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Dr. Cornel West
Dr. Cornel West Comes to Town
He has been called a brilliant scholar, political activist, professor and prophet; Dr. West is all that and much more.
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor
In has latest book, Living and Loving Out Loud, Dr. Cornel West discusses his life's great passions.... loud and clear. The author's note states 'this is a work of non-fiction. Conversations have been reconstructed to the best of my recollection.' The book reveals a man who many believe redirected the conversation on race and justice in America, and who is often at the center of the storm in any intellectual, social, religious or educational activity/debate pertaining to the suffering masses, the poor and the despised.
Referred to by some as "the smartest negro in the world," he went from being an honor student in Sacramento, California to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and beyond. Currently he sports a big Afro, black-rimmed glasses, a salt-and-pepper beard and a smile that seldom depicts the depth of his thoughts.
As the author of several books including Race Matters, a contemporary classic and Democracy Matters, Dr. West now teaches his alma mater, Princeton University and he was on his way to one of his classes when he paused for a moment to speak with the Los Angeles Sentinel.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL (LAS): It's an honor to speak with you and though I do not have your recent book in front of me, but let's talk about it.
DR. CORNEL WEST (DCW): Okay, I appreciate it. Let's go!
LAS: I noticed in the book, Dr. West describes his life's great passions.... and you are referred to as a poetical prophet, eloquent prophet, soul brother, political activist, brilliant scholar... which of these titles describes best what you do?
DCW: First and foremost, I am a committed Christian who is the child of Irene and Clifton West; so it's faith and family, family and faith tied together. From there I become a freedom fighter, from there I become an intellectual, from there I become a jazzman, a blues man in the world of ideas...
LAS: That's great. Looking through your book, it says that you felt ready for Harvard [University] since Kennedy and Roosevelt went there. When did you go to Harvard and how long did you attend?
DCW: I went to Harvard when I was 17 years old; I graduated in three years there and then went to Princeton [University] to get my Ph.D. in philosophy.
LAS: So now, as a professor at Princeton, you're back at your alma mater?
DCW: That's exactly right. That's my graduate alma mater. Your undergraduate alma mater is different from your graduate school experience. So I was a graduate student here at Princeton and now I teach here.
LAS: While at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, you loved going to off-Broadway shows. How did that influence your development?
DCW: I love musicals. I love Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Wiz.... I just love all kinds of musicals. In some sense I'm deeply romantic and in some sense, I'm deeply tied to love stories...
LAS: ... And you've mentioned [John] Coltrane, Billy Holiday, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, James Cleveland... you seem to run the whole gamut of the Black experience in music?
DCW: That's true, I am who I am because somebody loved me and Black musicians have loved me in a powerful way and have sustained me in my life.
LAS: On a more serious note, tell me about your experience meeting Jesse Owens?
DCW: That was amazing; I was just 14 years old. Jesse Owens came at the Golden West invitation, which was a major track meet for high school athletes in Sacramento, where I grew up and I was blessed to meet Jesse Owens in 1967. I'm glad that mom and dad kept that picture of my brother, Clifton, and myself and the great Jesse Owens; 'cause there's nobody like him.
LAS: What is the relationship with your brother, Clifton?
DCW: He is me and I am him; we are two peas in a pod, two sides of a coin.
LAS: What motivated you to write this book, Living and Loving Out Loud-a Memoir?
DCW: I wanted to unleash the West's family love to the world that I have been the beneficiary and recipient of, and just be able to tell that story before I die so that the world would know of that West family love and its connection to my own life, and my life connection to the country and the world.
LAS: What do you think about [President] Obama and his reaction or his inspiration as the first Black American president?
DCW: On the symbolic level, it's beyond description, it's beautiful, it's magnificent, and it's wonderful. It's a sign that Black people are acknowledged, respected and affirmed. On the substantive level, I'm disappointed in my brother because I don't think he's been able to deal with the establishment in such a way that poor people and working people are put at the center. That is why I supported him.Â But it looks like his economic team is tied to Wall Street; his foreign policy team is tied to a new war in Afghanistan; and I don't see the kind of focus on poor people and working people that I wanted to see. I wanted Obama to be the empowerment of those everyday people. And so far, I see neo-liberal imitation and emulation, and the two are very different.
LAS: Don't you think that it's because of the system that he's caught up in?
DCW: I think he's caught, he's entangled in the larger structural systematic realities of being a president and it's like trying to turn a huge ship around; it's hard for him to do that, but that's why he's there. When he chose the economic team that was part of the problem, creating the economic catastrophe, and tries to mend the system by keeping it as usual so that it's still biased against Black people, poor people and working people. It still allowed bankers to get off scot-free and it was clear that he was more tied to the establishment rather than empower poor and working people.
LAS: Actually, he's walking a fine line now.
DCW: But at the same time, if you come out of a tradition of struggle, you have to draw a line in the sand and tell the establishment, I'm not going beyond this line. Like the public option in healthcare, you don't negotiate that. Without that there's no healthcare reform. In the American system, every president has pharaoh qualities and I am with the Moses of the world.
LAS: Thank you very much, Dr. West.