Cornel West has achieved renown as a professor, philosopher, historian, intellectual and political activist.
Now, he’s one of seven pre-eminent Black thought leaders exploring the topic of race through MasterClass, the streaming platform where famous experts teach subscribers an array of subjects, all virtually.
The three-part class, titled “Black History, Black Freedom, and Black Love,” launched in December, and will continue with two more installments in 2022.
“This class is historic,” West said in a phone interview. “It is unprecedented to have voices at this level coming together to define American history, modern history and the Black experience.”
The course will cover 400 years of American history. “The Past” will explore the ties between slavery and American capitalism, the 14th Amendment and the law; the history of voter suppression, equality in education and more.
The class is designed to contextualize and challenge how people think about race and racism. The shared goal among the educators is to fill the gaps that traditional education tends to leave, and empower viewers to create change.
West, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer professor of philosophy at the Union Theological Seminary, has written 20 books, including contemporary classics such as “Race Matters.”
He has been teaching a MasterClass on philosophy (which he’s dedicated to his mother, Irene B. West, a pioneering educator who died in April), and another on empathy with celebrities such as musician Pharrell Williams, professor and essayist Roxane Gay and novelist Walter Mosley.
In the latest course, West seeks to illuminate the significance of Black love in all its forms. He also challenges assumptions on white supremacist thinking, and outlines the framework for what a truly just society might look like.
Asked how MasterClass compares to his in-person classroom style, the scholar said, “It’s very much like being in my class. You don’t have the table, or the call and response, or the Socratic exchange,” he said. But students “see me reflect on the issues, give my formulations, lay out the framework, put forth the argument, and say these are the assumptions and the presuppositions. The episodes are put together in a magnificent way.”
Angela Davis, a political activist and philosopher, who is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, will challenge viewers to consider the humanity of enslaved people and discuss what life was like after the end of slavery. She will examine the legacy of slavery on the lives of contemporary Black women, the unique experience of Black women in blues music, and the enduring struggles for liberation that are central to the history of the United States.
Sherrilyn Ifill, a law professor and the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, explains the 14th Amendment and how Black Americans’ civil rights were curtailed through white supremacists’ reaction to it. She also shares how Black people persisted through the Jim Crow South to build community and gain an economic foothold.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times Magazine and the creator of the 1619 Project, explores the foundations of American capitalism; and how that has informed modern-day economic systems.
Jelani Cobb, a historian, author, journalist and professor at Columbia University, delves into the origins of historically Black colleges or universities, and the power of the Black vote. He’s also tackling the historical origins of "defunding the police; and the shift in American politics following the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
John McWhorter, a linguist, is also at Columbia University, where he’s an associate professor in the department of Slavic languages. For MasterClass, he teaches the origins of Black English, a unique form of communication with its own nuances and complexities.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw — like Ifill, among America’s foremost legal minds — is known for her work in establishing critical race theory and intersectionality.
She said she leaped at the opportunity to lend her voice to the educational sessions.
“Really, it’s transformative. It is a way to reach the public and a population we don’t otherwise reach,” she said. “You can cut away all the mythology and the mass distribution of misinformation. We don’t have people talking past each other. You can sit down, dig in and learn.”
A professor at both the UCLA School of Law and the Columbia Law School, the women’s and civil rights advocate will focus on the law and courts, historical oppression, and how ignoring gender and race and their relationship to the law restrains progress.
“I try to make the information — these historical events and facts — accessible,” she said. “I think we need this now more than ever.”
Masterclass said it plans to make the programming available to the public for free in 2022.
The class is part of a $2 million commitment the company has made to create content focused on social justice and systemic racism. “With decades of experience, these leaders, activists and groundbreaking thinkers have reshaped conversations on race in America,” David Rogier, founder and CEO of MasterClass, said in a statement.
“Together, they will teach Black history as never before—uncensored — and show members how to build a society that honors Black voices, love and joy while fighting against systemic racism.”
Part II, The Present, will touch on topics including the legacy of Thurgood Marshall, the monumental 1954 court case of Brown v Board of Education, the meaning of Anita Hill’s involvement in Clarence Thomas’s Senate Judiciary hearings, and the origin of critical race theory.
The third section, The Future, will help members take what they have learned to move forward and create a society built on justice.