Cornel West Talks Race and Black History With Craig Ferguson

I am a huge fan of Dr. West and so when I came across the following interview I simply had to share. Dr. West makes some absolutely brilliant remarks that I hope will inspire you as it did me. As always, the transcript can be found below the fold.


Someone announces Craig Ferguson and he is greeted with cheers and applause

Ferguson: Alight everyone, thanks, thanks very much.  It’s a great day for America everybody.  (the crowd cheers loudly) Thank you, that’s right.  Now it’s a great day and I’ll tell you why.  I am not about to do a monologue about the Black experience in America. (the crowd giggles) You’re welcome every Black person in America.  No, I’m just going to talk to my guest tonight who is a scholar and author – known for books such as Race Matters and Hope on a Tightrope. Please welcome the brilliant Dr. Cornel West everybody.

Cornel West walks out dressed in customary Black suit and the two men embrace before taking their seats.

Ferguson: Dr. West
West: It’s a pleasure to see you.
Ferguson: It’s great to see you. Thanks so much for coming.
West: It’s so kind to have me though brother
Ferguson: Well listen, I uh wanna talk to you about Black History Month. I don’t know if anyone told you that.  They might have said you were here for something else, but that’s what it is.
West: That sounds good to me.
Ferguson: Alright then. Why is it important?  Tell me why Black History Month is important.
West: One is that Black history forces all of us, no matter what colour, culture, or civilization, it goes beyond even America, to raise a terrifying question. What does it mean to be human? That is a terrifying question.
Ferguson: Alright what does it mean to be human then?
West: I been working on it, I tell ya. I been wrestling with it ya
Ferguson: Well okay
West: I start with line 38A of Plato’s Apology with Socrates says: “the unexamined life is not worth living. It’s not a life for the human.” You know our English word human derives from the latin word humando which means burying.  That’s were the word humanity and humility come from.
Ferguson: Right, okay.
West: Tied to the earth, to the soil.  And this issue of what does it mean to be a featherless, two legged, linguistically conscious creature born urine and feces.
Ferguson: Hello
West: That’s who we are.  That’s who you are, that’s who I am.
Ferguson: Yeah. Not quite church of Scotland but I understand where you’re going.
West: We down in the funk right. We down in the funk.
Ferguson: Right, right.
West: Black history forces us to say, what kind of human being are we going to be in America or in the New World or anywhere else.
Ferguson: Listen us, forgive me there’s probably a lot that I’m not going to know because I wasn’t brought up in the American schools system – wasn’t taught a lot of American history. So what is the difference between Black and African American? Is there a difference?  Is there an actual reason that the phrase is…
West: Well, one, you’ve got phenotypes so for example, there’s a number of Black people, beautiful, wonderful, lovely, who come from Africa as voluntary immigrants with the change of the 1965 immigration act as a result of the Black freedom movement, Martin King and others.
Ferguson: So, everything I said at the beginning of the show is wrong then?
West: No because you have some voluntary immigrants are African Americans.
Ferguson: Right
West: You’ve got some wonderful brothers and sisters from the Caribbean.
Ferguson: Right
West: Well then you’ve got ex-Negros
Ferguson: Right
West: You see what I mean. (West smiles and points to himself) Now ex-Negroes are someone who calls him or herself Black American or African American, but what that means is, back to the question of dealing with the funk in American history, they come out of slavery.
Ferguson: Right
West: 244 years of being terrorized, traumatized, stigmatized, their babies being sold, themselves commodities to be sold, and many of their cousins resting at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean because of the millions that died, giving the 52400 voyages from Africa to the new world.  From the 15th century to the 19th century.
Ferguson: right on the slave ships.
West: that’s 400 years
Ferguson: Right
West: So that ex-negro’s are those who’ve been enslaved in the new world.  As you know for almost 80 years, were enslaved under the U.S. constitution. 
Ferguson: Right
West: And this something we always want to remind our right wing brothers and sisters, who we love but are just often wrong about a lot of things.
Ferguson: Oh okay
West: Because when they talk about the U.S. constitution we know that it’s a historic documents. It’s monumental document.
Ferguson: Right
West: But for almost 80 years in practice, it was a pro slavery document. It it were not for American of all colours to fight and break the back of slavery, we wouldn’t have that amendment, that called into question the institution of slavery.  Now there’s no reference to the institution of slavery in the constitution, that’s that innocence you were talking about.
Ferguson: I had the idea that all of the founding fathers were slave holders.
West: Not true, most of them but not all of them
Ferguson: Well John Adams he was a abolitionist.
West: John Adams, John Quincy Adams and the Adams family itself. Magnificent.
Ferguson: And then they made the tv series later, which was great. And where we got the history completely wrong about the Adams family. 
West: So you wanna keep track of those great freedom fighters like John Quincy Adams and others.  But as you know, if it were not for the 180,000 Black people who joined the union army.
Ferguson: Right
West: to conquer the confederate army, we wouldn’t even have a union.
Ferguson: But if we have the very existence of Black History Month, however well intentioned, is it possible that by saying that Black people are separated in history by the other 11 months of the year, does it not no matter however well intentioned compound the idea of separate, compound the idea of apartness? 
West: Yes, a very wonderful question. The great Carter G. Woodson the great one of the Harvard Ph.D. scholars who actually came up with this idea – he was raising the issue at that time because so much of Black sufferings had been rendered invisible.
Ferguson: Right the re-writing of history.
West: Exactly. Nobody wanted to come to terms with it.
Ferguson: But that’s not just an American thing.
West: Oh that’s a human thing.  Scottish history
Ferguson: yeah, yeah, yeah
West: The highlanders you know what I mean. The rebellious highlanders.
Ferguson: But you bring up a very interesting point, particularly when you say Scottish history.  Whenever – there’s a lot of things that I feel, that you don’t want to accept in your own history. Whenever I meet a Black in America whose name is Ferguson, I’m like where do I go with this? Cause you no it ain’t, it’s not like he’s from the same town as me you know.
West: But the wonderful thing about being human is that all of us can make certain kinds of decisions, or choices no matter who our parents are.
Ferguson: Right
West: No matter who our grandparents are and we can love our grandparents even when they make ugly choices because there are some other good things about them, but we can make choices that don’t build on them at their worst.
Ferguson: Make the change
West: Absolutely. So when you say a Black brother or sister named Ferguson you just say

Ferguson: How ya doin?
West: I am going to make some different kind of choices. It’s a beautiful day that we have.
Ferguson: I don’t think that I would be interested in that kind of choice. But the idea though that a lot of people and I think that I’m one of these people to – in your life – when you talked earlier on about the unexamined life not worthy of living, I feel the same about personal and societal history. 
West: Absolutely
Ferguson: So when you, when I encounter things in a country which I love, and I do love this country – when I encounter things you’re right are ugly in our history in all countries that I can see have ugliness or people have ugliness,
West: Human society is a cycle of domination, oppression and bigotry and revenge, and hatred. So you want to break the chain.
Ferguson: So how do you do it? Through life that is
West: Well break the chain.  Well I think courage is the enabling virtue that you then try to have the courage to think critically for yourself.
Ferguson: Right
West: To have the courage to love others beginning with yourself. Love begins at home. You gotta begin with loving yourself, your mother, your father, that’s the Scottish love and the spill over love. So it spills over from the Scots to Black folk, Brown, red, yellow and so forth.  I begin with negros and ex-negros.
Ferguson: Right
West: Mom, dad and so forth. They love me and I’ve loved them. You are who you are because somebody love you. I am who am because somebody loved me.  You got to have the courage for the love to spill over,
Ferguson: Right
West: So form chocolate city it gets to vanilla suburb. See what I mean? It gets to red reservation. It gets to yellow. It gets to Brown bario and so forth and so in that sense we are back to hermando again – our human commonality. Even given the history which we have to come to terms, which courage. You see the problem right now is that we don’t have enough courage. Because you see, all the fears and anxieties that we have, the difficulty of building bridges, it reinforces a certain kind of cowardice. You know hatred itself at its worst is nothing more than a form of cowardice.
Ferguson: Yeah but it’s approached, the idea of history right the idea of looking at the ugliness of the past, but what about when you have the idea that  – Orwell wrote, “he controls the past, controls the present” right
West: Oh yes, that’s a powerful quote
Ferguson: When you ah, look at the idea, ah take the idea of Huckleberry Finn, when they’re re-writing, they’re take out the word. I can’t even say the word. I don’t think it’s
West: What the N word itself?
Ferguson: Right
West: I’m not crazy about that. I know what you mean.
Ferguson: Right. So the taking of that word out of the book and then putting in another word that is more acceptable to a liberal White reader now, is that — is that the right thing to do?
West: No, I don’t like that.  That’s an attempt to deodorize the funk of the text.
Ferguson: Right
West: You can’t do that. He uses the word 219 times. We know that Samuel Clemmens/Mark Twain, he’s a literary genius, ain’t no doubt about that.  He began his life as a racist confederate soldier, he grew, he matured, he became on of the major anti-racist, anti-imperialist defense of our Filipino brothers and sisters in defense of our U.S. army stationed there in the 1890’s so that Mark Twain his genius, his literary genius has to be manifested in the way that he put it forward. 
Ferguson: Right, he knew what he was doing
West: He knew what he was doing. We just need superb teachers to say, now this is the context, now 1887, there was Jim Crow and Jane Crow already beginning to emerge. After slavery we had this wonderful experience of multi-racial democracy called reconstruction. We had more Black senators in the 1870’s than we do today.  Isn’t that something? I know we got brother Barack and that makes a difference. That makes the difference but the senate looks like the national hockey league.

There were a few things that Dr.West said that moved me.  I was inspired when he said that Black history forces us to ask who we are?  Given the atrocities and successes of Blacks, I believe that this is absolutely fundamental.  I was further moved by his suggestion that we suffer from a lack of courage.  You see it takes courage to examine one’s privilege and speak out against the horrors of this world.  It will always be easier to go along with the status quo and conform.  What stood out to you about what he had to say?

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