Cornel West, distinguished professor in the Princeton Center for African American Studies, and author of best sellers 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.
The Root sat down with West recently to talk art, politics and the first black president. In Part 2 of this two-part interview, Dr. West dishes on 40 years of African-American studies, Obama's Nobel Prize and offers real talk on Barack, Bill Clinton and what happens when Jesus puts his feet up on Pontius Pilate's desk. Read part 1 here.
The Root: This year marks 40 years of African-American studies. What do you think of African-American studies, in and out of the canon, the idea of black studies?
Dr. Cornel West: For me, the two are inseparable, but not identical. For the very beginning you cannot be knowledgeable about African-American studies without being knowledgeable of American studies, without being knowledgeable about modernity. Which includes enlightenment, romanticism and the very European languages that most Negroes speak anyway. The whole notion of them being separate in any analytical or intellectual way is empty.
In terms of where they’re taught, that’s a different question. That has to do with the disciplinary divisions of knowledge in the academy. You might end up with some of the best work being done on the humanities on what it means to be modern and American in the African-American studies department, if it’s being done right. But you have to cross-fertilize and cross-pollinate…
TR: What is your feeling about HBCUs, their importance today, and how the education provided relates to a university like Princeton?
One is that one can’t but have great respect for the tradition of these institutions, because they produced some of the highest quality of black thinkers. Toni Morrison—you can stop right there. We can stop right there, we’re not talking about Sterling Brown, Amiri Baraka and so on, Phylicia Rashad and so forth. But in the contemporary situation, it’s not just that the masses of black students go to community colleges and state colleges, but that the elite white institutions are embracing top notch black students in the last 40 years. You have to be very creative now at the Howards and Morehouses and say what do we offer, what is distinctive or unique as opposed to what Swarthmore or Haverford or Harvard offer.
TR: Let’s talk Obama. You criticized him for not mentioning Martin Luther King Jr. in his convention speech, and in the book, you are still what I would call cautious about his victory. Do you think black people should be more circumspect about a black president?
CW: We have to be honest, we have to be truth-telling, but we also have to be understanding. After the celebration—a celebration which was warranted because it was a historically unprecedented election—he has to be protected. That’s real; protecting him and his precious family. Second, he has to be respected. People disrespecting him in certain ways is something that we have to combat, it seems to me. And thirdly, he has to be criticized based on principle.
My reading of brother Barack is as follows. He’s brilliant; he’s charismatic; he’s very strategic. He quickly became mesmerized by the braininess of some of those tied to Wall Street. And he wanted to reassure the establishment in order to get his footing because he’s a newcomer. Newcomers are always very anxiety ridden vis a vis an establishment that’s been around for hundreds of years…
President Clinton was a newcomer. As soon as he got in, he held back on the investment bill, went with Wall Street, brought in Greenspan. It’s a similar kind of parallel thing. You get these folk who are on fire talking about democracy, everyday people, working people. And when you are introduced into the halls of power, they walk you into the Oval Office; they say “This is the button for the A-bomb…” See, he knows all that stuff now—he’s head of an empire.
It’s deeper than assimilation, and it’s not corruption; it’s just life at the top. If you put Jesus in Pontius Pilate’s office, how is he going to behave?
TR: What do you think about the Nobel Prize?
CW: I just wish his parents were around to see it. I think these prizes are, as Sly Stone says, a family affair. They’re for the people that love you. I think that this puts him in a very difficult situation because to have a Nobel Peace Prize and then turn out to be a war president is going to be very tough. …. Because they gave it based both on promise and the fact that, and they are absolutely right, that brother Barack Obama has generated more of a sense of hope and possibility than anyone else on the planet. That’s a fact that needs to be acknowledged, and if that’s the criteria for the prize, he gets the prize the way James Brown gets it for funk—uncontested. Uncontested.
But that’s at the level of symbolic promise. Now are you going to have a peace prize and send another 68,000 troops to Afghanistan? You still have folks walking around who tortured people, who are completely unaccountable. You have lawyers who authorized crimes against humanity and you say you want to turn away from that. But when Jamal gets caught with crack on the corner, you don’t turn away from that you investigate and prosecute that brother he gets sent to a prison industrial complex. And that is hypocrisy at the deepest level when it comes to rule of law. But it’s now under Obama. It’s not Bush anymore.
TR: What do you make of what Obama calls the “Joshua generation” of elected officials? I mean the often-mentioned Artur Davis, Cory Booker, Deval Patrick, Adrian Fenty and the like. What is the narrative of black politics moving forward?
CW: One I think there’s a lot of confusion. Part of it has to do with the relative collapse of grassroots organizing—despite Obama. I wouldn’t go so far to say Obama was grassroots; I would call him Astroturf. It has to do with the use of technology to mobilize quickly, but it’s still from the top. It’s tied to the candidate’s office….
But to mobilize for a campaign is different from mobilizing for a cause. Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker weren’t tied to any short-term election. They were trying to awaken people’s consciousness to be long-distance runners for justice. And we have very little of that today. The dominant forms of leadership are tied to electoral office, tied to the nation state—who’s going to be the next black governor, black mayor, black president. And I think in some ways that is one of the more limiting consequences of Obama as president.
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.