In Classroom, Cornel West Addresses Charlottesville Incident

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Visiting professor Cornel West is teaching “The Historical Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois ” over the summer term.

Visiting professor Cornel West
Visiting professor Cornel West discusses an idea from W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk with his students. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00) 

Fresh from the streets of Charlottesville, Va., where he stood with activists and pastors against a rally of violent white supremacists, Cornel West stepped into a Dartmouth classroom to lead an exploration of W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the ancient Greek idea of paideia.

“Paideia is the maturation of a soul, it is the critical cultivation of a mind, and it is the attempt to examine one’s own assumptions and presuppositions,” said the activist, social critic, and professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard Divinity School. West is a visiting professor for the summer term at Dartmouth, teaching “The Historical Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois.”

Throughout his scholarly lecture and dialogue with students about Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, West wove in his witness to the deadly violence and racism he confronted in Charlottesville, where hundreds of white nationalists and neo-Nazis gathered to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a city park.

“I’ve never seen that kind of hatred in its raw form, and I’ve been alive for a long time,” West said. But this is not some new phenomenon; Du Bois would not be surprised, West told his students. “The best of America ebbs and flows. The worst of America is always there—sometimes it flows.”

In Charlottesville on Saturday, as militarized groups of neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and white nationalists gathered in Emancipation Park around the statue of Robert E. Lee, clashes broke out between the white supremacists and counter protesters. Social justice activist Heather Heyer was killed and many others were injured while marching peacefully that day, when a purported neo-Nazi sympathizer allegedly plowed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Also, two state troopers dispatched to monitor the violence died when their helicopter crashed on takeoff nearby.

As President Donald Trump was holding a press conference attacking the “alt-left” as equally culpable for the violence and hatred in Charlottesville, West told his Dartmouth class he was standing with 20 clergy members and social justice activists singing This Little Light of Mine while nine military-style units of white nationalists marched past them shouting and cursing in their faces.

“We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and anti-fascists,” West said.

Speaking about the loneliness and obscurity of Du Bois at the end of his life in 1963, West invoked Heyer’s name as he listed little-known champions of the long struggle of for racial justice.

“How many will remember Sister Heather. She sided with the black people of her community and gave her life,” West said.

On Friday, the eve of the neo-fascist rally, West was speaking at a multifaith prayer service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church on the University of Virginia campus. Additional speakers included Rev. Traci Blackmon, who served on the Ferguson Commission in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, and West’s former Harvard Divinity student Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at UVA and a leader of the Black Lives Matter effort to remove the statue of Lee.

As the leaders spoke against bigotry, hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists staged a surprise march to the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the UVA rotunda, across the street from the packed church, trapping the activists inside. Watching the Tiki-torch-bearing marchers, West noted that the demonstrators did not cover their faces like the hooded Klansmen of the past, and many appeared to be clean-cut white men in their 30s.

“To see so many of the white brothers who look so much like the white brothers I see in the airport, it made me look around when I flew out of Charlottesville and say, I wonder,” he said to laughter.

At Dartmouth, West begins each class with a wide-ranging lecture on Du Bois’ writing and devotes the second half to dialogue with students about their reaction to the text.

Tuesday night, one student spoke about Du Bois’ essay “The Propaganda of History,” which examines the revisionism of Reconstruction, which elevated Civil War leaders to the status of cultural heroes and obscured the enslavement of a people at the center of the Confederacy. Du Bois was addressing the same lie that inspired the white nationalists in Charlottesville, the student said.

West built on the point, saying, “Lee was part of a movement seeking the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, based on a constitution that sought the enslavement of a people in perpetuity.”

As the discussion went on, a student said she had just received an alert on her phone reporting that President Trump was defending the groups in Charlottesville who were there to protest the removal of the statue of Lee.

“I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” Trump said at a press conference in Trump Tower Tuesday night.

West was asked how he reconciled the hatred he saw on the streets of Charlottesville and the scholarly discussion of Du Bois’ ideas in his class.

“We’ve got a commitment to paideia—which is deep, courageous, critical self-cultivation—to try to be forces for good in the world. This has to do with bringing together critical intelligence, moral compassion, and intellectual humility,” West said. “That aim is the same, be it in the crisis of Charlottesville or be it in the quiet of a school room here at Dartmouth.”

The neo-Nazis and racists in Charlottesville, or even Donald Trump for that matter, are not from a different world, he said.

“The raw hatred on the street is on a continuum with a certain kind of hatred we all have inside of our hearts. So it is not as if they are outside of the human condition—they’re just representing, I think, the worst of it,” West said. “But the worst is inside of us, too. That’s why it behooves us to be more fundamentally committed to paideia so that we don’t contribute to the kind of raw hatred that’s out there and also, most importantly, we learn how to argue against it, fight against it, and for some of us, put our bodies on the line against it.”

Bill Platt