Editorials — September 9, 2012 14:43 — 1 Comment

Strength In The Blues – An Interview With Cornel West

It is the morning after the country’s historic Presidential election, 11:20 AM, November 5th, 2008. I have an appointment on the Princeton University campus and I am lost. I didn’t anticipate it being this humid and I am beginning to sweat under my grey wool sweater. About forty yards ahead, I see a man in a blue pinstriped suit walking on the sidewalk.

“Excuse me,” I half-shout. “Do you know where Stanhope Hall is?”

He does. In fact, he tells me, he’s headed there now and I can follow him.

The young man is Eddie Glaude, the university’s William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies, who, it turns out, shares a hallway in Stanhope with renowned scholar Dr. Cornel West, whom I am supposed to meet in ten minutes. The two colleagues teach a class together and collaborated on the text, African American Religious Thought: An Anthology.

Born in Tulsa Oklahoma, Dr. West has studied at Harvard and Princeton, has been a civil rights activist, a pastor and currently serves as the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton. He has received more than twenty honorary degrees as well as the American Book Award, and he has appeared on television programs like The Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher.

Known for his Socratic approach toward the issue of social justice and his devotion to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. West himself has authored more than a dozen books, including his landmark texts Race Matters and Democracy Matters. His latest, Hope On A Tightrope, was released in November. For these reasons, and many more, I have come to speak with him.

Once inside Stanhope Hall, I ascend two flights of stairs behind Prof. Galude and reach a cluster of offices. Dr. West’s secretary, wearing a festive red suit jacket, asks me to have a seat, Dr. West is on the phone. I sit as I watch Professor Galude lightly rap on a door marked, “Private Office” When it opens I watch him enter. He shuts the door almost all the way, and through the remaining few inches I listen to a conversation he has with Dr. West.

I can hear their exuberance on this historic morning. In between sentences, they laugh almost like schoolboys. “It is a great day,” Dr. West says, but with their euphoria also comes an underlying tone of seriousness, a constant implication that much more work has to be done.

At 11:45, the door swings opens. Professor Glaude steps past me with a quick smile and goes into the hallway toward his office to, I assume, read the latest headlines and make some phone calls regarding last night’s events. I go in to the office to speak with Dr. West, who’s sitting behind his desk.

Inside, my eyes glance over the hundreds of books that line his shelves: texts by Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Waldo Emerson, Plato, James Baldwin, Dostoyevsky, and more, fill the modest-sized office. Dozens of framed photographs of family, colleagues and musicians like Jay-Z and Andre 3000 are mixed between.

Dr. West, dressed in his trademark black suit with matching vest, tie and soft black scarf, stands and greets me with a wide grin. We’ve met only once before (for an interview we’d done with a New Jersey paper several years prior), yet he treats me like family, each word surrounded by a tone of serious consideration.

I take a seat across from him, and turn on my tape recorder.

Uitti: America is facing many tough challenges today: climate change, a widening in the gap between rich and poor, worries over immigration, a decline in our economic status abroad, and distress in the Middle East. Do you see a common thread tying some, or all, of these issues together? If so, what sorts of changes need to be made in order to alleviate or eliminate these problems?

West: I think the first thing is that we need to be inspired in such a way that we think we can meet the challenges. So that’s first a kind of spiritual, motivational and existential stuff, from which being a citizen, being a human being comes, believing that one can make a difference and one can in some way confront these challenges. And that’s part of the genius of the “Yes We Can” theme of brother Barack Obama’s campaign, and now victory. You have to believe. It’s almost like William Jame’s great Will to Believe essay, that the belief that you can, itself, becomes an integral element in your doing something. Confidence becomes essential in executing a certain kind of positive action. And so there you need leadership, not just in the White House, but in neighborhoods and houses, and so forth. And I think we actually are turning the corner now, because part of the genius of brother Barack Obama is that he has this unique capacity to inspire and to give people a sense that they can meet challenges.

Now, is there a common thread to these challenges? There is a sense in which, because we’re making this shift now from the end of the Reagan era to the beginning of the age of Obama, that when you look at the neglect during the age of Reagan, 1980 to 2008, which includes moments of Carter and Clinton, the climate of opinion was shaped by the dogma-free markets, it was shaped by not feeling as if you’re doing too much for the poor because somehow you’re bending in a direction that’s unwarranted. So the neglect on precisely those issues, escalating wealth inequality, ecological crisis, and so on, is evident.

We have to be able to tell a story about the age of Reagan in such a way that we can build on the best ”Reagan was masterful in some ways” but at the same time the neglect that took place during that age is something that we have to be honest with, and our Conservative fellow citizens have to take a lot of responsibility for that.

Uitti: You’ve said that we are at a fork in the road and that the “great battle now is the dismantling empire and deepening democracy”. You’ve also written that “the blues is the most profound interpretation of tragicomic hope in America” and that America must look to its blues people in order to build and authenticate democracy. Who are the blues people and what is their role in dismantling empire?

West: Yeah, well first we want to define the blues. The blues is an autobiographical chronicle of a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically and endured with grace and dignity. Meaning what? Meaning that the blues are all those who are willing to look unflinchingly at catastrophic conditions. So you’ve got white literary blues men like Tennessee Williams’ Blanche Dubois, the American Hamlet. She won’t look at the catastrophic; she lives in a world of make-believe. And what happened? Reality shatters the world of make-believe. Mortality shatters. History shatters.

It’s a very American thing, in many ways, to be sentimental, to create your little world of make-believe, live in your bubble. And then sooner or later “like Wall Street” boom! Here comes reality. Boom, here comes history. Boom, here comes mortality. You see what I mean? So the blues is not in any way tied to pigmentation, though it is true that if you’re black in America for two-hundred-and-something years, you are much closer to dealing with the catastrophic that has been hidden and concealed by much of mainstream white America: slavery, Jim Crow, and so on, you see. But then you’ve got Bruce Springsteen, another white blues man. There are a number of white brothers and sisters who were willing to deal with the catastrophic with grace and dignity to tell the truth and bare witness. The blues sensibility that we associate with blues music, you know, when B.B. King says, “Nobody loves me but my mama, and she might be jivin’ too” that’s catastrophic. That’s catastrophic. But he’s doing it with a sense of dignity, with self-confidence. Billy Holiday’s strange fruit that southern trees bare, black bodies hanging in the southern breeze, that’s catastrophic. Billy, how you do it with that style you got.

Uitti: What was the impact of 9/11 on America’s Blues?

West: Well for the first time in the whole nation my fellow citizens had the blues across the board: they felt unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, hated for who they are. It’s a new experience for a lot of Americans. But for black folk? To be black in America is to be unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated for who they are. It wasn’t new, it was another layer, you know what I mean? So I think it’s no accident that we’re here at this particular moment with brother Barack, who’s got a very close connection to the people’s who produce the blues—he’s got a complicated connection, but he’s got a very close connection too. And I think he’s got to be bold enough, courageous enough to move forward.

Uitti: Where does the responsibility lie with others to be open to that sort of dialogue?

West: Well, the thing is, there’s no strong Barack without a strong citizenry. The kind of organizing and mobilizing we have to do to keep him accountable so that he doesn’t tilt toward the center, he doesn’t become seduced by corporate influence, he doesn’t become intoxicated with the acceptance of the establishment’s very important. He’s got to be bold. And he’s got a choice, you see. He can be a great statesman like Lincoln, which is very rare, but he can do it; he can be a masterful politician shot through with a lot of opportunism like (Bill) Clinton; or he can be an experimentalist like F.D.R., who was a great President in a number of different ways, but I don’t think he was a great statesman like Lincoln. Those are the options for Barack in terms of how he responds, and it’s up to us to help him become a Lincoln, you see. No Lincoln without Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a host of others. He learned from them, absolutely.

Uitti: Malcolm X said in a speech on human rights, “When you take it from the level of civil rights and put it on the level of human rights you internationalize the problem. It’s true that it’s within the power of Uncle Sam to give or not give you and me civil rights, but human rights are something that you have when you’re born. And there has been a conspiracy to keep you and me barking up the civil rights tree so we wouldn’t be aware of the human rights tree.” In this age of globalization, how can we better structure our political, economic and social systems to ultimately focus on the tree of human rights?

West: I think Malcolm’s right about that. When you talk about the right to healthcare, the right to education, the right to a job with a living wage, I think if we move in that direction that would be significant in terms of meeting some of these challenges, very much so. Now of course on a global level it has to do with first America recognizing we are an empire. We have a disproportionate amount of influence in shaping events around the world. At the same time we can’ be arrogant like most empires. We can’t have a hubris that leads us to impose our views on others and our power on others. So the kind of multilateralism that Barack Obama is talking about becomes crucial. The kind of willingness to work with other nations, recognizing that the world is changing. China is on the move. India, Brazil, on the move. It’s not just ten percent economic growth every year, but they’re also feeling themselves to be major national actors on the international stage. And, of course, China’s monies that help sustain the U.S. economy are very real. If they shift over to the Euro we’re in trouble, if they pulled out our economy collapses. Now, the chances are very little for that, but that’s a recognition of interdependence that we have to acknowledge.

Uitti: In what ways do we need to learn how to pursue these ends within our economic, political and social systems, as well as against them?

West: We have to work both within the system and against the system at the same time. It’s the dialectical interplay between social movements over and against the system to bring pressure to bear, and progressives inside of the system who need room in order to promote reforms. So we give Barack and the democrats in Congress some room to push through for more significant healthcare, to push through job and works programs, public spending on infrastructure, and so on.

Uitti: What do you mean by room?

West: Room to enact laws, to push through legislation. And a lot of that comes through pressure. It’s like the Trade Union movement’s pressure on F.D.R. You say over and over again, “I want to do it. Make me do it.” Make me do it means what? Organize, reshape the climate of opinion. Most importantly, and this is something Lincoln always understood, you’ve got to reshape the public sentiments that undergird policy. Because policies only come when you influence the public sentiments in a nation. Part of the challenge for Barack is whether he’s going to be a thermostat or a thermometer. When you’re a thermometer you just reflect the climate of opinion. We don’t want that now, we want a thermostat to reshape the climate.

Uitti: In the book “Everything but the Burden,” Greg Tate puts forth the notion that mainstream America likes to embrace African American style and culture but often hasn’t embraced African Americans as equals. What are your thoughts on this argument?

West: Greg Tate’s absolutely right about that. Afro-American culture products have served as a fundamental means by which the white mainstream can appropriate and feel themselves to be richer, spiritually and culturally. But that’s historically been very different than embracing the black humanity, including their bodies, including their presences and their neighborhoods and their schools and their churches, and so on. Now, I think in the age of Obama that should be changing. I think that a lot of people have been talking about the perception of black people visa-vie Obama, but we can’t overlook the reception of white brothers and sisters, of themselves and the nation, visa-vie Obama.

Uitti: And other races as well.

West: And brown, and red, and yellow. Absolutely. But white brothers and sisters are still a majority. Oh, yeah. I mean, all of them are precious, but we’ve got a whole lot of white brothers and sisters around, and the transformation in the self-image of the country is going to be a threat to many of them, and if they’re able to meet the challenge, and Obama has to do it in such a way that they don’t feel thoroughly threatened, because then they’ll shut down, you’ve got to keep them open, but if they accept that, then what Greg Tate was talking about would be less and less.

Uitti: In our history we have seen gruesome resistance from individuals and groups when change takes place, especially when it comes to race. How can we contain these backlashes?

West: We have to be in conversation with them. You know, unless they’re they Klan and they want to shoot you down, then that’s not a moment for conversation. But brother Rush (Limbaugh) and other folks out there, they’re going to be upset for a good while; you’re going to get the last gasps of the age of Reagan. Brother Rush is still very influential and he’s going to be upset, it’ll be interesting to listen to him. But they will be the last gasps of the age of Reagan, and it might be the death rattle of the old Conservative movement, they’ve got to regroup, recast what they’re going to do. It’s going to take a good while to do that. They’re in disarray right now. Absolutely.

Uitti: You’ve been a professor at some of the most hallowed halls in the United States. What does it take to keep yourself balanced between the university and Main Street?

West: Well, it’s a very great privilege to be in a grand institution like Princeton. There’s a lot of intellectual ferment, tremendous joys connected to the life of the mind, tremendous pleasures connected to the world of ideas, and there’s work to do, intellectual work to do, books to write, essays to write, lectures to give. But, on the other hand, as an educator in the Democratic mode, you find yourself going to a variety of different contexts, you’re multicontextual. So you’re in the streets, you’re in the synagogue, you’re in temple, you’re in the church and you’re in the trade union hall, you’re on television, you’re on radio, you’re in film, all of these are contexts where a certain kind of education, with it’s aim of awakening ordinary people, can take place. And that continues. Now I’m not sure I’m able to actually keep a balance, I just get up every day and try to stay alive though, brother.

Uitti: When you speak you back up your points with a wide range of sources: hip hop music, ancient religious texts, political speeches, quotes from philosophers. How do you know all this?

West: Well, shoot, you see, this is my life. It’s my life. It’s like Winton Marsales having three thousand songs in his head that he can play with no notes, that’s his life. Or Frank Sinatra being able to sing two thousand songs, knowing the lyrics to all of them on the spot. “Frank, could you sing that song I heard you sing in Brooklyn in 1947 in that club. Which one was it?” [sings]. He hits it right there, you know what I mean? That’s his life. He carries it around with him inside, he internalizes it, he imbibes it. And so it is with these texts. This is my life, it’s what I do.

Uitti: You’ve lectured at Princeton, Harvard and Yale, you’ve authored more than a dozen books, yet you’ve made some choices that those in the academic world have criticized, such as your involvement with the hip hop community. What is your connection to the music and what led you to establish ties with such well-known and well-respected musicians as Talib Kweli and KRS-One?

West: It’s a real blessing to work with those artists. Have you heard my last CD?

Uitti: Yes, absolutely. I enjoyed it.

West: I appreciate that, brother. That’s very kind of you. My latest text, Hope On A Tightrope, you may have seen I have my music at the end with all the different groups. Now there, those are the big ones, Mary J (Blige) is there, Rakim is there, and Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. KRS-One and Jay-Z are mentioned in the text, and Lil Wayne.

Uitti: What are your thoughts on Lil Wayne, who’s considered by many as the new star in hip hop?

West: Oh, I love that brother. His dedication to his craft, to me, is just profoundly inspiring. Reminds me of the discipline of Coltrane, I mean just every day in the studio, every day on the bus, every day at it, at his art. It’s almost hard to believe. But for me, again, it’s about education. It’s about paideia. In that case it’s a danceable education, it’s a singable education, it’s a humable education. My books are textual education. There’s so many ways in which you get at the minds and hearts and souls of people and CDs are one, radio and TV is another. In my own philosophical views of the world, I think that music is much deeper than philosophy and social theory. It has a way of getting at the depths of our souls, who we are. Victor Hugo used to say music is required when language fails and you can’t remain silent. Like at funerals, lamentation, this moan and groan, words just fall short. Or at a wedding, “Oh, honey I really want to say these things but I can sing like Luther Vandross, so here’ your song.” [sings]. And it just ”boom”that music goes straight to your soul.

Uitti: Do you see a connection between hip hop and the blues?

West: Oh, lord yes. Hip Hop itself is created under catastrophic circumstances. Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc and the others, they’re on the night side of Reagan’s America: dilapidated housing, disgraceful school systems, no art program, it’s hard to learn how to play your instrument. And yet using the technology and linguistic virtuosity, like the Jay-Zs who come out of Marcy Projects, I mean that Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, that’s catastrophic. And you get that “reasonable doubt” all across his corpus wrestling, responding with tremendous linguistic grace and dignity in his lyrical genius. But that’s still a continuation of a blues sensibility, it’s just that it’s expressed, you know, under contemporary conditions, specifically during the age of Reagan. Reagan takes over in 1980 and Hip Hop really takes off 1979, and with Chuck D and others you get major critiques of Reagan’s economics, and so on. Just like ours is a critique of Bushonomics. Now on the other hand, of course, many dominant forms of hip hop reflect the materialistic, hedonistic and the narcissistic sides of the Reagan era, the bling-bling, obsession with gold, silver and all these other kinds of things.

Uitti: Is there room for that in music, do you think?

West: Oh yeah, absolutely. Because, for one, in a democracy you let flowers bloom. People have a right to promote whatever nonsense they want as long as they don’t engage in injurious harm to others, you know? That’s what liberty is about in a democracy. And so people have a right to be playful and have fun and want to just talk about hedonism if they want to, just talk about narcissism if they want to, it’s just that in the end no democracy can survive without a notion of public good, this is the wonderful phrase that James Madison uses in the Federalist Papers, number ten and number forty-three. And public good requires more than hedonism, narcissism and materialism. But you have to allow people the right to express themselves in that way and pursue these things, and so forth. Some people’s pursuit of happiness is being on the computer all day—hey, go at it. But if all of us do that it’s too solipsistic.

Uitti: Since hip hop is a given in the lives of youth, how can it be integrated into the classroom responsibility as a tool for education and empowerment?

West: [Phone rings, Dr. West looks at the caller I.D., mentions it’s Obama’s campaign people calling and goes on with our interview.] There are examples of this in various places in the country, they have hip hop curriculum and they’ve got ways in which you get at, especially in high school and junior high school, youth who have been turned off by certain educational strategies and techniques. Hip hop is a way of peeking their curiosity, because education is fundamentally about shaping the imagination and empathy in such a way that you seriously engage reality, seriously engage history and seriously wrestle with mortality: what kind of human being do you want to be before you die?

Uitti: Do you participate in these initiatives?

West: Oh yes. I’ve had KRS and Jay-Z in my classes, Andre 3000s been there. Oh lord yes, we’ve been doing that for years.

Uitti: When did you have Jay-Z in class?

West: About three years ago. It was fascinating actually [stands up and shows me a picture of that day]. I was actually giving a lecture on the relation of Plato and Socrates, and I was saying, “Well I decided long ago that I was going to attempt to make the world safe for the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” That’s my calling in life, though as a Christian it really has to do with the cross, Martin was a Christian too so we both got that in common, right? And I said Plato decided after the death of Socrates that he was going to make the world safe for Socrates, that the world would never forget that there lived a man who never wrote a word named Socrates. And Plato was very successful. And Jay-Z gets up and says, “My aim is to make the world safe for Biggie. I am Plato to Biggie’s Socrates.” That’s powerful, man. And he’s done a good job of it, too. But he always remembers the mentor, always remembers who he wanted to be like, always remembers who he was not imitating but inspired by, because he had found his own voice, his inspiration.

Uitti: What are your views on the initiatives that have sought to end race and gender-based preferences in the federal, state and government program, most notably affirmative action?

West: I hope they fail. There’s still a need for affirmative action. When Obama talks about class and race together he does have a point, I just want to make sure when they have class and race together, because there are large numbers of white working-class brothers and sisters who rightly deserve to have opportunities, that it’s easy for race to drop out completely and I think that would not be a good thing. There has to be a way of connecting race and class in such a way that we do acknowledge that the legacy of racism is still there, even if a black man’s in the White House. But on the other hand, I’ve always actually believed that class ought to have been a part of it, it’s just that class as a criteria can easily become an excuse to make race disappear, this is always a problem.

Uitti: Have your views on affirmative action changed over the years?

West: Not really, no. Because it’s a matter of principle. The question becomes, once you commit as a matter of principle to raising class, what’s the best way of executing that strategy? Now if we had a way of elevating race and class in such a way that race did not disappear, then I say let’s go forward. We just haven’t come up with ways as of yet. And I’ve always been against quotas; I never believed affirmative action was about quotas, I always thought that was a conservative way of trying to wipe affirmative action off the map.

Uitti: There has been a history of religion influencing government. You’ve written about the distinction between the dubious Constantinian Christianity versus that of, say, Jesus and Saint Paul.

West: Any form of Christianity that is adjusted to greed, fear and hatred is a form of Constantinian Christianity, and Protestants can be as much as Catholics, or Russian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox, and so on.

Uitti: Given that there are laws separating church and state and given that political figures are human beings with beliefs of their own, how, in your mind, should we allow those representing us to exercise their best judgment, religious morals included, while excluding an abuse of these ideals aimed at political influence and power?

West: I think first the distinction between church and state, synagogue and state, temple and state, mosque and state is very important because you’ve got diversity of citizens, some of whom are atheist and agnostic. They need to have the same equal status as any religious believer when it comes to government and rule of law. So you can’t allow any religion, even if ninety-nine percent of America were Christians, in a democracy you can’t allow your religion to in any way coerce that one percent. That one percent, their views are just as precious, even though there are fewer of them, they’re just as precious. Or people who believe in unicorns as gods, hey, that’s fine, they have a right to it. And so when they send their kids to school, you don’t trash unicorns. But on the other hand, religion in politics is not the same as church versus state, which is to say that when you enter a public square and engage in arguments, there’s nothing wrong with being honest about from whence you come. When I enter a public square I am honest about my Christian faith, I’m not going to lie. I say, “Look, I’m here to bare witness to love and justice based on my understanding of life, death and Jesus Christ.” But I cast my commitment to love and justice in a language that is open to other citizens. So if they talk about love, I say, yeah, we can go with that. Justice, ah, we can go with that. Democracy? Yes, we can go with that. Now, your motivation might be different than mine, but we meet together in this public square, but you have to be honest about, well, I have religious motivations, you might have non-religious motivations. Like brother Bill Maher, my agnostic brother. He and I agree on many, many issues. We’ve worked together on many, many issues, and he’s got different motivations. His are secular and moral, mine are religious and ethical.

Uitti: Going back to the idea of the unicorn, just for a second, and I know that was just an example, but can you explain the distinction between not wanting to offend someone and yet still wanting to educate them?

West: I think that you have to enter a public square and argue: That looks like an unpersuasive argument to me, in terms of unicorns having divine status. You’ve got a lot of different beliefs. Bill Monahan says, “You Christians have been practicing cannibalism for two thousand years, why are you eating the body and drinking the blood of a human being? What is it about this Jewish brother named Jesus that you want to eat his body every week?” Well, you know, a lot of Christians say they’re offended: oh my God. But you should say, “No, Bill, here’s the argument.” And he can say, “I’m unpersuaded.” Now, you hope there is some respect in saying something like that, you don’t want to just be degrading and demeaning to somebody’s view. Now, on the other hand, you’ve got religious human sacrifice, you’ve got to find somebody to kill every Friday who lives in this neighborhood—well, no, legally that’s injurious harm.

Uitti: It is well documented, America’s obsession with its military. We have major military installations in every part of the world and we spend more on military than any other nation, by far. You’ve written that we’re a country based too much on “gangsterization”, or unbridled grabs at money and power. How might we structure our systems in order to stem back from these trends? Does it come top-down, or through education from the bottom-up? Too often it seems we change our opinion on military deployment after the fact, is a catastrophe the only thing that can change our minds?

West: Well, you hope not. This is part of the attempt of President-Elect brother Barack Obama to be a Lincoln. That’s what it means to be a thermostat. Because you can’t shape opinion, you can’t shape public sentiment, unless you do it educationally and pedagogically. On the other hand, you need to have other citizens, especially influential ones, who are attempting to persuade, attempting to convince fellow citizens this is the way to think about the military, rather than waiting until you engage in a mishap and then retrospectively say, “Oh, we shouldn’t have done this, we shouldn’t have done that.” I think also we’ve got to get away from the notion that greatness is defined in terms of military might, there’s something that’s idolatress about that. You can go back to Hebrew scripture, which says any nation that defines itself by force has a very impoverished conception of what greatness really is. So you talk about justice versus might. If you talk about compassion for the weak versus attempting to be militarily strong, that’s very controversial. A lot of people say that’s naive, but I just don’t think so, I don’t think so. I think to call Alexander the Great and Jesus the Weak, that’s a warped morality.

Uitti: Can a Lincoln figure exist today, given the hyperpolarized and partisan state of the country right now?

West: Oh, absolutely. Because Lincoln himself existed at a time in which the country was not just polarized, but ready to go at each other’s throats. In fact the level of polarization in Lincoln’s time is much worse than our time—Civil War, man. We’re not on the brink of a civil war. You remember of course when Lincoln made his way from Illinois to the White House, he had to dress in drag because they were going to kill him. They got pictures of Lincoln dressed in drag on the train, the assassination attempts were proliferating. With Obama, of course the attacks and the assaults and threats have been out there.

Uitti: Do you worry about his safety?

West: Oh, lord yes. Absolutely. But with poor Abe Lincoln, you had states willing to engage in violent insurrection to overthrow his government. Now Barack ain’t gonna have that. I mean, you’re not going to have a major, major right wing movement that’s organized and engaged in guerrilla violent activity to overthrow the U.S. government, because that’s what the Confederacy was. No, no, he doesn’t have that clash, thank God Almighty. We couldn’t stand another civil war.

Uitti: I’ve heard you say on the Tavis Smiley Show that if Obama were elected you’d celebrate for a day and on the next you’d be his toughest critic. Here we are!

West: I said I’d break dance at night, which I did last night. I actually might break dance two nights, to tell you the truth, I might have to revise that [laughs].

Uitti: What was your role in his campaign, if any, and on what policies of his are you going to keep a close focus now?

West: Well, from the very beginning I was very critical and suspicious of him, and of course we sat down and talked for four hours and I jumped on his bandwagon. That was when he first announced. I was critical, I was saying he’s walking a tightrope and I wasn’t sure, in fact, if he had the courage and the boldness because it looked as if he was the darling of the white mainstream.

Uitti: And now?

West: Well it was a month after he announced that he and I sat down and talked and we had a long dialogue. And I decided to go with him. I had one question: What is your relationship to the legacy of Martin King, because that’s my calling. And he broke it down and I was convinced, so I went to Iowa with him.

Uitti: Would you mind commenting at all about what he said?

West: He went through the history of what Martin meant to him: the level of sacrifice, the commitment to justice. I talked about the difference between working intellectual politics versus being part of a social movement, he understood that. I told him my calling was Socratic and prophetic, so I was in one lane, and his calling was one of governance, that’s a different lane, so we can stay in our lanes and have a division of labor but we can still work together. He understood that rightly and said, “Brother West I know you’re much more radical than I am on things,” and I said, “That’s fine, I understand that, I work with Bill Bradley, and others who I have great love and respect for.” And so I ended up going to Iowa, I went to South Carolina, I went to Texas, and Super Tuesday, and Ohio. I’ll give you an example, I’ve got tons of these things [Dr. West takes out a large white three-ringed binder and flips through dozens of pages of itinerary for an election event in Ohio]. They give you these things when you go in: you fly in, you got radio time, you hit this, you hit that, you’ve got television, you got the canvassing, more radio time, meetings with elected officials, you got the rally at the church, I did fifteen events in Cleveland and fifteen in Columbus. I went there because it was a pivotal state. And then, of course, I made tons of calls to Florida and Pennsylvania, those were pivotal states too. Why? Because I promised him I would do a full-court press in my support of him but at the same time I’d remain true to my Socratic and prophetic calling.

So now I am looking in terms of who is advisors are. You see, when I see Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, I say, “Hmm, wher’s William Grieder? Where’s Joseph Stieglitz? Where’s Robert Kutter? Where’s William Julius Wilson? Where’s Sylvia Ann Hewlett?” I’m looking for progressive economists. Not that they ought to take over, but their voices are important. Don’t recycle these Neo-Liberals from the Clinton Administration. They have a voice, Robert Rubin can change his mind, brother Larry Summers can change his mind, but they’re in some ways responsible for the deregulation too. And they have to take credit for doing away with the Glass-Steagall Act of ’99, allowing these investment banks and commercial banks to combine, the deregulating and the refusal to regulate the derivatives, all of those things that we’ve talked about the last month or so. The Clinton administration has to bare some serious responsibility, they’re not as bad as Bush, but it was in ’99 that this stuff was happening. Clinton, right before he left in 2000, called for more deregulation. And you got Alan Greenspan sitting next to Hillary every January.

Now Greenspan comes out, “Well there was a flaw.” On please! All this damage done, we told you this, following Ayn Rand like a blind dogmatist, and now you’re going to say there’s a flaw and the whole thing’s about to collapse! And when we were critical we we’re “out of touch” with reality. They said, “When you gonna get on the bandwagon? Don’t you realize this is the way of the world?”

So when I look at Barack’s advisors, I tell him I’m suspicious of these people. What does your Latin American policy look like? What does your Middle East policy look like? Are you recycling the same old establishmentarian folk? I’m critical of that.

Uitti: Some have pointed to Barack Obama as a sign of racial progress. Others point to the astronomical rate of incarceration of African Americans and the bankrupting of our inner-city public schools as signs of the opposite. What progress has been made in terms of racism since the 1960s? What has gotten worse? And how has the face of racism changed in 2008?

West: You know F. Scott Fitzgerad used to say the sign of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold in one’s mind two opposing ideas at the same time and retain the ability to function. They’re both right. The level of progress in terms of the perception and the acceptance of black faces in high places has been extraordinary in America. There’s a black woman president of Brown (University). The head of Time-Warner is black. And now Barack Obama. That’s mind-blowing, symbolic, but symbols matter.

At the same time, the realities of the prison industrial complex and child poverty, children of all colors, but especially children of color, is abysmal. I think it’s a mortal abomination. So you’ve got both of those happening simultaneously, and even here during the age of Reagan, you’ve got to give Bush credit: Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are in powerful positions, more powerful positions than the Clinton administration in terms of negroes who were in his administration. Perception of black faces in high places, even Bush, [reaches his arms out] come on Condoleezza, come on Colin. That’s serious man, these are powerful positions, but at the same time of course Bush policy is just crushing the poor, and (Hurricane) Katrina of course is a great symbol of that ugly indifference, not just incompetence, but indifference to their plight, you see.

So we have to be cognizant of both this extraordinary breakthrough at the level of perceptions of Americans of all color and having black faces at the highest level, and at the same time the unacceptable levels of impoverishment, incarceration, decrepit education, and dilapidated housing, I could go on and on. We have to be able to keep both on our minds at the same time.

Uitti: To go along with that, you’ve said identity is a crucial aspect for greatness. One must have hope, one must be able to look to others as leaders, and one must believe greatness can be achieved for oneself. What do you think the impact on identity will be given the outcome of the 2008 election, particularly with America’s black youth? And where do we go from here, how do we maximize the election’s most positive impacts in terms of identity?

West: I think in regard to black identity, you’re going to get young people looking more to Obama than entertainers and athletes. You get a whole different model of what it is to be a black person and a black male. That’s immeasurable in terms of his contribution.

Uitti: At the same time, do we have to be careful about what much of the media is saying, in terms of “transcending” race?

West: Oh sure. All this talk about colorblindness is a joke, man. Can you imagine the contradiction in saying, “I’m colorblind but I feel so good when I cross the color line”? But I thought there was no color line? “I don’t see color, but I love voting for that black man.” Or Obama is “post-racial” because white voters are willing to vote for him. No, when white voters vote for black men based on qualifications as opposed to pigmentation, that’s not post-racial, you’re just less racist. This reflects the impoverished imagination of journalists when it comes to race. Black people have been voting for white candidates based on qualifications for decades. Does that make them post-racial? They got a white mayor in Gary, Indiana. Gary, Indiana is a chocolate city. But the black folks say he’s the best candidate, there were seven other Negroes running, but they weren’t the best candidates. They voted for a white man, does that make the white man post-racial? No, it just means the Negroes are less racist, you see what I mean? But when white folk do it, “Oh we are post-racial, we’re not seeing race.” Please! Let’s get real here.

Uitti: What do you think are your most radical ideas, and which do you think are perceived as the most radical?

West: I don’t think I have radical ideas. The idea of eliminating poverty and making sure that the disabled and the elderly and the poor and working people live lives of decency and dignity. It’s as old, or older, than Amos, the fifth chapter: let justice roll down like waters of righteousness, like a mighty stream. Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly, Micah 6:8. Focus on the widow, focus on the orphan, focus on the weak. I don’t think that’s radical. They’re old, they’re much easier said than done, you know, the powers that be not crazy about it when you try to execute it, but there’s nothing radical about that, no. On the other hand, you know, the Jesus who means so much to me ended up on the cross, so somebody thought he was radical, the elites of the Roman empire thought he was radical, you know what I mean? But I think the perception is that because I’m concerned about the underside and the nightside of American democracy and globalization and modernity, you can appear as if your trumpeting for the empowerment of the weak constitutes a threat to the power of the strong, and they’re right it is a threat. In that regard, Amos doesn’t appear radical, but for the powerful he is. Jesus doesn’t appear radical, Martin King doesn’t appear radical, Gandhi doesn’t appear radical because these are very loving, justice-oriented people, but when you drop them in their context, as the powerful look at them, they’re a threat. And to that degree there is some truth, love and justice in a world that is often too cold and cruel is radical. It’s very, very radical.

Uitti: My last question, and thank you very much for your time.

West: No, thank you brother.

Uitti: Can you give me your definition of the American Dream?

West: Well, Barack is very interesting because Barack in some ways is the highest point of the American Dream, but he’s also the end of a certain American Dream. He’s the highest point of the American Dream if you believe in the rags-to-riches story, starting below and ending at the highest. That concept of the American Dream, he’s the highest. But the American Dream that Martin King had when he said, “My dream is rooted in American dreams,” is not identical. It’s trying to ensure that all human beings, especially poor, can live lives of decency and dignity. And, you see, even with a black face in the White House, you’re still going to have poor people. So when the poor people see that they got a black face up there and they’re still poor, that narrow American Dream is going to be shattered. If it’s just about individuals moving up, which often times that’s what the American Dream is, that’s going to come to an end.

Uitti: And where are we going now?

West: We hope we are going to follow Martin and say, “You know what? That particular individual who’s in that White House is going to be tied to other citizens who are concerned about lifting those at the bottom up.” So they don’t have to end up in the White House to live lives of decency and dignity. So when you wipe out poverty, when you insure that the elderly and disabled and working people can live lives of decency, that’s the thicker, deeper American Dream. And we got a long way to go on that one. Oh my God yes. Absolutely.


Jake Uitti is the Managing Editor of The Monarch Review.

One Comment

  1. Nicole Hardina says:

    What an amazing conversation! I’d be interested to know how Dr. West would answer some of the same questions today, particularly in terms of how critical he might be now. For example, I wonder how he would respond to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent piece in the Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/?single_page=true), or if he’d be willing to push back more on Obama’s drug crime policy in the wake of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, to which, of course, he wrote the forward. One thing’s certain–Dr. West is not a man easily disheartened, and his optimism is contagious. Great interview!

Leave a Reply

The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney