What should we be reading?

Cornel West on BBC Newsnight with Gavin Esler talking about race, class, empire, and his week at CRASSH.

Cornel West on BBC Newsnight with Gavin Esler talking about race, class, empire, and his week at CRASSH.

Just over a week ago I had the pleasure of running around after Cornel West, a man described variously as a philosopher and professor or an activist, actor (he stars in The Matrix) and orator. One of my favourite descriptions of him though is this:

Dr. Cornel West’s voice is so motivational that hearing him read a grocery list could make heads nod in unison and inspire one to cry out, “He’s right! We have to do something about the lack of peanut butter in this house!” from bohemiam.com

And inspirational he was in three public conversations on politics, philosophy and literature with Paul Gilroy, MM McCabe and Ben Okri. The conversations in the end were equally split between the public figures on stage and the audience. The final question at the end of Cornel and Ben Okri’s conversation on literature and the nation particularly sticks in my mind. An English student at the back of the room stood up and asked who should we be reading from outside the Western canon? This followed an hour and a half’s chat in which Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Melville, and others were trotted out. Here’s the answer the question got (apologies I didn’t manage to scribble down quite all the names!):

Ben Okri:
Teach around the world. Let people know the fabulous writing on all the continents and the world of extraordinary writers doing very different things. Let me give you a spew of names of people who have had a really big impact on me:

  • Amos Tutuola
  • Chinua Achebe (a lot of people discovered him when he died, which is very annoying, but at least something got started)
  • Wole Soyinka (who had to win a Nobel Prize before ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ was staged at the National Theatre again)
  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o
  • Toni Morrison
  • Hama Tuma
  • Alex La Guma

To which Cornel West added:

  • Derek Walcott
  • Gwendolyn Brooks
  • August Wilson
  • and, last but not least, one Ben Okri – and with that the audience burst into suitably enthusiastic applause.

I’d only heard of about half of those names. Cornel went further in an interview with the King’s Review in which he said:

But what that means, though, is that in a place like Cambridge, W.E.B. Du Bois ought to be integral to the curriculum. It ought to be impossible to graduate from Cambridge University without reading Du Bois. On your own or assigned. These voices ought to be integral – the Toni Morrisons, James Baldwins, Gwendolyn Brooks, C.L.R. Jameses, Stuart Halls, and we could go on and on. And it’s not a matter of just being inclusive and sensitive to black people. It’s that these voices are playing a fundamental role in wrestling with what it means to be human, like everybody else.

You’re planting seeds. Most of pedagogy is like the parable of the sower: you know you plant the seeds but you don’t get to see them sprout. Somewhere down the line, you have a crisis at 35, mid-life crisis at 50, then you start crawling back to all those humanistic texts that were speaking to the soul. ‘Now that I’ve made all this money I need to go back to those things…’ 

This being CRASSH the three conversations are available as videos (thanks Glenn Jobson and Sam Mather). During his week at CRASSH Cornel West was also interviewed live on BBC Newsnight, which was an exciting evening for me! Hugh Muir came along to the conversation with Cornel West and Ben Okri; his Guardian interview with Cornel made the cover of G2 and even the frontpage of the Guardian. It doesn’t get much more topical/ newsworthy/ high impact/ public engagement-y than that.

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