Cornel West: Do Not “Santa-Clausify” MLK Jr.

Cornel West is one of the few public intellectuals who consistently refers to Martin Luther King Jr. by remembering to include the suffix to his name. This appropriately distinguishes the man and his career from that of his father, another prominent preacher in Atlanta, and occupant of the selfsame pulpit that his son would make into a national icon. It was there, at that same pulpit (actually across the street from the original site of the Ebenezer Baptist Church) that Cornel West offered up his rousing sermon in honor of the King National Holiday.

West accomplished three things, any one of which would be worthy of accolade, but taken together, they created a daunting shadow of rhetorical magnitude.

First and foremost, by reminding us that King was a son, before he was a father, West articulated his own powerful conviction that each of us are joined to all others in the human family, links in a chain that connects a burdensome past to a better (but never perfect) future. West took the time to note with appreciation all the many persons and institutions and social forces that contributed to making Martin Luther King Jr. who he was, who he became. West honored the ancestors, both those representatives of the movement immediately before him in the room, and those more distant others so very clearly present to his mind, no matter how remote.

Second, he cautioned against what he comically called the “Santa Clausification” of the man and his movement. Preferring Christian realism to syrupy romanticism, West walked us through the brief and meteoric career of a man who continued to move, to grow, and to change. What West traced most clearly was the way King’s moral vision continually expanded, the way his conception of social justice discovered the connections between race, wars of foreign conquest, and crimes of domestic inequity. King’s Civil Rights movement began with what West called “Jim Crow and Jane Crow,” but connected those forms of social injustice to others he identified in Southeast Asia and, toward the end of his life, to the grinding poverty of the white and black underclass nationwide. We must never forget, West reminded us, that he gave his life in support of sanitation workers in Memphis.

Third, there was the uncanny cadence of and timing, itself so central a piece of the spiritual sustenance the Black Church provides. West’s ability to sense the energy in a room and to move it to his purposes has always been exceptional; today it was sublime. He concluded his address with a litany of prominent African Americans, and what was notable was the presence of so many musicians among them: Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, BB King, Aretha Franklin, men and women all who linked the Christian gospel to a blues and jazz sensibility that understands all works of creative artistry to be dependent on timing as much as on the quality of one’s audience. What is a sermon without a church? Practice, or prayer.

In this last gesture, West made the moment, and the movement, his own. He has identified himself with the Blues sensibility many times, and has more recently identified himself as a “tragicomic” thinker in the tradition of Checkhov (and of American Pragmatism). Tragicomedy is a matter of cadence and of performance, striking the precise note struck by the Synoptic gospels, in West’s re-telling of them. It is a lyrical message as well as a moral one.

He spoke for forty-five minutes without a note.

And in conclusion, he reflected on the ways that leaving what he deems the tragedy of the Reagan era ought not identify the Obama era as comic aftermath or progressive resurrection. No serious Blues man could say that. No, in the strange era in which we now find ourselves, the resources of tragedy and comedy will both be needed. As often as we applaud, West cautioned us, we must also criticize, hold accountable, demand social imagination as well as social justice. If we forge “the least of these,” then It was striking to hear West comment, from this pulpit, on his own greatest disappointment with the current administration: its lack of economic imagination, and thus of charity. When we call banking institutions “too big to fail,” he wondered aloud, aren’t we really saying that we the people are “too small to matter?”

It was hard to escape the conviction, as I listened to West’s rousing conclusion, that Martin Luther King Jr. would be identifying his cause with that question, were he alive today.

What was remarkable was West’s way of posing the question, the lyric and critical cadence that made us all very nearly believe that Martin was in the room.