tags: Howard Zinn, intellectual history
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University. He has published over twenty books, but is is best known for his classics Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.
Mordecai Lyon was born in Springfield, Massachusetts and grew up between western Mass and New York City. Lyon graduated from Tufts University in 2006 and from Columbia Journalism School in 2014. After Tufts, Lyon worked for The University of Network (TUN), a former narrowcast on hundreds of college campuses across the country and from 2008 to 2010 he produced BeFree.TV, a hip-hop mini-series that aired on TUN, featuring artists Pharoahe Monch, Immortal Technique, and Dead Prez. As a journalist his work has appeared on ESPN and ABC News, as a researcher he contributed to the publication of Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It by Wendell Potter and Nick Pennimen. After Columbia Journalism School, Lyon audited eight classes with Dr. Cornel West over four semesters at Harvard Divinity School. He is currently writing case studies and doing research for Harvard Business School.
Ten years ago, on January 27, 2010, activist historian Howard Zinn died. I never met him, but his death felt like losing a family member. If you had told me on that mournful day that a decade later I’d be interviewing Cornel West about Zinn, I would’ve told you to stop playing with me. Both Zinn and West transformed my social consciousness as a teenager.
I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, where radical abolitionist John Brown lived when he first met Frederick Douglass. After Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, John Brown, along with others, formed the League of Gileadites, an armed militia that made Springfield into one of the few effective safe havens in the country for those who’d escaped slavery. It was Zinn’s work that introduced me to Brown, as well as to so many other freedom fighters left out of textbooks.
In my sophomore year of high school, kicked out of history class one day for insubordination, I fled to the library. When the librarian asked me what I was doing there and I told her, she handed me a copy of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980). In Zinn, I found a kindred spirit and a mentor: a secular Jew like myself, he gave me a language to express my outrage at war, the exploitive practices of predatory capitalism, and the absurdities of racial discrimination.
Zinn’s words led me to the work of Cornel West, and gave me the audacity to walk up to “Doc” (as I call him now) on a chance encounter in New York City in 2017. We were both waiting outside the IFC Center on West Fourth Street to see Chasing Trane, John Scheinfeld’s documentary about John Coltrane, and I was inspired to thank West for his work. Since that day, I’ve had the honor of auditing eight of his classes and have gotten to know him as I wish I had been able to know Zinn.
In this interview, West opens up about his friendship with Zinn and what he thinks his friend would have made of the past decade.
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