11 Must-Read Books for Black History Month

11 Must-Read Books for Black History Month

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As Black History Month commences, here are a few must-have books from Black authors, spanning time periods, themes and genres. However, one thing they have in common is critical acclaim and a strong command of tackling the Black experience with grace, courage, originality, and historical context, making them essential reads during Black History Month and throughout the year.

1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece novel is frequently included on the list of must-read American books by one of the most prolific Black authors. The story follows an African American man whose color renders him invisible. It’s a groundbreaking take on a racially polarized society and the struggle to find oneself through it all.

2. Home by Toni Morrison

The 2012 novel by Morrison tells the story of a 20-something Korean War veteran and his journey home from an integrated army to a segregated society. The book was named one of the best novels of 2012 for its careful consideration of mental illness, race relations, family, history, and the concept of home.

3. How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston, a longtime writer for The Onion, serves up laughs with this collection of comical essays, such as “How to Speak for All Black People” and “How To Celebrate Black History Month.” Thurston covers social interactions and media portrayals with an insightful and satirical perspective.

4. God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson, creator of the Black National AnthemLift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” first published God’s Trombones in 1927 as a book of poems. The poems take on the structure of a traditional sermon and tell several different parables and Bible stories, some of which specifically focus on the African American story. Dr. Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates have called this collection one of Johnson’s most notable works.

5. The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates

From the best-selling author comes a poignant tale of life and race in the inner city. Coates explains how his father worked for his sons to obtain a free education and escape Baltimore’s drug culture. This inspiring book tells a powerful narrative about community and honoring your history across generations.

6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen is an award-winning collection of literature blurring the lines between poetry and criticism. Divided into seven chapters, it provides a powerful meditation on race that creates a lyrical portrait of our current social and political climate. Hailed as “a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of Black life in America,” according to the Washington Post. Citizen is said to feel like an “eavesdropping on America.”

7. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

You may think you know Malcolm X, but you’ve never read anything like Marable’s highly-regarded biography, which provides new perspectives and information on the controversial leader. Marable connects Malcolm’s life with other leaders, faith, and Black Nationalism in a masterful, historical context and call for social change.

8. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

In this novel, an African American teenager spends a summer with his brother in 1985 Sag Harbor. The work is more personal than most of Whitehead’s books and explores race, class, and commercial culture in light of a newer generation of Black Americans who are less marked by their color.

9. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

In a classic tale, Wilkerson chronicles the journey of three African Americans who took part in the massive movement from the South to the North, Midwest, and West that millions of Black families took in the 20th century. The Warmth of Other Suns is an acclaimed historical account that studies a definitive period in American history.

10. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes

This extensive collection of poems was hand-picked by Hughes, himself, prior to his death in 1967 and span his entire career. They offer a breathtaking look at being Black in America that is contemplative, celebratory, gut-wrenching and praiseworthy. From “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “The Weary Blues,” to “Still Here” and “Refugee in America,” this collection directs us to fight, believe, dream, and claim our self-worth.

11. Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals

In this riveting memoir, Beals recounts her time on the front lines of school desegregation as a member of the Little Rock Nine – the group of African-American students who famously integrated Arkansas’ Central High School. Her account of the harrowing experiences that forged her courage will stick with you long after the last page.

Video Courtesy of LEFT ON READ

Are there other titles that you’d like to add to the list? Share them below.

Riots, Slave States, and Kool-Aid: Race Talk After the Election

It’s been a week since the presidential election, and much of the chatter prior to Election Day about how racially divided America is has continued in different forms thanks to a crop of strange and often disturbing news stories that feature racial subtexts. Here are a few.

Mississippi Burning

After President Obama’s victory, reports circulated about a race riot on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Apparently some students were angry over the Obama win and caused a ruckus which included the torching of an Obama/Biden poster. But was it a “race” riot?

Facebook Rant Gets Woman Fired

A woman was fired from her job after using a racial slur to describe President Obama on Facebook and writing “maybe he will get assassinated.” She claims she is not a racist but was just stating an opinion.

Angry White Men

Several commentators explored the phenomenon of angry aging white conservative voters who have been in denial about America’s changing demographics and what it means for their future.

Angry States Want to Secede

In the wake of the Nov. 6 election, petitions seeking to secede from the union have been filed on behalf of some 30 states on the White House website. Most of the petitions ask to withdraw “peacefully” from the United States in order to form independent governments.

Slavery Map 1859 vs. Election Map 2012

A new meme has been making the rounds in social media that displays maps of slaveholding states in 1859, legally segregated states in 1950, and the breakdown of red vs. blue states after the 2012 election. The suggestion is that the slaveholding and segregated states from the past bear an uncanny similarity to the states won by Romney last week. But the meme doesn’t mention that Obama won Florida (as well as Virginia). So, does the comparison meant to show how far we’ve come, or how some things never change?

Obama’s Black Liberal Critics Are Still Mad, Too

Reports from The Grio and The Root find Cornel West calling President Obama “a Republican in black face.” And African American political pundit Boyce Watkins warns African Americans against “drinking the Kool-Aid” again and argues that Obama has yet to demonstrate a serious interest in tackling issues deeply affecting the African American community, including poverty, black unemployment, urban violence, and the mass incarceration of black men.

Those are just a few of the post-election race stories that are making headlines. Did we miss any? Is this much ado about nothing? Please share your opinions below.

Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

STAINED GLASS FALLACIES: Since the early 1800s, European-flavored Jesus imagery has been mass-produced in the United States. After the Civil War, the notion of a ‘white’ Jesus became widely promulgated. (Image: Thinkstock Photos)

In their groundbreaking new book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, historians Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey embark on a sweeping examination of how Americans came to believe in the whiteness of Jesus. Having grown up white in Oklahoma and New Jersey respectively, Blum and Harvey say they had to “unlearn a lot of white privilege over the years.” Chief among the ideas they sought to reverse in their thinking was the assumption that God is somehow attached to whiteness and white authority.

“We decided to write about how God has been presented as white in the form of Jesus in order to expose how insidious racism has been throughout American history — that it even wraps itself in the flesh of God,” says Blum. He adds that another motivation for the book was their concern about the false concepts that children learn about faith and race before they even have the intellectual or social wherewithal to challenge them. “Children often see the ‘race’ of Jesus before they know how to say grace in his name. We wanted Americans to confront the reality that the images we have created and continue to display influence how our children come to understand God, themselves, and others.”

In the process of their research, Blum and Harvey also gained a high esteem for “the women and men who have stood against racism and have imagined Jesus and God beyond whiteness.” White privilege benefits white people, Blum says, “but it also blinds them from many beautiful and brilliant expressions of others, especially when it comes to religious life.”

Blum spoke to UrbanFaith about his book, the origins of “white Jesus,” and how confronting the philosophies behind those misleading American images of Christ can lead to a more authentic view of God and his church. 

URBAN FAITH: When we see the traditional images of Jesus as a blondish, blue-eyed European, where do those depictions stem from historically?

DISPELLING THE MYTHS: In ‘The Color of Christ,’ San Diego State University history professor Edward Blum (along with coauthor Paul Harvey) examines the ways that race and racism have shaped America’s images of Jesus. (Photo: Courtesy of Iris Salgado)

EDWARD J. BLUM: The first few centuries of Christianity had no visual imagery of Jesus. Then various icons were created and Catholic Europeans made them in abundance during the Middle Ages. Oftentimes, they were created by Europeans with a sense of what the “ideal” human would look like – and for Europeans, that was often European.

But these images were not present in British America. The first British settlers were radical iconoclasts who not only destroyed images of Jesus, but also opposed any displays of the Son of God. There were no dominant images of Jesus in the early America that became the United States.

Only after the United States became a new nation did Americans begin producing images of Jesus. He was not blue eyed at first, and his hair was brown. He was made white in this form at exactly the moment Americans were buying and selling more slaves and justifying the expropriation of Native American lands in the Southwest. In many ways, making Jesus white was an effort to sanctify these goals for land, power, and authority.

What about the first “American Jesus”? What did he look like, and when was it decided that he was white?

Jesus was first mass-produced in the United States in the early 1800s, but it was not until after the Civil War that his being white became an object of widespread discussion. When emancipation cut the legal ties between blackness and enslavement, it left open the question of how could whites claim to be superior. Moreover, as millions of immigrants from Asia and central and southern Europe flocked to the United States, questions of who was actually white began to animate the United States in a new way. In response, a group of white Americans started creating images of Jesus as blue-eyed and blonde haired. They knew he probably did not look this way but wanted him to be a WASP so that they could justify closing immigration doors, segregating and lynching African Americans, and viewing themselves as the most Christian and virtuous nation on earth.

Many say God transcends color and ethnicity, so why does it matter what color we make Jesus in religious and popular culture? 

As much as we would all like to see God or experience God beyond color and ethnicity, we grow up in and live within a society that focuses intensely on race. For instance, Barack Obama is not known as the first president from Hawaii. He’s known as the first “black president” — even though his mother was considered “white.” Everything from legal codes to children’s shows to cultural jokes are filled with notions of biological differences and presentations of them. We learn to see and experience race at extraordinarily early ages.

This is true of thinking about God as well. Most studies show that when groups of people are asked to imagine what Jesus looked like, they see a white man. Even taught that that is not the case; even shown other images; and even knowing that Jesus lived 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, most Americans still see a white Jesus when they close their eyes. We have to work through those preconceived assumptions before getting to a God that transcends color or ethnicity. Only by first acknowledging how our society has — and does — “color” God and Jesus can we then move forward to seeing beyond that.

What does the Bible tell us about Jesus’ physical appearance?

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John say nothing about the race or physical appearance of Jesus. They discuss Jesus having a body; they narrate how he touched and healed bodies; they tell the story of how his body was harmed, killed, and then resurrected (with the holy holes still in his hands). But the Gospels say nothing about his hair, his eye color, or his skin tone. In Isaiah and in the book of Revelation, however, there are passages that some Christians have taken to indicate what Jesus looked like. Isaiah 52 and 53 mention how the “servant” of God will be raised and lifted up. In appearance, he will be “disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” This servant will have “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Some Christian thinkers have taken these passages to apply to Jesus and to mean that he must have been ugly for his times. Then in Revelation, the author reports seeing one “like a Son of Man” whose head and hair were “white like wool” and whose “eyes were like blazing fire.” His feet “were like bronze glowing in a furnace.” For some African Americans, this has meant that his skin and hair looked more like a black person than a white person.

Evangelical theologian Thomas C. Oden has written a series of much-discussed volumes on Christianity’s African roots. How do you respond to this new evangelical awareness of Christianity’s African connection, and what might it mean for depictions of Christ?

Separating the “Middle East” from “Africa” is a certainly a western geographical fiction that hurts our understandings of the world now and in the past. The Palestine of Christ’s age was the crossroads of the world, and northern Africa was a huge player in that political, social, and cultural exchange. It is crucial for American Christians today to recognize the African roots of the faith in order to unlearn their assumptions about Africa as a monolith, as a place that is supposedly backward or uncivilized, and as a place that fails to matter.

Even more, American Christians need to begin seeing the “body of Christ” in a new way. Rather than think about what Jesus actually looked like, they could consider that other believers are the “body of Christ” and to fail to listen to them, heed their insights, or interact with them as equals, does harm to the overall kingdom of God. Oden’s work is supremely helpful in pushing all of us in that direction.

But geography should not overwhelm faith. Native Americans have no geographical tie to the biblical age, but their insights about faith, about Jesus, and about how to live in a sin-sick world should be taken seriously as well, even though there are no Native American roots of biblical Christianity.

In the 1940s, African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark performed famous experiments using dolls to study children’s attitudes about race. When given a choice between white and black dolls, they found that African American children typically favored the white dolls. Did you find any similar phenomena happening with children and their perceptions of Jesus?

At the same moment that the Clarks were asking about dolls, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier was asking African American teenagers about God and Jesus. What he found was amazing. He found that these teenagers during the Great Depression knew that something was up about how Jesus was presented. Although most acknowledged that Jesus was somehow white, they answered with claims that “the pictures showed he was white” or that “whites would not accept him to not be white.” These African American teenagers seemed to know that Christ’s color was complicated, that the creators of the images mattered and that those who had power in society influenced what images were made. Basically, these black teenagers in the midst of the Great Depression seemed to know something that many others have been unwilling to acknowledge: our visual depictions of God and Christ are made by particular people and for particular people.

This is why even when African Americans placed white Jesus imagery in their churches, it did not necessarily mean they had some kind of group-hating pathology. It was far more complicated. Rendering Jesus as a white man who acted unlike other white men took the power off skin and placed it onto action. Moreover, it provided a rebuke of other whites — that they were not acting like Jesus by segregating African Americans. It also served as hope that perhaps one day all the various people of the world could come together as sisters, brothers, and friends, as Jesus had called his disciples at the end — his friends.

There are two artists who represent two very different ideas about what Jesus looked like. One is Warner Sallman, whose famous Jesus painting appears on your book’s cover. Who was Sallman and what was his impact on Jesus imagery?

Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ” from the early 1940s is the most reproduced painting of Jesus in world history. The son of European immigrants, Sallman painted for a small group of evangelical Christians around Chicago. His “Head of Christ” exploded onto the national and international scene. It is a profile of Jesus with nothing in the background. He has long, wavy blonde hair and blue eyes. For many, many Christians, this became the face of Jesus. It became the model for television and movie casting, and it went everywhere.

This calming image of Jesus was important to many Americans during the turbulence of the 1940s and 1950s. World War II was horrific; atomic bombs made it possible for the world to be destroyed. The emerging Cold War was terrifying. And then many Americans worried that their children were out of control (as shown in the film Rebel Without a Cause). Many Americans placed this Jesus in their homes and in their Sunday school classrooms to provide comfort. Somehow, a white Jesus would save them from nuclear holocaust or Communist secret agents.

The second artist is Fred Carter, who isn’t mentioned in your book yet whose work may be very recognizable for many African American Christians. Could you tell us about Carter and how you appraise his significance in this universe of Jesus imagery?

Fred Carter’s art should have been discussed in The Color of Christ. Since art historian David Morgan did such a nice job analyzing Fred Carter’s works in Visual Piety, we somewhat forgot to make a point to include Carter’s pieces. By neglecting them, however, we missed the opportunity to point out some huge changes since the 1960s in African American organizational creations and growth and how Mr. Carter’s art and its popularity were built on new organizations. If we had included Mr. Carter’s work, we would have been able to show how new art worked with new publishing houses to create a new visual culture for African American churches.

JESUS IN COLOR: An example of Fred Carter’s biblical art for Urban Ministries, Inc. Carter’s work helped create a more authentic visual culture for African American churches.

In particular, Mr. Carter’s images of Jesus reveal what scholar Anthony Pinn calls a “nitty-gritty” theology. Carter’s Christ is a full person who sweats, bleeds, and pleads. His dark skin is only one part of the reality of his embodiment. Carter shows Jesus experiencing all of the pains that we do as humans. They are poignant and fascinating portrayals. [Editor’s Note: Fred Carter’s artwork is also prominently featured in the Christian education publications of UrbanFaith’s parent company, Urban Ministries, Inc.]

In your introduction, you state that, “The white Jesus promised a white past, a white present, and a future of white glory.” What do you mean by that?

Basically, as race has been made in modern America, it presents itself as omnipresent in the past, in the present, and in the future. We are taught that there have always been “white” people, “black” people, etc. But we know that different people at different times divide themselves differently. One thousand years ago, hardly anyone would call themselves “white” and the category “African American” did not exist.

So how did race make itself seem to transcend time? We think Jesus is a key to this answer. By focusing on the body of Christ and by making him white, Americans subtly mapped racial concepts onto a person who has existed before the creation of the world and will be there at its end. If Jesus was white, then he is white. And if Jesus is the alpha and the omega, then somehow his whiteness was at the beginning and will be at the end. Of course, no one (except maybe some Klansmen) would ever say this, but the lesson is one taught without words.

Toward the end of the book, you explore a bit of the Jeremiah Wright controversy that gave his famous parishioner, Barack Obama, so much grief during his 2008 presidential campaign. You note that though white America was shocked by Wright’s “God Damn America” sermon, which in passing mentioned that “Jesus was black,” Wright’s brand of liberation theology was not that unusual or unsettling for African American audiences. Could you talk about liberation theology’s role in pushing back against many of America’s popular depictions of Jesus?

Beginning actively in the late 1960s, black liberation theologians like James Cone explicitly challenged the whitening of European and American theology and Christianity. They were reacting, in part, to how white ideologies had warped American Christianity to accept segregation, economic exploitation, and violence. The liberation theologians were also reacting to black power advocates who wanted to dismiss Christianity as purely a tool of the oppressors. Cornel West, for instance, found himself at odds with Black Panthers in California — not because of their economic program, but because of their opposition to Christianity. Cone, West, and many others set out to reconcile the faith of their mothers and fathers with their political opposition to white supremacy and class disenfranchisement.

These theologians saw Jesus as “black” in an ontological sense, meaning that regardless of what Christ actually looked like, his actions, attitudes, and sense of being aligned him with the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the hurting. In America, this means he was not only affiliated with “blackness,” but was “black” this way as well.

Black liberation theologians made crucial inroads into white universities and colleges. Cone and West obtained prestigious positions at Union Theological Seminary, Princeton, and Harvard. They then mentored dozens (if not hundreds) of scholars to continue the attack upon the whitening of the gospel.

Liberation theologians also participated in new black arts movements that visualized Jesus beyond whiteness. The theological momentum was part of broader changes in African American church life and beyond. Many whites, including myself, were first directed to challenging the white Jesus through the works of writers like Cone and West.

What are the primary myths surrounding Christ that you hope to dispel with your book?

The first and most important myth we want to dispel is that people necessarily and simply make Jesus look like themselves. This myth transforms religious imagery into little more than ethnic or cultural chauvinism. This myth also ignores so many other factors, such as the ability to create images and to distribute them widely. Technology, capital, and time matter significantly in what images can be made and which images can be widely displayed.

The second myth we want to counter is that black liberation theology is somehow new (or at least was born in the 1960s). By giving liberation theology a short history, we have ignored a much longer history where many everyday people — white, black, and Native American, women and men, young and old — have participated in challenging the whiteness of Jesus and the whitening of Christianity. Moreover, the longer history shows that the efforts to find liberation through Christian faith have touched on music and art, poetry and protest movements, and all other kinds of expressions. Black liberation theology was never simply defined by or for theologians and ministers, but it was a movement of everyday people that began almost two centuries ago.

Editor’s Note: For more information, visit the official website for The Color of Christ book at www.colorofchrist.com. At the site, readers can follow along with the images, videos, and texts described in the book and check out additional interviews with scholars, artists, and everyday people about why the color of Christ matters. Visitors also can share their personal stories about encountering Jesus in various visual forms.

Serious Summer Reads

From prisoners’ rights to lynching to Black women’s identity, the summer presents a unique opportunity for us all to engage in academic works that provide fresh perspectives on the world we live in. Scholars from a myriad of disciplines, investigating Black life in America, can aid us as we seek to strengthen our presence in communities addressing social needs. So here, from our friends at Urban Cusp, are just a few books that will enrich your mind and soul this summer:


In what will possibly be remembered as one of the greatest contributions to the study of African American life, political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and Columbia professor Marc Lamont Hill offer readers access to dynamic conversations and insight. From topics ranging from Hip-Hop to politics to love and relationships, these two men, living two different realities, give others a chance to hear from themselves what it means to navigate as Black men in today’s society.


Possibly the most necessary voice in Black Liberation Theology formation, James Cone’s latest offering examines the parallel between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of African Americans. Cone also analyzes why this connection has largely been ignored and the theological implications. The Cross and the Lynching Tree, if read as a collaborative exercise between Black and White congregations, could spark dialogue leading to true healing and reconciliation.


Many Black congregations have regarded hip-hop culture, for years, as “the devil’s playground.” That ideology has perpetuated the disconnect between younger and older generations of African-Americans. In That’s the Joint!, many of today’s leading intellectuals engage in Hip-Hop scholarship discussing its history, global impact, social activism and identity politics. This reader will be essential to any leader interested in understanding the full context of a culture often misunderstood.


Written by the late Rev. Ronald Nored, Reweaving the Fabric tells how one church in Birmingham, Alabama worked to regain the trust of their community and collaborated with them to completely revitalize the neighborhood. Complete with step-by-step procedures, surveys and substantive advice, Reweaving the Fabric is necessary for any congregation seeking to collaborate with their community for social change but needs help envisioning what it looks like.


Using current statistics and stories from their national poverty tour, Smiley and West paint a portrait of poverty in America and provide 12 suggestions for what can be done to eradicate it. The Rich and the Rest of Us can help churches understand the economic challenges their members and surrounding communities face and steer them in a direction of shaping ministry initiatives to meet pressing needs.


Glave, in Rooted in the Earth, traces the historical and adverse relationship between African-Americans and nature, from crossing oceans during the transatlantic slave trade to lynchings from southern trees. Glave works to define the role Black communities can play in sustainable development initiatives. An area where many African-American congregations have been silent, Rooted in the Earth enables Black churches to find their voice in environmental justice and conservation efforts.


Through varied analyses, Harris-Perry traces some of the most prevailing stereotypes of African-American women and examines how these stereotypes impact their political engagement. Central to the book’s thesis is the notion of misrecognition, including how Black women misrecognize themselves. As an organization comprised of 85% women, Sister Citizen offers Black congregations an opportunity to speak openly and honestly about issues affecting women.


In this work, McRoberts analyzes the religious ecology in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Boston, Massachusetts. He finds that 29 churches are within this one community and they are mostly run and attended by people who don’t live there but commute in for worship. With these characteristics, congregations are less likely to make strong connections with the community and participate in its social change. Streets of Glory is vital for leaders with congregations similar to those researched and helps those churches gain insight on how to build sustaining community relationships.

Are there any books that you’ve read from this list that you have thoughts on? What books would you add to this list? Let us know below.

 This post originally appeared at UrbanCusp.com. It is reprinted here by permission.

A Funky Retirement: Celebrating Cornel West

Bootsy Collins giving an award to Cornel West

Recording artist Bootsy Collins is one of many artists Cornel West has inspired.

I’ve only known retiring Princeton University professor Cornel West as a celebrity activist. I’ve never read Race Matters, his most popular book, or any of his others (though I’m off to the library momentarily with a list). I first encountered West, with no clue as to who he was, at the 2007 American Academy of Religion annual meeting in San Diego, where he and talk show host Tavis Smiley shared a stage. In what became one of the most popular articles ever published on my personal blog, I described that experience as an exciting “gospel pep rally.”

Even in the hallways at AAR, West had the air of celebrity about him. Perhaps it was his appearance in two of the Matrix films. As I passed him, he seemed to expect people to recognize and stop him. When he called out a question from the back of the room at a panel discussion of philosopher Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age, everyone paid attention.

I began paying attention too, both when he was campaigning for presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 and since he’s become one of the president’s most vocal critics on the political left. Last year, I heard West speak eloquently and passionately about racism in the criminal justice system at the Princeton University Imprisonment of a Race conference with author Michelle Alexander.

P-Funk & Eddie Glaude, Jr.

Eddie Glaude, Jr. said Cornel West has been his "saving grace."

I’m aware that some Black intellectuals have a “What have you done for me lately?” attitude towards West’s academic achievements. Glenn Loury of Brown University and John McWhorter of Columbia University, for example, dissected his intellectual output in a Blogging Heads dialogue last summer. Their basic critique was that West hasn’t produced any substantive academic work in at least a decade and has chosen instead to be famous.

I’m also aware that West’s theology makes some evangelicals uncomfortable. Earlier this year, a nationally known Black Christian leader told UrbanFaith that West had been disinvited from a speaking engagement at a popular conference because West was perceived as too controversial. Our source said other Black leaders were upset about this and were in discussions with conference organizers about the situation. In trying to discern if it was a story worth reporting, I called West’s office at Princeton University and spoke to an assistant. She said they knew nothing about it, but confirmed that a video crew was coming to film a segment rather than having him appear live at the event. Of course, I thought. What better way to save face and control the message. North Park University, on the other hand, welcomed West to its Justice Summit with open arms in March.

Lupe Fiasco

Hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco has referenced Cornel West on four projects.

West is retiring from Princeton University after spending 40 years on and off as a part of the community, first as a doctoral student and then as a member of the Religion and African-American Studies faculty. He’ll be returning to Union Theological Seminary where he taught early in his career. Last night, when I attended his retirement celebration at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, I didn’t go into the event as naively as I had the first time I heard him speak. But I knew it would be a good party, and it was. Musical performances ranged from gospel to show tunes to jazz to hip-hop to what my son described as trip-hop to funk. All the artists were stellar. What most interested me, though, was what people said about West.

Eddie Glaude, Jr., chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, said West has “loved him to death” over many years. “As a deeply wounded young man from the coast of Mississippi, he has been my saving grace,” said Glaude. He also talked about the importance of West’s academic contributions, including how West “pushed and shaped how we think about Black liberation theology.”

Angela Groves, Princeton UniversityClass of 2012

Angela Groves spoke for many when she said Cornel West is a "master teacher."

“A generation of young African-American scholars found their feet in the expansiveness of Cornel’s intellectual imagination, reaching for his in-depth understanding of the western intellectual cannon and his profound grasp of the African-American intellectual tradition,” said Glaude, who also credited West with teaching him to stand in a tradition “defined by quality of mind and a disciplined practice.” On another personal note, Glaude said West once told him, “We’re all wounded and we have a choice. We can either be wounded healers or wounded hurters.” West, said Glaude, has chosen “to work at being a wounded healer.”

Princeton’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman, described West as a “prophetic Christian” who was raised in both the Black Baptist and the Black Panther traditions. She said his tenure as a professor at Harvard University (which ended badly) was a “period of self-inflicted exile” and recounted stories of West’s exploits both on and off the Princeton campus. Shortly after West returned to Princeton from Harvard in 2002, Tilghman was at an alumni dinner in Atlanta when someone asked a “querulous” question about West. “A young alumna stood up before I could even begin to answer and said, ‘You’ve got it all wrong. Cornel West was the most devoted teacher I had at Princeton and he changed my life,'” Tilghman recalled.

She talked about a group of graduate students in religion holding a marathon 11-hour seminar with West and about his generous response to a group of Black children that accosted him on campus. She also talked about walking down a Chicago street with him and realizing, perhaps for the first time, what a huge celebrity he is. Drivers honked their horns, taxi drivers stopped and offered rides, passengers in cars snapped photos. What all these people were responding to, she said, was “Cornel’s dedication to teaching, his wide-ranging intelligence, his enormous generosity of spirit, and his compassionate concern for the well-being of others.” “Princeton has been a far, far better place because he has been among us over the last 40 years,” Tilghman concluded.

Harry Belefonte

Actor Harry Belefonte is inspired by Cornel West's public service.

Like the alumna Tilgham spoke of and the students featured in a video montage that played between musical acts, Angela Groves, Princeton University class of 2012, said West was a great teacher. “Thank you for showing us a manifestation of courage and faith. Thank you for igniting a fire under us to serve others, to fight for justice no matter the cost, to speak truth to power, and to constantly and fearlessly examine ourselves and examine the world around us. And thank you for showing us how to do all of this from a spirit of love and compassion,” said Groves.

The celebrities in attendance also spoke. Hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco talked about West’s direct influence on popular culture, for example, and on his own music. He recalled hearing West say, “We have to make those things that are uncool cool and we have to make those things that are cool uncool.” The words stuck with him and found their way into his music. “This man is in love with love more than anybody I know,” said Fiasco.

Actor and activist Harry Belefonte said he had nearly given up on thinking there were any more “renowned figures” who use their platforms to put themselves “in the service of human need and struggle,” but then along came West. “Those of us who have been in the struggle a long time who have still got room to be inspired have been inspired by you.”

Like West and Fiasco, Belefonte has been an outspoken critic of President Obama. In that vein, he offered the only sour note of the evening, telling West, “I’ve been to the White House. These days you haven’t missed much.”

Cornel West & George Clinton

After being coaxed onstage, Cornel West embraced the opportunity to sing with George Clinton.

I was watching the show from the balcony and saw the stage manager try to coax West out of his seat to get up on stage with headliners George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. West kept resisting until she and others pressed him into service. Later, when he finally took the stage to thank everyone involved in the celebration, he spoke briefly and humbly. “I want each and every
one of you to know that when you heard those words about me, you were honoring my father, the late Clifton West, and you were honoring my mother, Irene B. West,” he said. “I hope and pray that even though tonight the focus has been on me, that it’s so much about faith in something bigger than you. …If you’re a Christian, you know that that first century Palestinian Jew named Jesus of Nazareth died for you and he’s bigger than you. … Keep the funk real, keep the vision real, keep the love real, keep the justice real, but in a spirit of self-critical smiling and laughing.”

Whatever you think of the man’s theology or politics, there’s something to be learned from his life of service grounded in faith and his dedication to the next generation, not to mention his wide-ranging taste in music. Bon voyage Dr. West!

Photos courtesy of Explorations Media, LLC; sourced via Flickr. For video of George Clinton and Lupe Fiasco performing, see Explorations Media’s YouTube channel.