How the (Dr. Cornel) West Was Won

With a new memoir on shelves (and e-readers), the scholar talks preachers and “praise teams,” Socrates and Jay-Z.

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Cornel West, distinguished professor in the Princeton Center for African American Studies, and author of bestsellers such as Race Matters (Vintage, 1994) Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (Penguin, 2004) and Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Faith in America (Routledge, 1994), has a new memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud (Smiley Books) in stores now. In it, West describes his journey from “Mama’s child and daddy’s kid” to being one of the preeminent sociologists working today.

I sat down with West recently to talk art, politics, the first black President, as well as a memorable New York meeting between West, education activist Geoffrey Canada and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. In Part 1 of this two-part interview, we tried to stick to business, but ended up discussing Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, James Brown, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, KRS-One and the O’Jays. At least Dr. West didn’t rap.

The Root: At The Root, we’re interested in politics as culture—as politics. That’s a strong throughline in your memoir.

Dr. Cornel West: Part of it hangs on how you define ‘culture’ and how you define ‘politics.’ I define culture as dynamic, ever-changing structures of feeling and structures of meaning that help sustain humans in the face of death and extinction that’s inevitable. And I understand politics as structures of common life that we human beings have—either that we forge together or that is imposed upon us. And of course, there are operations of power in both. And there are operations of norms in both. It’s never just about power; you need legitimacy, you need arguments that try to justify why power is deployed in this way or not.

Black culture, and especially black music, has been constituative [sic] of who I am. From the very beginning, you start off with [chapter] “Mama’s Child and Daddy’s Kid.” Irene, Tim, the West family—in some ways the real heroes of the book are the West family.