Dr. Cornel West, A Black Christian 4 Palestine
When I traveled to Palestine for the first time my heart was cracked open and shattered into a million pieces. I listened to Palestinians tell me about their homes being demolished, about military night raids, about neighborhoods being bombed for target practice. I listened to former Israeli Defense Soldiers confess to the inhumane evils they were asked to commit upon innocent civilians and I couldn’t help but to wonder what our Black Christian tradition had to say about this. When I heard Dr. West describe Jesus as a Palestinian Jew of Nazareth my curiosity spiked. What did he mean by that? I thought to myself. I met Dr. Cornel West in his course on the Philosophy of W.E.B. Dubois during my first semester of graduate school at Harvard. As a Masters of Theological Studies student focused on African/American religions I knew I’d gain so much wisdom from the class, but I couldn’t have known how many questions it’d open up for me moving forward. Years earlier, in my Popular Culture of the Middle East course while in undergrad at USC someone mentioned that there was no such thing as an Arab Jew, and that perplexed me further. Why would someone think that? And who benefitted from such a conception? I thought again.
In al-Khalil, the city where my grandfather was from, I saw dusty doors of buildings that made up a once vibrant marketplace on al-Shuhada street spray painted with the words “Death to Arabs” as young seven year old boys beckoned me for coins. The look in their eyes screamed “help me, please” but what could little old me possibly do? As I reached inside my pocket for some change I felt helpless knowing my efforts would be dismal. The boys reminded me of the beggars I’d frequently see on the bus ride to Bonoco station in Salvador Bahia, Brasil whenever I entered the community at Cosme de Farias for Capoeira class. Even there, I wondered what the Black prophetic tradition had to say about the pressures of poverty, war and racism. I saw white evangelicalism justify the anti-Black practices that attacked the marginal and religion weaponized to maintain the status quo. When I met Christians at Sabeel, a Palestinian Liberation Theology center in Jerusalem, I began to see a proverbial light, but the tunnel to freedom still seemed so dim and slim. I kept recalling Harvard’s motto, Veritas (Truth in Latin), and Dr. West’s words:
“The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.”
The structural violence was all too familiar; from the tear gas, to the community surveillance, to the corrupt court hearings and hired infiltrators, the same form of racist policing that plagued our Black community in the U.S. fiercely sucked the life and dignity away from precious Palestinians. Accustomed to what Dr. West may call the “sanitized and deodorized” western eurocentric portrayal of Jesus as a white man with blonde hair and blue eyes, it was the first time I’d heard anyone associate Jesus with Palestine in the academy. When whiteness constantly approximates itself to the Divine, not only does it reinforce false depictions, it also distances people of color from the possibility of carrying any sense of inherent worth and goodness. In other words, how we view ourselves in relation to God matters and those messages are constantly being communicated within our culture.
After learning that Howard Thurman, the first Black Chaplain of Religious and Spiritual Life at Boston University, a minister and spiritual counselor to Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, is who etched such understanding, I sought Thurman’s writing. By centering Jesus as a God of the oppressed Thurman’s work strengthened the Black community’s spiritual resolve, providing hope and vision as they navigated horrific conditions of living with their backs up against the treacherous wall of economic exploitation and racism in America. That Dr. West so openly called into question these inaccurate portrayals of God, deepened my respect for him, and also broadened my scope for what the Black Christian tradition could teach us about the quest for Truth, Beauty and Justice.
Calling upon the wisdom of the best in the Jewish, Christian, Muslim traditions to lovingly critique the violence that U.S. Imperialism imposes on innocent citizens, Dr. West’s commitment to the pursuit of justice is not only deeply rooted in the Black prophetic tradition but it is concerned with moral consistency. Whether referring to Edward Said, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Howard Zinn, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Anna Julia Cooper among many others in his praxis, each of these figures remained unwavering in charting a path toward freedom courageous enough to critique race and empire. When I returned from my trip, I noticed that Palestine was a taboo topic on campus, yet Dr. West continued to speak up in student organizations and events. After Michelle Alexander released her call to “Break The Silence on Palestine” in the New York Times, outside of her receiving the usual harassment and character assassinations that comes with such a stance, not surprisingly, nothing much changed in regard to campus climate. The disproportionate and undeniable misrepresentation of Palestinian voices within North American higher education became glaringly apparent.
If Dr. West is not able to obtain tenure, based on his principled stance that Palestinians deserve equal rights, what might that mean for the rest of us?
When I was asked to serve in a leadership role for Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) to facilitate the newly formed Black Christians for Palestine Network I was heartened to see that Dr. West was one of the organization’s advisors. Standing on the backs of work done by Rev. Nyle Fort, Taurean Webb, Sarah Nahar, Rev. Erica Williams, Rev. Graylan Hagler, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Rev. Leslie Callahan, Rev. Karlene Griffiths Sekou and so many others the Black Christian tradition teaches us so much about speaking truth to power, cultivating our spiritual sustenance amid senseless oppression, safeguarding truth and allowing suffering to speak. Could non-violent resistance and interfaith coalition building indeed be a bedrock for change and liberation in today’s increasingly plural world? In my role as Africana Spirituality advisor at the multi-faith chaplaincy on Tufts University campus I continue to ponder these questions. In the spirit of Howard Thurman, when our backs are against the wall, may we stand courageous and choose to answer the call.
Dr. West has demonstrated what an honest public intellectual looks like, inspiring generations to nourish, nurture and replenish the life of the mind. He’s unabashedly illustrated what Living and Loving Outloud means, honoring the least of these even while walking the ranks of those in the highest echelons of society. The joy he elicits, the change he sparks, the paideia — critical self-examination — he implores ensures that any person lucky enough to cross paths with him, learn from him, maybe even laugh with him are all the better for it.
May we continue to fight the good fight and uplift our dear brother Cornel West in the struggle for liberation, someone who represents and upholds the best in our Black prophetic tradition. Current Harvard Students penned a letter calling on the administration to rectify such a discriminatory decision, one that repeats an unpleasant history between the University and West that resulted in a no-confidence vote of then President Summer by faculty. I invite you to support Dr. West in continuing to exercise his right to academic freedom by taking action here today.
In solidarity and love,
© 2021 Azmera Hammouri-Davis; All Rights Reserved