Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Your Black Scholar: Exclusive Interview With Dr. Cornel West

Interview with Princeton Professor and acclaimed scholar, Dr. Cornel West, by Tolu Olorunda.

He is, perhaps, the most well-known public scholar the universe has to offer. Alongside that, Dr. Cornel West has also been celebrated as, America's leading public intellectual. Judging from his scholarly work, dedication, perseverance, intellectual curiosity and diligence, one can certainly confirm the role he plays as a distinct leader of his peers. Dr. West has continuously proved to be a multi-generational force for good. Through the publication of books, Hip-Hop albums and television specials aimed at young adults, Dr. Cornel West has impacted and transformed a whole generation of love-starved and directionless people. His wit notwithstanding, Dr. West's ability to interpret the harsh conditions of the financially-disempowered is parallel to none. I had the distinguished pleasure of engaging in dialogue with this esteemed scholar on a wide swath of issues affecting our daily lives. I spoke with him on issues including, the presidential campaign of Sen. Obama, Gen. Colin Powell’s endorsement, the role of progressives in an Obama administration, "Hope on a Tightrope," Hip-Hop, the next generation of Black public intellectuals, and much more:

Thanks for joining us. What has Dr. West been up to lately?

Oh, I’ve been on the moon. I did 15 events for Brother Obama in Ohio, this past weekend. I did 12, the weekend before that. I’ve been to Seattle, Alabama; teaching full time. I’m blessed though, brother.

How does it feel being a surrogate for Sen. Obama's historic presidential run?

Well, it’s a good thing, because in the end, it’s really about empowering everyday people, and he’s a major vehicle for that. He’s got some genius and inspiring people that give him a sense of possibility and hope. So, it’s a beautiful thing. But there’s always a tension there because I still got to speak my mind. So, I got my criticisms of the brother; but the most important thing to do, is a full-court press to get people out to vote, and to make sure that we contribute to this democratic awakening that’s taking place. This greed out here is running amok, man.

On the subject of greed; you've often talked about the melting of the Ice-Age. Do you feel the Democratic platform addresses poverty in a substantive fashion?

Well, it doesn’t address it as much as I would like. It opens the door, and acknowledges the fact that we need to start focusing on poor people, but it doesn’t hit the issue of poor people directly in the way that I would like. But at the same time, because it’s moving in that direction, I move with them – in order to bring pressure and power to bare, and hope that they would move with me in a substantive way. So, I’m never really satisfied with the Democratic platform – they’ve had a history of spinelessness and complicity toward injustice – but, on the other hand, because it’s so much better than McCain and the Republicans – and certainly, Brother Barack is so much better – I’m trying to get him into the White House and then deploy a vision and power on behalf of everyday people.

You know Sen. Obama personally. Has he met your standard of courage in matters concerning Muslims, the Black Community and War/Peace?

He’s met it enough for me to support him, but he hasn’t met it enough for me not to criticize him. It’s an area in between where, right now in the middle of an election, I do all that I can – putting in 16 hours a day without eating – to get him elected. But at the same time, I also know that he’s not Jesus. He’s not a Messiah or nothing. He’s a human being; a cracked vessel trying to do the best that he can.

What roles do progressives play in an Obama presidency; and what strategy do you suggest is best for success?

He’s only as strong as we are. I think that we have to be honest, diligent and candid about our focus on working and poor people. We have to talk strongly about public spending directly for education, quality jobs, health care, child care, infrastructure, bridges/roads, and home foreclosure. In that regard, we have to be willing to criticize him in order to make him stronger, and push him in a progressive direction. He’s not in a static position. He can be pushed.

Dr. West, one of your most famous blurbs is: "You can't lead people if you don't love them and you can't save people if you don't serve them." In your assessment, do you believe Sen. Obama has exhibited an encouraging amount of love and willingness for servitude?

I think so; definitely. As a presidential candidate, he’s got to be prudent. So he tends, for example, to focus on White moderates and independents. Why? Because he wants to win the election. So, in that regard, his willingness to love and serve is always under the framework of presidential politics. But I think that deep down he’s got a profound love and a sense of service. You see that, for example, in him being a community organizer instead of going to Wall Street, and some of his policies in the Illinois State house. And really, you can’t downplay the role of Sister Michelle Obama and those two precious girls [Malia and Sasha]. As Sly Stone said, it’s a family affair. When you talk about someone who is sharing a life with such a high quality person as Michelle Obama, that is very important – and it makes me feel good.

What’s your take on Colin Powell’s endorsement of Sen. Obama?

Courageous, eloquent, crucial; and I think it’s the last nail in the coffin of Republican/Conservative/Right Wing rule.

How critical is the concept of holding "President Obama" accountable; and what steps can be taken at this point to guarantee a desirable outcome?

Brother Tavis [Smiley] has been pushing this issue of accountability for a very long time, and was courageous to do it. In the end, this is not about any one person, or any one office. It’s about keeping everyone accountable. It’s about trying to gain Barack Obama access to the presidency, but keeping him accountable; because if we don’t have the kind of progressive policies that allow the empowerment of everyday people and working/poor people, we’re going to fly down the slope to chaos. Democracy cannot be sustained over a long period of time when there’s so much greed at the top, and the politics of fear is at play.

Switching gears: Your new book coming soon is, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom. Can you briefly explain what its premise is?

It’s mainly that we are living in a moment where the American civilization is wavering, the American empire is wobbling, the culture is in decay, people are hungry and thirsty for vision, and we need some hope; but that hope is on a tight rope because we’re in a state of emergency. The first chapter of the book is: State of Emergency – a sense of urgency. Now, my view is that we were in a state of emergency many years ago – when people didn’t recognize. When you look at the dilapidated housing crisis, disgraceful school systems, unavailability of health care/child care, not enough jobs for living wage – that’s already a state of emergency for many brothers and sisters of all colors. But now that Wall Street has collapsed, it’s an indisputable, undeniable state of emergency across the board. But we need to sustain our hope on a tight rope, with a sense of grace and cool in the face of catastrophe – in order to empower everyday people.

Earlier in the campaign, Michelle Obama expressed some pride that "hope is making a comeback." Do you share similar sentiments, and what must we then do to sustain its balance?

Sister Michelle Obama is absolutely right. Keep in mind that hope is pitted against fear. For so long, people have been fearful. Hope is making a comeback, in part, because of Brother Obama’s brilliance, genius and charisma. He’s generating a sense of hope, but we’re still on that slippery tight rope, and we’ve got to be really courageous, bold and determined. We’ve got to have fortitude to help other people, and serve other people.

In light of Mrs. Obama's remarks, we have a financial meltdown that promises escalating despondency. To paraphrase Melle Mel, how does the Black Community keep from ‘losing its head’?

That’s a deep question. One thing we’ve got to realize is that, we’ve dealt with catastrophe before. We are a blues people, and the blues is: An autobiographical chronicle of a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. But it’s always with a sense of grace and cool. And the country now has the blues. They either learn something from a blues people, or lose their democracy.

Do you believe we will survive this storm?

Well, it all depends on how much courage, vision and service we have. We might not survive it, because if greed, indifference, and fear continue, and McCain wins, there’s a good chance that we’re not going to survive it. But in the face of greed, we need justice; in the face of indifference, we need compassion; and in the face of fear, we need hope. That’s what Brother Obama represents.

Dr. West, there's a new class of Black public intellectuals - Eddie Glaude, Boyce Watkins, Marc Lamont hill - coming up. How confident are you that they can help raise the banner of truth and justice even higher?

Oh, I’m sure they will. We’ve got some serious young folks coming up. We’ve got Brother Tavis [Smiley], Bakari Kitwana, and a lot more. I’m impressed by a lot of the young brothers and sisters coming up. I’m satisfied that they’re going to surpass me; and that’s the reason I’m strong – to make them even stronger. They’re stepping forth with grace and dignity.

Your new Hip-Hop album, “Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations,” hit shelves earlier this year. What is your message to the younger generation; and why did you decide to use Hip-Hop as the avenue to facilitate that message?

Well, Hip-Hop is the universal language of youth culture. I was in Egypt, Belgium and Brazil; I walked into the clubs, and it was all Hip-Hop. So, because I’m an educator, I can write books and present a textual education, but with the CD, I can present a danceable education. I’m just trying to educate, and be educated. But most importantly, it’s just a matter of loving young folks and respecting them enough to learn from them. So it becomes a matter of reciprocity and mutuality in our awakening, and consciousness-raising. That’s what that CD is about. So you bring in artists like Prince, Andre 3000, Gerald Levert, Talib Kweli, KRS-One and Jill Scott – they are part and parcel of the conversation on the danceable education album.

On the subject of Hip-Hop, how can the present generation reshape and retake the culture, in a way that it represents, once again, a force for good, enlightenment and empowerment?

I think that one has to, first, support those crucial voices within Hip-Hop who are trying to take it to a new level. So, when Brother Lupe Fiasco talks about ‘the cool,’ you know, in fact, that he’s reflecting on a level of Hip-Hop artistry that goes beyond the dominant everyday perspectives. The same is true for Nas, with the “Untitled,” album. And there’s a whole host of others out there who need our support. I was just in the studio with Rhymefest for El Che. It’s a matter of acknowledging that we really do have voices in Hip-Hop, of the younger generation, that we need to be supporting. When you listen to Game and Lil’ Wayne talking about “My Life,” you’re moved, man. It’s coming from the soul. I love Lil’ Wayne’s dedication to his craft. He’s got to be the hardest working brother in Hip-Hop – just like my hero, James Brown. I try to be the hardest working man in the academy.

Lastly Dr. West; what message do you hope the general public grasps unto at this transitional moment in our earthly experience?

I think, at this particular moment, we need a strong democratic awakening that tries to push back the greed, indifference and fear. The first step is to try to get Brother Barack in the White House. The second step is to put pressure on him – so that he can engage in some of this public spending directly to the people and they can have access to health care, child care and jobs with a living wage. We need to get these home-owners to stay in their homes, so that these bankruptcy courts can re-adjust the mortgage. And we need a stimulus plan to get the economy running again. That’s the beginning of turning things around, so we don’t have a system tied only to the strong, but one that takes seriously the plight of the weak. So, it’s not just for the rich, but for the many.

Thanks for the time, Dr. West.

Watch Dr. Cornel West In Action:

This interview was conducted by Tolu Olorunda, Staff Writer for

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