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Activists Talk Democracy, Hope

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    Dr. Cornel West participates in the "Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise" panel during the PBS Television Critics Association summer press tour on Friday, July 29, 2016, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Invision - Richard Shotwell) Richard Shotwell—Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

  • PHOTO BY HERB SWANSON- July 15, 2018- Take part in a conference on the 25th anniversary of Cornel West’s book Race Matters. Herb Swanson photograph

  • PHOTO BY HERB SWANSON- July 15, 2018- Take part in a conference on the 25th anniversary of Cornel West’s book Race Matters. HERB SWANSON

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2018 11:24:50 PM
Modified: 7/15/2018 11:55:13 PM

Hanover — There’s nothing unusual about humanity’s constant struggle against despair, domination and dogma, according to Cornel West, a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard Divinity School.

In fact, the battle with all three is part of the “inescapable realities of every human being,” West told a crowd of about 200 people gathered on Sunday at Dartmouth College’s Moore Theater.

But while many people see those challenges through a negative lens, he said, struggle often is a seed for greater things, including personal growth and the opportunity to spread love.

“You ought to expect darkness and bleakness because that’s the kind of human beings we are,” West said. “But we always have the capacity to spread some form of steadfast love, some form of loving kindness to the vulnerable, and to do it in such a way that we still can have a smile on our faces.”

West was speaking at Dartmouth as part of a three-day conference aimed at celebrating the 25th anniversary of Race Matters, his book of essays that sought to discuss some of the most volatile issues facing America in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, also called the Rodney King riots.

West on Sunday described the book as a project, meant to give people a small sense of “how a precious slice of humanity has tried to redefine humanity,” beginning with the philosophers of Greece and prophets of Jerusalem and filtering through “the plantations and the ghettos.”

It’s not just a commentary on race and black identity, he said, but also on the human condition.

That’s what West and a group of scholars gathered to discuss during a roundtable event at the conference’s end.

During a three-hour session, they debated the value of democracy, the necessity of struggle and whether to hold out hope for a better tomorrow.

Asked whether American democracy has failed, given its foundational racism, some of the panelists openly wondered whether the institution ever functioned, either as an ideal or in practice.

Some have used the promise of democracy to mobilize for change, said Kimberlyn Leary, an associate professor at both Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“This is the ideal, this is the goal, we’re falling short and what can we do instead?” Leary said. “It seems now, at this particular moment in time, that this is an increasingly empty call, as though the expectation that democracy could stand for something, that it is a goal is now more sharply in question than perhaps at other times.”

West also called democracy a “relative failure,” but not because its promise is fading. Rather, he said, it’s served too few people.

While the Greeks had forms of democracy, they also owned slaves, West said, adding that it’s only within the last century and a half that American democracy has included women and African-Americans.

“It’s a process and it moves forward, moves back,” West said.

Those in the audience also asked about struggle and the role it plays in life and race.

“Somebody somewhere, no matter who they are, is always giving something,” West replied.

There is redemptive suffering in the world, where people sacrifice toward a greater good or loved ones, he said.

“But most suffering is confined without somebody’s consent: subordinating, dominating and so forth,” West said. “It’s too easy to talk about suffering in the abstract when people are suffering every day without their consent.”

But hope can counter some of society’s woes, said Leary, who also works as a psychoanalyst. In a clinical setting, hope can turn someone’s life around for the better, she said.

“When enough time goes by, it’s not uncommon for (a patient) to try out a bit of hope. And the hope isn’t necessarily for transformation, it’s just for another go at it, another bit of strength, another effort,” Leary said. “And that always feels precious whenever it happens.”

West also advocated for hope, which in true form comes from past despair and struggle.

“Hope is a form of love, which means that if you love your mama and she has every chance of making it, you’re not making utilitarian calculations of some kind of cost-benefit analysis as to whether you’re with her every minute, pushing every second because you love her,” he said. “You hold out hope until the full closure sets.”

Discussion on Sunday also touched upon the future of race relations, especially on university and college campuses.

“I love Dartmouth more than anyone in this room because Dartmouth is the reason that I’ve enjoyed so much individual success,” former professional football player Reggie Williams said.

The college gave Williams, a 1976 graduate, a chance to play when others wouldn’t, he said.

But Williams said he’s still embarrassed by fellow graduates.

“I’m embarrassed about the Dartmouth Review. I’m embarrassed about Dinesh D’Souza,” Williams said. “As much as I love this place, there’s parts of it that totally give me the chills.”

West, a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth who taught a course on W.E.B. Du Bois in Hanover last year, said nearly every college has to recognize its own history of racism.

“The worst of Dartmouth is as American as apple pie,” he said. “And the best of Dartmouth is as American as apple pie.”

But institutions of higher education also face other problems, West said.

Too often, he said, they turn education into a commodity and pressure teachers to specialize for tenure-track positions, “whereas the people that are hungry for dramatic stories and narratives that allow them to get moving, to think critically, to be curious” are less frequently offered those opportunities.

Tim Camerato can be reached at or 603-727-3223.

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