those sick, neo-Nazi white brothers, gangsters, thugs, I didn’t lose sight of the gangster in me. I just try to reconquer it every day, and they need a little more work. But they’re still made in the same image of the god that I serve, and they can kill me as they kill so many others in my tradition—talk about me, trash me, misunderstand me, but I’m not going to stoop so low that I lose sight of their humanity, and they’re still on the same continuum. That is a fundamental challenge for the younger generation, because in these Balkanized and polarized times, it’s so easy to go off in your corner, in your own silo, and think somehow you are so empowered and enabled and able to engage in serious, effective work on the battlefield when you yourself have spiritual emptiness. So, it’s hard for you to be the change you’re talking about. That’s what is required of all these various traditions, as deep human challenges.

Last but not least, in celebrating you, I want you to never, ever forget that you have the capacity to preserve your revolutionary joy. We live in a culture with a joyless quest for insatiable pleasure. Whole lot of titillation and stimulation possible, but when it comes to that which endures—the deep stuff, the joys that are beneath the pleasures—don’t let anything or anybody take your joy away. I told the undergraduate class at the Black graduation yesterday, I said: Don’t let anybody take your funk away. They want to deodorize you and sanitize you and sterilize you and make you just another example of Harvard graduate and success. No, don’t confuse success with greatness. 

Somewhere I read: He or she that’s greatest among you will be your servant, and if you’re servant, you have to be bold. You’re going to have to take a risk, you have to pay a cost, you’re going to have to cut against the grain. It’s not going to be fun, but there’ll be joy in that kind of struggle, joy in your intellectual courage exercise, joy in your moral and spiritual witness enacted even as you fall on your face. As Samuel Beckett always reminds us: We try again, fail again, and fail better.

As you embark on the next stage, fail so much better. Fail with all of your revolutionary joy. Fail with that subversive piety. Fail with your intellectual humility and with your spiritual intensity. Class of 2019, are you ready? Are you ready? Let me know! Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you really ready? Then let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!

Read the entire speech here.

 

One thought on “Cornel West’s Commencement Address at Harvard Divinity School

  1. Dr. West’s Harvard Divinity School address didn’t exactly rise to the level of Emerson’s 1838 address at the same institution. It would be difficult, yea likely impossible, to come close to Emerson’s style or his theological substance.

    With that being said, West’s talk kept my attention and generally focused on broad and lofty admonitions which are entirely appropriate at a graduation ceremony. His remarks about the interconnectedness of all religions isn’t a Christian idea, but Harvard Divinity no longer makes a claim to being classically Christian.

    Dr. West’s address admonishing graduates toward universal goals fell in stark contrast to the crass, bitter, narrow, politically tainted graduation address given by Hillary Clinton at Hunter College this past week. She just can’t let go of the 2016 Presidential Election.

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