We are in Boston today, visiting our friend, David Ginnings, who began working at Harvard recently as a digital learning designer. He and I worked together back in Missouri. He and his family moved to Boston last spring, and they are very happy in their new, incredible city. Betsy and I took the train to Cambridge with Dave, then he had to go to a meeting, so we signed up for a student-led tour of the campus.
When senior history major and tour guide, Brandon, was sharing the history of the Yard with us, I saw a familiar figure walk out the door of Harvard Hall. Without hesitating for a moment, I blurted to Betsy, “Cornel West,” and I was gone.
I have casually read Dr. Cornel West’s writings for 15 years or more. But, there’s nothing casual about this man’s mind or message. “Music at its best…is the grand archeology into and transfiguration of our guttural cry, the great human effort to grasp in time our deepest passions and yearnings as prisoners of time. Profound music leads us – beyond language – to the dark roots of our scream and the celestial heights of our silence.” Besides music, he’s taught me how to think about politics, religion, and scholarship. He introduced the jazz metaphor to me…where things are organic and improvisational after the foundation is understood. Everything he says and writes seems to have a wisdom beyond years and a depth beyond time. His work has had a big impact on how I think and try to communicate. When I was teaching a summer program at Princeton in 2004, a handful of African-American students jumped up and ran out of my classroom when they saw Professor West walk by. He and Andre 3000 were out for a stroll around campus. The cool thing is these young people weren’t interested in catching Andre, they wanted to shake hands with Brother West. I excused their temporary absence and applauded their priorities!
I had the same reaction, these 13 years later. When I saw his distinctive visage across the way, I immediately left the tour group and headed in his direction, as he turned to walk the other direction.
ME: “Excuse me, Dr. West.”
CW: (turning) “Yes, my brother!” (I extended my hand, and he took me in a full embrace)
ME: “My name is Brett Miller, and I wanted to tell you I have always appreciated your work.” (all of these words performed like a toddler talking to Santa Claus for the first time)
CW: “Ah, thank you, Mr. Miller. I see you have a ‘Veritas’ sticker on.”
ME: “Yeah, I’m on a campus tour. First time at Harvard.”
CW: “Oh yeah? Where are you from?”
CW: “Missouri? What part?”
CW: “Oh, very good.”
(I told him about the Princeton experience and apologized for letting my students ambush him. He giggled and seemed thoroughly thrilled by the story.)
ME: “Yeah, my wife and I retired from teaching, and we’re traveling the country listening to people’s stories about the things that divide us as a country.”
CW: “It’s bleak times we’re living in, my man. Bleak times. Retired? (looks me up and down) Well, you are looking fine today, my brother! And, thank you to you and your wife for your years of service as teachers. All power to you all on your project. We all need to do everything we can.” (gives me another hug)
CW: (I’m awkwardly handling my phone) “Do you want to take a picture?”
ME: “That would be awesome…cuz…I jus…(I don’t know what weird crap I mumbled at this point).” *take selfie*
CW: “All right. Well, it was really great meeting you. Good luck on your journey!” (gives me a third hug)
ME: (weird word vomit comes out of my mouth…who knows if it made any sense…) “…thank you, sir.”
I returned to the tour group, and a high five from my wife.
I know Cornel West isn’t perfect. In fact, I have publicly taken issue with his stances from time to time. But, I absolutely support who he is trying to be and what he is trying to say about love and justice in the world.