Dr. Cornel West inspires, confronts and loves Tulsans at 2021 Reconciliation in America National Symposium

Image of Dr. Cornel West is not from the symposium but Robert P. George and Cornel West speaking with attendees at the Student Pavilion at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

Dr. Cornel West visited Tulsa virtually but still inspired, confronted, and loved his former hometown in profound ways at the 2021 Reconciliation in America National Symposium Thursday night

Dr. Cornel West said he applauds the coming of President Joe Biden coming to Tulsa June 1, 2021 but says he must come with a message of truth, with policy that helps Black people out of the “bowels of poverty,” and with a plan for reparations.

Urging both President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris not to fall prey to the language of “America is not racist” when it is racist. It may be less racist than it was in 1921 but this is still a city that has not accepted its role in the massacre, paid insurance claims, paid reparations, or convicted one person in the slaughter of Black Tulsans and leveling of what would have become $600 million in wealth today had the massacre never happened. That’s college educations, hundreds more businesses, schools, salons, restaurants, hospitals, churches, and homes (Source: Dr. Scott Ellsworth, quoting the new 2021 National Geographic article on Greenwood).

Dr. West was speaking at the 2021 Reconciliation in America National Symposium sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Screenshot from Dr. John W. Franklin’s dialogue with Dr. Cornel West at the 2021 Reconciliation in America National Symposium sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What was it like to hear Dr. Cornel West speak?

Listening to Dr. West speak is like standing on the shores of the beach and feeling the power of the waves and also having the trash from the ocean wash against your feet. Stay with me here. In this metaphor, you are convicted that there is a power and presence more powerful than the trash but you are still confronted by the trash of America’s White supremacy, aggressive and destructive imperialistic expansion, and land grabbing.

In other words, Dr. West is as inspiring to hear as the presence of the ocean waves, but he is going to speak the truth of what is happening today without de-odorizing it, without conforming it to the normalizing power of the “white gaze,” to speak the authentic narratives of history, and to love our enemies. His calling is to leave a taste of the kingdom, “even in the midst of the hounds of hell.” He said to never be thoroughly surprised by evil, by “strange fruit,” by Black bodies hanging from trees, but we must always respond in love while also calling out and resisting evil. “I’m not a pacifist,” he said, “I would have fought against Hitler, would have joined Mandela against apartheid, would have resisted with WWI veterans to defend Dick Rowland.” He stands against the forces of White supremacy and evil today who brutalize Black, Brown, indigenous, Asian, LGBTQ+ bodies.

To bring together two big ideas from the symposium, Isabel Wilkerson the night before said the story of Dick Rowland and Sarah Page may have been the spark, but the fuel for the Tulsa Massacre was a White dominant caste system that was offended by Black people exceeding White people in wealth and happiness. Because Black people had “offended” and broken the rules of the caste system, White people retaliated against Black people with brutality and vengeance. The massacre was a “pogrom,” a word Dr. John W. Franklin will explain in the symposium that the Yiddish press used to report the Tulsa Massacre in early June 1921.

Dr. West and Isabel Wilkerson bringing profound and important ideas at symposium

Even in naming and confronting systemic White supremacy in 1921 and 2021, Dr. West is also quick to say that every group and individual, including himself, is capable of what he calls “gansta behavior.” What he learned in Shiloh Baptist Church was to “hate the sin” of Western crimes, White supremacy, imperialistic expansion, power and land grabbing, brutalities against indigenous, Black, Brown, and LGBTQ people.

Dr. West interacts with participants lovingly and inspirationally

Even by virtual live video, Dr. West is inspiring, deeply moving to watch and hear. The way he interacts with those asking questions, with the moderators, how he quotes thinkers and influencers widely, including Blues, Jazz, and Hip Hop musicians. Black people, he said, have disproportionate influenced the world in arts, love in the face of hate, gansta behavior, white supremacy, imperialistic capitalism.

Dr. West said his “fundamentalism” is to love my neighbor as myself that flies in the face of White selective justice and love evangelicalism. We all have crooked hearts. How do we learn to love our neighbors with our crooked hearts and love their crooked hearts? Gangsta driven by narcissism, can’t act courageously because they can’t serve above their careers to find their calling.

A spiritual noble person a person who loves through lens of truth, beauty, goodness, and admits but resists the gansta nature we all have inside of us. He said we must remember those who were crushed, lied on, criminalized, crucified, not looking on ourselves through white normative gaze, something deeper, moral greatness, not the dominant caste or gansta kind but but the spirit of love as Jesus showed us.

To White people — he called “vanilla” — he asks, is there something bigger than yourself? Are you being called so it’s not just a matter of your career or your group interest but in a universal vision that embraces all of God’s humanity? It is not about being woke, but being fortified (he quoted Ephesians 6, putting on the armor of God), then he joked, that if you’re woke all the time you’re going to get insomnia, gotta take a nap.

As John Hope Franklin said, the cover up of the massacre has led to 100 years of Tulsa being deceptive, living a lie, and according to Dr. West, locking Black people into the bowels of poverty in America because of greed, contempt, hatred, and hypocrisy.

Finally and again, these evils must be met with the most powerful love of all, the love of Jesus Christ, the love that transcends hate, racism, White supremacy, pogroms, bombs, even transcends skin color, gender, and sexual orientation.

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