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.
TR: Is there something uniquely American about the interaction of politics and culture?
CW: Each and every political regime and set of cultural ways of life within a nation have their own distinctive, specific histories. There is something very distinctive about the United States in the sense that it begins as a democratic experiment—you don’t have a backdrop of kings and queens. So America is modern, born liberal, born bourgeois, born democratic on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s very market-oriented. Even in the south with slavery, you had very entrepreneurial aims of the slaveholders tied to profit-making—and then tied to thick forms of religiosity. And black folks are right in that matrix, even though there is slavery and Jim Crow for a good while of it. We’re still right in that matrix.
TR: Black politics and religion have been so intertwined. The new black politics—still involved in the church in the same way?
CW: Traditionally black life was so circumscribed—even under slavery, of course, the black church was an illegal, invisible institution. You couldn’t worship God without white supervision. The church is where you had some courageous preachers who would tell the truth—and not live—and others who could walk a tightrope, and be very coded. And up until the ‘60s and ‘70s, a significant number of our leaders were preachers. Thurgood Marshall, a serious brother, he was not a preacher, and frankly he didn’t like preachers too much. Charles Hamilton Houston, his mentor, as well. Now Adam Clayton Powell was a combination, that’s true—but in the 1960s you get politicians who are over against Rev. Jesse Jackson and some of the others.
TR: How do you think religion informs our politics—for good and bad?
CW: One religion has no monopoly on rich, deep spirituality, and much of religiosity is so thin and vacuous and empty. You have preachers who are pimping the church, the prosperity gospel, and religion-as-business enterprise. You can be just as market driven, gangster-like and obsessed with fear and greed and bigotry as the worst of the market. And the market can be a place where you encounter Curtis Mayfield, where you encounter Aretha, where you encounter Mahalia, or you encounter Martin. You might get deeper spirituality listening to the O’Jays Friday night at a nightclub than in a church with some of these praise teams singing for money, so the preacher can make money for another Benz.
TR: In Brother West, you describe a conversation between yourself, Jay-Z and Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone.
CW: Brother Geoffrey was very, very insistent on accenting the negative effects of much of hip-hop on the students that he loves in his Harlem Children’s Zone. So he and Jay-Z mixed it up. This was after Jay-Z had become a [recording industry] executive. Jay-Z came right back—he said ‘I acknowledge that what you’re saying is absolutely true.’ He said that all cultural forms have the possibility to be used in this way. He said he knows the ones that are more negative are the ones that make more money … He was very reflective, the brother’s a genius in so many ways.
My position tended to be both an acknowledgment of what they were talking about and an attempt to realize that hip-hop is here to stay—so the question is how do we connect the legacy of Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron to hip-hop? Not just the folks who are already there, the Chuck Ds, the KRS-Ones, the Talib Kwelis, but the 50 Cents and the others who are moving in another direction, who had an influence … The conversation was very, very rich. Jay-Z did come to class as a result of that. He came to my class. And that was a moment: with Toni Morrison, [and] Phylicia Rashad was there, and it was me and [Professor] Eddie Glaude teaching. … [Jay-Z] was very quiet for the most part; he talked about how he had never, ever been … in a college seminar and it was a brand new experience for him and he enjoyed it; he loved the dialogue. I had been talking about Plato and Socrates and how he said I am going to preserve the memory of my teacher for as long as I live, and I am in deep mourning for Socrates who died unfairly, and I will make sure that the world never forgets that there was once a man named Socrates. And that’s when Jay-Z said: “I am Plato to Biggie’s Socrates.” Isn’t that a beautiful thing?
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.