When Cornel West gave us his first book, Race Matters, the world in 1993 was a much different place than it is today.
"We are in a new day. I couldn't have said that 15 years ago with Race Matters because I wrote Race Matters in the middle of the bleak ages, political Ice Age," West said.
But with the transcendent election of President-elect Barack Obama, it is clearly a new day for America and the world. And with this new day, West has given us a new book, Hope on a Tightrope: Words & Wisdom.
"I think it's a metaphor for our lives, for our nation and for the world that is hanging in the balance," said West about his new offering, a collection of speech excerpts, quotations, letters, philosophy and photos.
"What it really means is trying to muster the courage to think critically about ourselves and the world, muster the courage to empathize with, especially, the most vulnerable and the poor and the disadvantaged," West said during a wide-ranging phone interview with the AFRO.
West, the scholar, philosopher and critic is currently serving as the Class of 1943 university professor at Princeton where he teaches in the Center for African-American Studies and in the Department of Religion.
West is scheduled to discuss his new book Nov. 22 at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. "We now just left the age of Ronald Reagan and the era of conservatism. We brought to a close the epic of the Southern strategy and that had to do with the economics of greed, the culture of indifference to the poor, the politics of scare tactics, scapegoating and fear."
West added, "So in the face of greed, we're talking about fairness and justice. In the face of indifference, we're talking about compassion, love and service. And in the face of fear, we're talking about hope-how do you generate some sense of possibility-people believing that they actually can make a difference in the world."
But even West, one of the most important thinkers and philosophers of a generation, is still grappling mightily with the "meaning" of President Barack Obama.
"I think it's beyond measure. I don't even really think we have a standard yet," he said. "I think about myself growing up. The idea of a Black man in the White House was like the idea of a snowball in hell. So it's just beyond measure in terms of the psychic impact. This is where symbols make a difference-symbols matter-in terms of shaping the hearts and minds and souls especially of our precious young people," added West, a child of the segregated South who was born in Tulsa, Okla.
"And this is true even for White and Brown and Red and Yellow kids as well. So that their sense of possibility-the fact that they no longer have to look primarily to athletes and entertainers-but now will look to a Black president who's committed to public interest and common good. That's just a beautiful thing; that's a magnificent thing."
But even as the world continues to revel in the Obama breakthrough, there has been an insidious uptick in racist incidents across the U.S. since his election.
There have been cross burnings, church burnings, Black figures hung in effigy, racial epithets scrawled on homes and cars and even schoolchildren chanting, "Assassinate Obama."
"I think there is going to be a White backlash. Right now it's on the down low but it will be manifest in a number of different ways because it's still America," West observed. "I think the White brothers and sisters are not post-racial, just less racist than they used to be and that they voted for a Black man based on qualification, not pigmentation. That's a beautiful thing but it doesn't mean racism doesn't exist."
Yet, as West's first book Race Matters helped foster a new dialogue on race in America, Obama's candidacy and subsequent election is shifting the U.S. race paradigm more forcefully.
"He (Obama) completely re-cast and transgressed the stereotypical categories that they're used to deploying. The important thing is he triumphed though," West declared. "The question now is for us to continue to celebrate the symbolic breakthrough, but we also have to have substance on the ground. And all we need do is go into the prison industrial complex and see overt racism."
He adds, "But certainly with a Black man in the White House that makes things much more complicated because it means on the one hand that the White voters are less racist and therefore they were willing to elect a Black man who is in control of the army, the navy, police — everything."
West added, "On the other hand, of course, Brother Obama has to put in place a team that is as committed to justice as he is. And this is very important."
And although West is an Obama supporter, he is dubious of the president-elect's White House transition machinations thus far.
"I want to give my dear brother time to get his project off the ground. At this moment I don't really follow and don't fully understand what's going on," West said.
"You start with Rahm Emanuel who's got all kinds of problems…that's the first choice? Then talk about Larry Summers (with whom West feuded during their days at Harvard) as a possible secretary of the treasury-recycling all of these old Clintonite, neo-liberal, de-regulating folk. And then here comes Hillary for secretary of state. I'm unsure-I want to give him time-but I just don't follow it."
West clearly relishes doing the people's business in the role of a "public intellectual," as he calls it.
"I think it's an intellectual who loves people enough to tell them the truth, respects them enough to spend time with them, to listen with them, to be in conversation with them, to communicate with them, work with them, organize with them, mobilize with them," West said.
"It's really just an intellectual of the people. That's really what it comes down to. And he is excited about the potential of this new day ushered in with Obama's historic election.
"We're in a new day now and we need an awakening-a Democratic awakening. We need a renaissance of love and service to public good and common interest to each other," West said. "We need again the courage to think for ourselves, the courage to empathize for the weak and the vulnerable. The courage to hope-hope on a tightrope is where we are."