[AAS21 Podcast] Episode #6: Before Cornel West, After Cornel West

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

 

Podcast Transcript:

(0:00) [background music]

Eddie: Hello. I'm Eddie Glaude. I'm the chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Princeton University and welcome to the African-American studies podcast. Today I'm delighted to have as our guest the one and only Doctor Cornel West. Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University and present Professor Emeritus here at Princeton. Professor West is one of the most influential intellectuals of our time. His scholarship has transformed conversations across a wide range of fields, from black liberation theology to critical theory and cultural studies to American pragmatism. In so many ways, scholars and intellectuals are still trying to catch up with him. He's the author of over 20 books and 13 edited volumes, classics such as Prophesied Deliverance and the American Evasion of Philosophy, The Ethical Dimensions of Marxism, Keeping Faith and of course, Race Matters and Democracy Matters, just to name a few. His latest books are Black Prophetic Fire and the Radical King. Professor West is also one of the nation's most important public intellectuals. His insistence on speaking truth to power on embodying integrity, honesty, decency, and courage on behalf of the most vulnerable, no matter who resides in the white house, has been a model for so many around the country as well as a thorn in the side of those comfortable walking the corridors of power. It is indeed a privilege and an honor. Welcome, Doctor West. 

Cornel West: My dear brother, my dear brother. Kind and generous words of a brother to think oh man, it has been almost 30 years. 

Eddie: Almost 30 years, man.

Cornel: 30 years holding up that bloodstained bennet trying to be consistent and constant and persistent in trying to tell the truth.

Eddie: It is amazing actually. You know, every time I give thanks and praises to, to, to God, I thank Him for you and what you have meant to me in my life and to so many others. But I wanted to, uh, I really am 

(2:00)

excited about this conversation for a couple of reasons but because I think we have an opportunity to just simply, you know, chop it up as we often do in the privacy of our own spaces.

Cornel: Yeah, yeah.

Eddie: Um--

Cornel: All the precious, precious moments--

Eddie: Indeed.

Cornel: That I spent many time with you over the years but every week, I just learned from you, inspired by it, oh brother.

Eddie: Well, it's-- It's, well, just a reflection of you, doc. So I- I want to begin with talking about this- this life of the mind that you have-- uh, you've been talking with me about for 30 years. Almost 30 years. Um, this idea of what it means to be committed, to be in love with ideas. Talk about how that began, how did it take root in you?

Cornel: You know I've been so very blessed to um, come from such a-- a loving family, a loving church. I love baptist church on the one hand and the West family on the other; to be so deeply shaped by coaches like Bill Mahan and uh, John Braxton and then to have teachers like Martin Keelson and Preston Williams, and Sinclair Drake. Really it's a kind of a- a model--

Eddie: Hmm.

Cornel: -- in so many ways and of course, the John [inaudible] and Stanley Cavell and Henry Pugnant and Israel Jefferson, Robert Nozick at Harvard and then the Richard [inaudible] and Sheldon Wolin's, uh [inaudible] and Tim Scanlon's and Tom Nagel's, Walter Kaufmann at Princeton. I mean there's nothing like being shaped by that kind of way of love and by love I meant those who are fundamentally committed to love of truth and love of beauty, love of goodness in my own particular sense of love of the holy as it hasn't been losing that Christian. And so when you think of that backdrop, there's so much joy that follows from that life with the mind and the world of ideas, to try to cultivate, uh, capacity for 

(4:00)

energy, discipline and talent, and to use them as forms of weaponry in this struggle for freedom. Uh, I am first and foremost a Christian. I'm first and foremost a Christian tied to radical love and freedom, to radical freedom and love. But that radical love has to do with a hatred. And justice loves this notion of a charitable Christian hatred. We hate the saint and love the sinner. And you hate the injustice, but still love the person who perpetuate it because it they can be changed, they are redeemable. They can always be transformed by something greater than me. Uh, so I am full of a lot of um righteous indignation. I mean, a lot of people actually call me a hater. And I say, "You're absolutely right." That, uh, when you love people, you hate the fact they're being treated unjustly. You loathe the fact that they're being treated unfairly. And if you don't do something, their rocks are going to cry out. That is, for me, part and parcel a certain kind of calling. A certain kind of vocation.

Eddie: You- You know, you always do this. Um, whenever you speak around the country or whenever you talk yourself, you- you- you point to those uh, who have poured something so significant into you.You used a phrase not too long ago, um, that I've heard you used it before but not so much in this way. A revolutionary piety. So there's always this kind of, um, public acknowledgement of your indebtedness to the sources of who-- the sources who made you who you are.

Cornel: Absolutely.

Eddie: Now it's interesting, because it's- it's a reflection of- of a side of you that most people might not think about. And it is your deep connection to tradition, your understanding, I mean-- It's from God Emerge to Edward Shields. I mean there's this kind of-- So talk a little-- 

Cornel: I called it two fundamental things.

Eddie: Exactly. So talk a little--

Cornel: God emerge chose the methods. Shields has great work on tradition.

Eddie: So talk a little bit about that.

Cornel: Well the finest

(6:00) analysis we have of piety was written by rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in the first piece he ever wrote in English and it talks about the three pillars of pie: the remembrance, reverence and resistance, and it talks about piety itself as subversive in that sense. But you always begin by remembering, you always rig-- begin by degree that's membering the gathering of the dismembered element of the past that need to be able to be brought to bare in a nightmarish present in order to hold on to some vision of a better future, let alone the actualization of that better future. So that for me, piety, the indebtedness of the sources of good in our lives, in our brief move from our mama's womb to tomb. And during that short time in time and space, the memories that can somehow connect us to a reverence beyond just the idols, the fetishes, uh, the- the brands, the uh, the chronic self-promotions and the raw ambition, something deeper than that. Uh, and then of course the resistance against those same idols and fetishes of our day.

Eddie: You, uh, you- you will invoke Sheldon Wolin's distinction between vocation and invocation as another way of getting at that. Talk a little-- Because Wolin is so important to you as well.

Cornel: Well, with Sheldon you have my thesis adviser, and God rest his- his soul, he's one of probably the greatest radical democratic political theorists let upon the 20th century in American empire. And when he talked about vocation, he went back to Martin Luther Beruf. He talked about vibrant vocation, what it is that have a calling. But then there's no vocation without invocation. There's no calling without also a recalling and remembering of those grand figures. He-- He's in some way tied the highbrow 

(8:00)

humanous tradition, of which I'm a part, that highlights exemplars. Exemplary figures who intervened in one's present by means of the life of the mind that allow you touchstones and milestones, high standards of excellence, [foreign word] in the language of the Greeks. The high standards of excellence that give you a sense of what it is to uh, a strive to something grander than you and the lives that they lived.

Eddie: Yeah. Yeah. So-- So I mean-- And- And when you- when you locate yourself in this kind of high humanous tradition, there's some- there's some serious folk that you invoke. I mean, from uh, going from Erasmus all the way, even you know--

Cornel: It begins with Socrates and Jesus.

Eddie: Socrates. Yeah, so, so--

Cornel: Absolutely. Begins with Socrates on the one hand, and Amos and Jesus on the other. And of course, with Socrates it's always pretty-- 

Eddie: Athens and Jerusalem--

Cornel: --the pre-existence and antecedent condition going back to Egypt, another African civilizations. But, especially, the intellectual integrity of Socrates, the unleashing of critical consciousness, of questioning, of interrogation, the willingness to have the courage to follow arguments even when it go in places you don't want to go and the painful truth of coming to term of who you are. And then Jesus himself, building on the prophetic Judaism that produced him. He is very much a prophetic Judaic figure. But at the same time, opening it up to the world in terms of the unleashing of a love of neighbor and a love of enemy that puts one at risks that leads toward a cross that exemplifies a way of love in which to be, uh, what's the right word-- to empty, to empty one's self and to be emptied by others

(10:00)

in such a way that when you are on that cross, you have some kind of traces that you can point to the impact that you have on the souls of others. There's something that's quite sublime about that-- um, of course you see that sublimity in, um, in Spinoza? Great-- Great excommunicated Jewish. I think it was secular to the core who love the example of Jesus, the example of Jesus in the Quran as well. Uh you see there's so many folk who see his sublimity who are not necessarily Christian. Or Jacob himself, of course, who was a great agnostic but who could go to church and cry and say, "The passion, the Eucharist. Too beautiful to be true." That goes to [inaudible]. That unbelievable sense of self investment and a life of trying to love, of pursuing justice but recognizing that the ways of the world were for the most part always tried to crush it by means of character assassination, literal assassination, misinformation, misinterpretation of what you and the movement that you're a part of is trying to do. Martin King is the grandest example, of course, John Coltrane, Mary Lou Williams are the great artistic exemplars of what I'm talking about within my own tradition, the black freedom tradition.

Eddie: So then you know there's uh- there's talk of your genius and this evidence of your genius. But that- It is- It is actually a result of an extraordinary discipline and dedication to your craft. Talk a little bit about you habits of reading. You are first and foremost a reader.

Cornel: Absolutely. No doubt it's true. [crosstalk] [inaudible]

Eddie: Um , so, all the town folks walking around here thinking, seeing, watching you speak and listening to you speak at the core of who you are uh, Irene and Clifton West who made you who you are, Shallow Baptist [inaudible] [crosstalk] You are a reader.

Cornel: That's exactly--

Eddie: So talk a little bit about your habits of reading.

(12:00) 

Cornel: Well, there's the sense in which I'm committed to the dialogical and not-- And that dialogical commitment has to do with commitment to reading, especially the great texts of the dead as well as some of the text of the living, I think the greatest text that has been written tend to be by those who are dead as opposed to the quick. But it doesn't mean that you downplay, the quick who are serious at building on the best of the dead. But for me it's a matter of soulcraft it's a matter of orienting myself in such a way that I can generate visions and virtues and values that enacted-- that if enacted in the right way can lead toward a better life. Because I don't fetishize texts and texts for me are simply ways in which persons can live better lives and by engaging these texts you become more courageous, more critical, more-- more compassionate, more sacrificial. So in that sense it's- it's like Shakespeare's The Tempest, you know, all of these plays actually mean little if the plays themselves don't try to get you to live your life as a work of art. Don't fetishize the art itself, but being a spectator and just acknowledging the genius of Shakespeare but rather to- to make a choice, to try to live your life in such a way that your life becomes a work of art. So these plays help enable and empower you to be a walking work of art. You see, that's part of the genius of Shakespeare. But that's truth for uh, the Duke [inaudible] I think. It's true for um, a [inaudible] Hathaway.  

Eddie: And [inaudible], right? I mean this is-- the art- [crosstalk]

Cornel: -- [inaudible] the way of life, well, absolutely. I mean, he's- he's associated with spiritual exercises so that- that spiritual exercise is part and parcel what the Greeks called Paideia, which is a deep education that's soul-- uh, change that soul transformation at the shifting of the soul from the world, becoming to the world and being from the world, of surface of the world of depth, most importantly from the world 

(14:00) of superficial to the world of the substantial. Those things that really matter, life, death, joy, love, trust, intellectual, dialog for personal and social transformation.

Eddie: So that's the motivation to get to the books. That's-- that's what lies behind uh, the reading. But there-- there is a-- there is a discipline that attends it. I mean, no matter how busy you are, you- you are reading.

Cornel: Well, I got to read three hours every night. No, there's no doubt about that. Just feel incomplete.

Eddie: You just feel incomplete?

Cornel: Oh yeah, I--

Eddie: Goes all the way back when your mother tried to have to take your glasses away from you, keep you--

Cornel: Take my glasses from the book mobile. No, that's very very true. That's fair. And for me the reading is much more important than the writing. I mean, writing itself can become just another form of narcissism, another form of obsession with self presentation in such a way that people can say how smart you are and acknowledge your smartness. And I can't stand the cultural smartness, I can't stand new liberal soulcraft that says the best thing that ever happens to anybody can be the smartest person in the room as opposed to being wise, courageous and compassionate. The smartness culture and this neoliberal soulcraft is just another product of late capitalist civilization. It somehow tries to get us to fall in place to the prevailing idols rather than crush the idols and stay in contact with the best of the past. And usually the- the best was something that we know come from the dead. The living, in and out of themselves, have- don't have a whole lot to offer. They've got to be in a conversation and dialog with the best towering figures in the movements of the past.

Eddie: You know-- You know, you-- you're always referencing artists. You know, you always kind of, turn to the poets. Because in the argument between uh, the poets and the philosophers, you-- you side with the poets. Um, uh, and-- and it's clear-- But you know, you once told me in passing, I don't know if you remember this, that you read novels slowly. You don't read them as quickly 

(16:00)

as you read other things. Why is that the case? Why does it take you-- Why are you more-- And I wouldn't say you're more deliberate, but it takes a little longer to finish a novel than it does.

Cornel: Yeah. Especially a Toni Morrison novel. [laughter] But that's just Tony with James Johanson, Pruce, says any of the great one. But one, first, I fundamentally believe that artists are the vanguard of the species. I think we are a kind of species, a kind of organic creatures, a kind of organisms with language that we-- are-- The highest levels of our courage and the lowest depths of our love is manifesting those who take us to edge of life's abyss who are willingly invest everything and who they are into a product that would lead toward their being emptied out, but to lead toward art being filling up. And uh, and it's the artists who'll do that. Uh, not just musicians but the painters and- and the writers and the um-- and the poets in the broadest sense of what the Germans call dictar. Those who have the imagination and empathy that conceive love in alternative uh, reality, given a nightmarish reality that all of us have to deal with and our death sentences in space and time. And so in that sense, philosophers can become artists. Man, I got my David Hume, right here. This is uh, Dialogues on Natural Religion. That's one of the great works of art in the English language written by a philosopher, a comic philosopher who preoccupied with incongruity and inconsistency and contradictions.

Eddie: And Cavell.

Cornel: Hands down, Cavell. Someone of writing on Emerson in that way but Wittgenstein would be another [inaudible] of course, another Dorno, another uh, within the European tradition. Uh, and that there's- there's an array of artists who are deeply philosophical, I mentioned Tony Morrison but I would say Lorraine Hansberry's one of the underappreciated persons who have a deep 

(18:00)

philosophical orientation. Her rewriting of Waiting of the Godot, Waiting for- for top dog, Waiting for Todog. Critique of that towering late modernists playwright, Samuel Beckett and there is this genius from southside Chicago in her late twenties, early thirties taking him on as a revolutionary humanist as she was as well a student at WEB Du Bois and others. Saying would be true of Gwendolyn Brooks, we can go on and on with figures who understand the way in which the philosophic and the poetic are tied together. The Souls of Black Folk is one of the great examples of that classical 1903. My tradition is one in which I read novels slowly. Because there's a semantic density, there's thickness of meaning that you don't want to miss. You'll never be able to capture all of it, but you don't want to miss and therefore take so much more time. But you read more novels than I do, my brother, you read the Latin American and African novelists and so forth and so on. And I wish I had the time to be able to follow through on so many of the novelists that you read all the time as a philosopher and as a social critic. But uh-- but the poets, I do try to read uh, much more of the-- the Jeffrey Hills who take a long time to read. You know, uh, very very difficult. But very profound, very profound.

Eddie: You know, I've-- There's this- there's this wonderful, um, juxtaposition in your work and so, it's not juxtaposition, it's not the right word. It's-- it's disintegrated uh, density to your own work. And where there's a kind of deep reading in the European tradition, what you described is a kind of high humanous tradition that you can map out. Um, and then there is this kind of deep uh, reading in the African-American sources, alright? And there's a way in which you bring these two together, uh, and has kind of defined the arc of your work 

(20:00) since the first book. Um, you know, the edited volume on Black Theology to uh, the- the Prophesied Deliverance to-- to um, American Event. There's a way in which you're bringing these traditions together that is- That-- That really fascinates me. Um, and- and- And how- How do you think, um, about the relationship between these sources of hope? The sources that make you who you are? And let me say a little bit more about what I mean.

Cornel: Yeah, yeah. Okay.

Eddie: So, there- there's a way in which, and this is what angered me with Mike [inaudible] you know, [crosstalk] rendering a view and then give thin the new republic, little blessings, but-- 

Cornel: Oh, God bless it. God bless that both, yeah.

Eddie: But there's a way in which you have transformed conversations in so many different areas. I mentioned this in the introduction. So the way in which you bring Marxism to bare, right? Are you a Marxian thinking to bare on black liberation theological discourses? Right? When you're very young. And how you were impacting that conversation. And the way in which you, uh, in some ways, transformed and pushed Cone and others. To think about the material conditions for the production of theological uh, reflection. Or do you think about the ways in which you were engaging in conversations with folk who are just now reading Foucault? Just reading, I mean, [inaudible]  gave you Foucault. Right before-- 

Cornel: Right. Sure did. Sure did. [inaudible]

Eddie: Right when it was first translated right? And the way in which you were thinking about critical theory and cultural studies at a moment where it was taking off, and how you were having an impact by bringing the conversation of race and placing it at the center as you were reading these folk- as you were pushing [inaudible], as you were pushing Paul Bouvet. Those folks up in Spitsbergen alike. And then of course the American pragmatist tradition. You- you write a story. You, uh, you tell a story of its beginnings that fundamentally re-narrates it in order to highlight its blindnesses and then you introduce figures who weren't necessarily central to have folks taught about that tradition. 

(22:00) Talk a little bit about that methodological approach. The way in which you bring these various sources to bare on what you-- how you think and how you write.

Cornel: I think it has much to do with the legacy of the greatest public intellectual in the American Empire the 20th century - WEB Du Bois. He's got a lot of competition with John Dewey and Edmund Wilson and Susan Sontag and Muriel Rukeyser, Lionel Trilling and others. But, to me, there's a BC and an AD. Uh, to be post-Du Bois, and after Du Bois, is to begin with a internationalism, a cosmopolitanism in which you keep track of civilizations, how they relate to each other, but also come to terms with empire. So for example, when I was coming along and first reading um, James Bowen but especially Ralph Ellison. They both have tremendous impact on me. Uh, and Albert Murray too to a significant degree. And they were so concerned with looking at black people in the context of American culture, what I'd call American civilization. And it was fascinating. It was very important. But I always thought that was too parochial because I think America itself has a parochialism and a provincialism, it has magnificent things, that energy, mobility, obsession with futurity, the future. But it still has its own blindspot and underside of indigenous people treatment, genocidal attacks, depth of lands as well as slavery and domestic, household being patriarchal, women confined to those private spaces, while working men, without property not being able to vote. But I was always concerned with the issues of empire and the issues of what it is to be part of a civilization that is usually connected in complicated way with other civilizations.

(24:00) So that when they would say, "Well, black culture is really fundamentally a part of American culture." I would say, "Well, yes. That's true but that's not the compliment that you think it is." [laughter] It's a great insight, we accept it. But the move toward American nationalism without being internationalist itself is still too narrow. So even in 1982 as you rightly know, that's 35 years ago in Prophesied Deliverance which is my first text. I was much more concerned with trying to connect the rich, deep, profound black tradition of the doing and suffering of these new world Africans and the shaping of both themselves, the culture, the community as well as American civilization but also modernity. Also human history. And that's Du Bois' great move. Du Bois is the great publican electual concerned about empire. And that's very, very rare. Um, and Cedric Robinson is another who comes to mind uh, in that regard. Uh, Gerald Horne, uh, comes to mind in that regard. But we don't have a lot. Most are settled into the US context when we talk about black folk. And uh, lot of it has to do with my Christian sensibility to be a Christian and to live a life in which you choose a way of the cross makes you a radical internationalist who wants to turn the world upside down. Because every human being no matter what color, what national identity, no matter what sexual orientation made in the image and likeness of God. So, you- you view nationalism itself as a kind of ideological species of idolatry. Even given the fact that democracy comes into the modern world in a nutshell of the nation state, therefore you have to deal with nations if you're going try to democratize in any serious way. And the same would be true (26:00) with the uh, the impact of Marxist analysis for me, that, uh, that Karl Marx himself was first and foremost a radical internationalist who wanted to turn world upside down because he saw capitalist civilizations as promoting ubiquitous co-modification of everything and everybody. Everybody for sale, everything for sale, which is very much where we are now in-in, uh, in American civilization with its capitalism ran amok and its white supremacy out of control, let alone its president out of control and over his head. Um, so that my own shaping and molding was up with an internationalism that cuts radically against the grain of the Academy. The-the division of knowledge, uh-uh-uh, in the Academy tends to be one in which international affairs is on the side, and in which the disciplines themselves are very much locked into, uh, the nation-state and nationalism as much more important than an internationalist perspective, let alone an anti-imperialist perspective.

Cornel: So, some would periodize it differently. You know, you said there's a BC and there's an AD-

Eddie: Yeah.

Cornel: With Du Bois someone would say there's a before Cornel West and there's an after Cornel West.

Eddie: Well, no one would say that, you know. [chuckles]

Cornel: No, no, no, no there's a-- the different sorts of questions that are asked prior to you and then after you, different sorts of ways of imagining how to do this work before Cornel West and after Cornel West, so there's-there's an interesting kind of moment. We've talked about, you know, habits of reading, uh, how you imagine the life of the mind, you know, then Race Matters hits. Um-

Eddie: Mm-hmm. Which is a fluke, yeah, a fluke. Since the Deborah Chad and gives some essays and [crosstalk] [inaudible].

Cornel: And, you know, I remem-- I was here when ra-- We-- I was here we as a graduate student when Race Matters hit and it was, uh, it was a phenomenal moment.

(28:01)

Um, I remember when Rock-- remember that show on Rock and they invoked, they invoked the book on-on Rock's show, um, and in some ways you became the darling of white liberals.

Eddie: Oh yes, dangerous position, dangerous position.

Cornel: Talk a little bit about that for you, for yourself.

Eddie: Well, one of course, again, the text itself was a fluke with-with Deborah Chad did, finding some essays on the floor and putting them together, but the-the visibility of the text had everything to do with the rebellion of the black masses in Los Angeles responding to Rodney King, where the vicious legacy of white supremacy had to be taken seriously and when you have such moments, they were like our moment now, the white power structure wants to select certain individuals and certain texts-

Cornel: Hmm.

Eddie: - that become the focus because you gonna have to have some public conversation about race. You remember the-the piece in New York Times Magazine on Princeton's Public and Election.

Cornel: Exactly.

Eddie: Back in 1992, right, when the rebellion taken place and the text takes off. And I did become the darling of the white liberal establishment for very quick time. It only lasted about nine months or a year because of my association with Louis Farrakhan, with the [inaudible] and Ben Chavis, the three of us were traveling around the country, and we're being very honest about our disagreements but also being honest at the plight of black Americans, specifically the plight of black brothers was one that had to be addressed. And though I've always had my-my differences and disagreements with my dear brother men Louis Farrakhan, I've always been willing to work with a variety of different persons who are highlighting certain kinds of issues, in this case that the impact of white supremacy on the black community and the impact of white supremacy on the heart and souls of precious black brothers. So, to be Associate Minister of Louis Farrakhan in Ivy League schools at that time, 

(30:01)

of course, was a-a-a deadly or a poisonous thing and I-I was very explicit about it that I'm a free black man for Jesus loving, free black man, so I-I love who I want to love, I associate who I want to associate with, so I had some very vicious attacks at that time, of course vicious attacks escalated [laughs] in different ways.

Cornel: No, no, I remember brother Sean Willinds and Michael Walzer [crosstalk] [inaudible].

Eddie: All you supporting fascism. This is a black Mussolini. At this march we're going to get vicious attacks on precious Jewish brothers and sisters right after. I said, "No, it's not like that at all. it's not like that at all," and they turned out to be wrong, uh, totally wrong in that sense.

Cornel: Right.

Eddie: But that was just the beginning, but what happens is there is a very rich tradition I think of the boys themselves. I think of James Baldwin, I think of Gwendolyn Brooks, I think of Amiri Baraka, I think of Gwendolyn Brooks, they've all been the darlings of the white liberal establishment early in their careers. And as they follow through and became more radicalized in terms of them willing to speak truths that were uncomfortable for the white liberals, the white liberals turned on them viciously and you just look up each one of their careers. [inaudible], I think is also a fascinating case in that regard and a lot of courage. And it's-it's-it's a difficult situation because it's very hard for a black intellectual to reach any level of success in the white liberal mainstream anyway, and so once you get there you have to make a choice. Are you gonna opt for integrity or you're gonna opt for popularity? You see, Leroy Jones could've remained Leroy Jones and bend the darling of white liberals. The boys could have done that. James Baldwin's certainly fine, next time they loved him. No-name in the street, they hate him. He’s the same lovely Jimmy-

Cornel: Same. Yeah.

Eddie: - telling his truth, you know, but he got to come to terms of death of Malcolm.

Cornel: So here we are now.

(32:01)

Eddie: [inaudible] Here we are in are 2017, same kind of phenomena, you know. You got the-the neoliberal white establishment trots out its darlings and they become, you know, bestsellers. They become highly visible. They become, uh-uh, persons that-that many people argue, are the only voices and you say, "No, there's never the only voices or primary voices." Most of them won't tell fundamental truths, drone strikes, Israeli occupation of Palestinians. There's certain issues they won't touch with a ten-foot pole precisely because those are the issues that the white liberal establishment-

Cornel: Won't touch with a-

Eddie: - won't touch with a ten-foot pole in any critical way, you see. And so-- but I-- The-the wonderful thing is that with Black Lives Matter and awakening that taken place, spiritual, moral awakening on the younger generation that-that, uh, they-they know, you know, who's for real and-and who's phony. So, in that sense, there is a certain kind of hope that we have in terms of truth tells.

Cornel: Right. So there's-there's Black Lives Matter, right? And then there's this kind of con-- this interesting convergence, the ascendance of Trump and the ascendance of Copes, [inaudible] book. How do you, how do you in your mind make sense of this against the backdrop of the election of-of-of the first African-American president? You mean you-you caught-- I mean, you've caught a lot of, a lot of hell out here over the last eight years truth-telling, trying to, uh, shout from the rooftops about, uh, what was happening, not just simply, uh, in the con-- not just simply among black America in the country and across the globe. Uh, while we were kind of, uh, all excited about a black man in the White House you were keeping track of this-this question of Justice and this issue of love 

(34:01)

and that motivated you to continue to bring, uh, a critique to bare on Obama's, uh, presidency. And then of course, you get the ascendance of Trump and then this phenomena of between the world and me and these young folk in the streets. How do you make sense of all of-of this, uh, as-as a person who has in some ways been thinking about the American Empire for a long, long time?

Eddie: Well, I tell you though, you know, after Reagan and Bush's black people were levels of desperation looking for any symbol and sign of hope, and the very notion of there being a successful black president in a sense of a president who wins and goes to the White House with a precious black family, brilliant black wife and beautiful black children, it was unimaginable. So when it took place, the impact on black America of course was just it was unprecedented, and it's understandable because the depth of desperation we oftentimes have very low expectations and when those expectations are exceeded by a black family going to the white house primarily built by black people, uh, it's-it's-it's-- it was overwhelming. But the result was what? The result was our leaders, our politicians, spokespersons and our intellectuals began to revel in that symbolic celebration even as it reinforce a concrete hibernation. And what I mean by that is symbolic break dancing but on the ground sleepwalking. So, you no longer made any demands, your Socratic energy was-wa-was attenuated, no serious critiques. Now, as an internationalist, when I was concerned about drone strikes for a baby in Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan, has exactly the same value as a black baby or a white baby or a red baby in the United States. 

(36:01)

Nobody really want to highlight it in a way as the artist is Jeremy Sca-Scahill and-and-and others, Medea Benjamin and others who were talking about this. But I had to be part and parcel that while-- as the King legacy. A Vietnamese baby got the same value as a black, brown or red, uh, yellow baby. Same is true with relation with Wall Street, same was true in relation in our Security State, the National Surveillance State. 

So that we think, "Oh my God, Barack Obama's dropping to over 20,000 bombs every year on seven Muslim countries with a peace prize.-

Cornel: Hmm.

Eddie: - That's a contradiction. That’s need to be pointed out." "Well, brother West that's-that's-that's-- no, because Fox News coming at him, right wing's coming at him. We got to protect him, we got to protect him." and so we saw it was Sharpton, Dyson, Melissa Harris-Perry and the others, they became the protectors. They became the cheerleaders with a known role of serious intellectuals who are concern about black suffering, poor people's suffering, wiping of-of-of working people suffering. Is it tell the truth? The district truths allow suffering to speak, so-so- when you got a black president, Dyson and called him Pharaoh for a few-few weeks changes his mind and became a cheerleader. I said, "Oh, okay well, what's the grounds for the shift," right?

Cornel: But how do you respond to people who say that-that-that it was the fact that he didn't extend tickets to the inauguration, you know, the Chris Hedges interview or that if you, if you had access to him, uh, that this-- you wouldn't be so critical. How do you resp-- or people say, uh, that your language, right? The rhetoric, the what-- you know, he is, uh-uh-uh, [crosstalk] Rockefeller republican and black face.

Eddie: He was a puppet of Wall Street. He turned out to be a puppet of Wall Street that's why no one of his executives went to jail given all that crime.

Cornel: How do you respond to people saying that you-you-- the harshness of your critique?

Eddie: Well, there's no doubt that there's an intensity and harshness because right when everyone else is celebrating, the last thing you want to use is polite language and sweet language when it's the harshness that allows what you have to say to stand out and 

(38:00)

be reckoned with. Why? Because the harshness of the language pales in light of the harshness of the condition.

Cornel: Hmm.

Eddie: Right. We put the pressure on, let's say something about the new Jim Crow thing, Michelle Alexander and others, you know, the secular. Uh-uh-uh, her classic text for the movement building on Angela Davis and Glenn Lowry and the others, uh, we're concerned about new Jim Crow for-for decades. You had to use a harsh language in order to try to wake people up. That’s one of the role of hyperbolic language, to wake people up and to recognize just how ugly and vicious these conditions are.

Cornel: Yeah, no, absolutely.

Eddie: And so, uh, you thought about black child poverty. one out of two black children under six are living in utter poverty and he didn't give one speech dealing with poverty and gentlemen, let alone child part live and alone black child poverty, and yet black folk giving him a pass. And black folk now, you know, we-we understand what it meant to give him a pass.

Cornel: Right.

Eddie: You know what it means? That, "Oh, hey, he's so successful." Is that all you wanted with just black success at the top of rather than trying to attenuate black suffering on the bottom, inequality still increased, all the jobs, 94% of the jobs were low pay, precarious, contingent jobs, but Wall Street breaking records, stock market breaking records. So what happens is that, uh, we move into a neo-fascist era as the neoliberal era of Obama came to a close with an unbelievable level of disappointment. Disappointment either rationalized by saying he wanted to do more but the right-wing wouldn't allow him. Now he had two years, it was all Democrats still unable to deal in any serious way with the levels of social misery of poor and working people. He didn't support the Employment Free Choice Act that would have helped trade unions. He did sort of come to the Wall Street bailout 

(40:01)

without there being a bailout for homeless-- for-for-for homeowners, what is it? A 1/4 of a million black homeowners and you pointed out your powerful tax democracy in black depression, no sense of emergency there at all. So I had to go on and on.

He said, "Oh, brother West it's just a personal matter. he didn't give you tickets." well, after doing 65 events for the brother all I asked was for a ticket for my mother anywhere, you know, MSNBC's friend lifestyle mother had to be in the first few rows. That’s a lie. I figured my mother's 70-something years old, she ought to see the first black president, I take her to do it. I did 65 events, never heard a word from him, never heard any-any possibility of her doing-- being there, so I just took her anyway but we couldn't-couldn't go. Is that wrong? I think he was wrong. There’s no doubt about that. And I love my mother. But then I'm gonna do my critique.

Cornel: Right.

Eddie: He cannot do the truth teller. Lay out the evidence. Let me see how he was critical of Wall Street in a subjective way as opposed to a Wall Street break-dancer. Let me see the ways in which he was addressing the new Jim Crow, not just by going to some deodorized space in the prison after seven years but hitting the issue head-on retrospectively if you're gonna sign a bill that allows for some reduction in terms of the crack-cocaine vis-a-vis, uh, regular cocaine, uh, punishments and so on. No, it was clear he's a neoliberal president no matter what color he is. And neoliberalism is what? Steal the transfer of wealth from poor and working people to the 1% with privatizing and financializing and militarizing, militarizing the police department, new movement, Black Lives Matter, under a black president who-who needed to be reminded black lives matter.

Cornel: [chuckles] So now we have the neo-fascists.

Eddie: Now the neo-fascists in place.

Cornel: As you say, the gangster in the white and you have been strong as usual in this regard. So, what do we-

(42:01)

Eddie: Brother Donald Trump is a gangster in character and a neo-fascist in content. And what I mean by that is when you're grabbing private parts of a woman and bragging about it, that's gangster. When you're saying you going to Iraq and take their oil, that's gangster. Those are just two examples of what it is to-- and gangster is what? He clips of integrity, honesty, decency, obsessed with the 11th commandment, "Thou shall not get caught," thinking you can do anything living a life of impunity. That is brother Donald Trump, a life of impunity, say anything and do anything with no accountability, no answerability.

But the neo-fascist content is connected to the abandoning. There it's not just disregard of rule of law, disregard a constitution, but it's big business, big corporations with an ideology that scapegoats the most vulnerable, our precious Muslims, our precious Mexicans, our precious transgender folk, and black folk and Jews. And now it gets complicated with our Jewish brothers and sisters because you've got vicious anti-Jewish contempt shot through the Breitbart-like ideological orientation.

Cornel: Right.

Eddie: But you also have the embrace of Israeli elites. Now never to confuse Israeli elites with Jewish brothers and sisters, that's a whole two different things. the elites, right-wing, Netanyahu, comes out of Jabotinsky tradition, very different in Albert Einstein, very different in Judah Magnus, very different from progressive Jews within the Zionist movement, and then you got the Noam Chomsky's who are critical to sign as a whole, but he is as Jewish as Netanyahu.

Cornel: Right, right.

Eddie: He's just more right on the question of-of-of Israel needing to be a-a meeting that-that-that lift the occupation or to allow Palestinians to live lives of decency and dignity with either a state of their own and now whether that's even possibly is open but the crucial thing is we have to have a double up. We’ve got to love 

(44:00)

our precious Jewish brothers and sisters. We’ve got to love our precious Palestinian brothers and sisters. That’s the Martin Luther King Jr.-like challenge and that's what it is that tells truth. When it comes to those kinds of issues, then you're not going to get either a coach or a dicer and others to hit those head. they gonna stay concerned only about the US context and the ways in which race and white supremacy must be radically called into question. They’re right about that. but, of course, in terms of their action Dyson, of course, cheerleader for the president up until the end he had to rebrand and now he posed it as if he's a major critic during those eight years, so that's not true. That’s a lie. He was very much a cheerleader, you see. Coates, for what's the kind of embedded reporter. You read the long essay in the Atlantic-Atlanti-

Cornel: My black president.

Eddie: My-my black president. He’s traveling with the president. He’s embedded, no serious critique other than respectability politics here, a little issue there, you know. And you got Jelani Cobb and the others when I act as if that something makes him a major critic. No, that's not major criticism at all. That’s nibbling on the edges, but big why because in fact what-what you see in Coach's essay is what? That moment in the essay when he says, "I was just overwhelmed of us. Touches the deepest level when the president walked into a room and white people had to respect him so much." And you say, "Oh is that what black freedom is all about? It’s just white respect and white approval and white embrace of who you are? Isn't black freedom very much about making sure white fears insecurities and anxieties are secondary and tertiary, and putting black dignity and black decency and black integrity and black freedom at the center of it." that's the difference between Malcolm X and Carl Rowan. If you won't call Rowan's legacy, then you look at Copes and Dyson because they preoccupied with the white concern, "Here's a letter to the white. This is making sure the white liberals feel good about 

(46:00)

themselves because they can see how racist they still are. You call for reparations, you're right. Do you follow through with a black president?" "No, no comment." He said, "What you mean no comment?", you make a case for reparation. You need to bring the case to the president, whoever it is." "No, no, I'm not going that far." "That lacks courage. That lacks more courage," you see, so that the legacy of the boys, the legacy of Malcolm, and Fannie Lou, and Ella Baker, let alone Curtis Mayfield and John Coltrane. The black humanity, black freedom being the lens to which you've you think that you can love others, of course, no matter what color they are. We’re internationalist no matter what. Myself, a Christian, but the starting point it's very entering in terms of your intellectual work.

Cornel: So we got a sense of that black prophetic fire right there, so-so-

Eddie: I wrote that book, the love letter to the younger generation, "Keep track of Frederick Douglass, and Du Bois, and Ella Baker, not to be Welles and Martin and--and Malcolm. We need them now more than ever." Your work on James Bauer, we need him more than ever.

Cornel: Well, you know, there is this-- you know, as we come to a close, there is, um, there's something that I think when we talk about the periodization and BC, before Du Bois and after Du Bois, or AD and BC, before Cornel West, and after Cornel West. What advice, what words of wisdom would you offer to young folk who are in love with the life of the mind, who are voracious readers, who find themselves communing with the dead in the ways that you've described but who yet want to think in public with others, who want to bear witness to truth? I know you-you're fond of talking about the four questions that man [inaudible] asked. What-what will you say, 

(48:01)

what can you say to those who are coming after you, who want to pursue your questions, those questions that have animated your work, who want to model the kind of fire that you have demonstrated over the course of this amazing life and career?

Eddie: I say we got to learn from the ancestors. We need ancestor appreciation. If you keep track up of Gwendolyn Brooks or John Coltrane, they taught us not to confuse vocation with ambition, not to confuse calling with your career. right now opportunism, careerism, raw ambition and chronic self-promotion tend to be the dominant mode of intellectual work in general and the dominant mode of black intellectual work, so you can be highly talented, you can be even a person of genius, but if you use your talent and genius for yourself promotion and for your careerism and opportunism, then you're not going to be courageous and therefore you're not going to be an exemplar. And by exemplar, I mean, for example Emerson's representative men. We can tell my representative women, they are persons who because of integrity, honesty, decency and courage held honor their vocations and their callings so that the careerism and opportunism that affects all of us didn't become predominant, so your conception of success didn't trump your ability to be great. And greatness in all of its forms, but especially in its spiritual and moral forms of being true to the best of who you are in light of what you're called to do, not what a power structure tries to shape you to do or some establishment tries to gives you approval for doing. And that means in the end it is a kind of anti-establishment sensibility, but it's an anti-establishment sensibility that still allows you to 

(50:01)

exist and in any context you can be in a variety of different contexts and be true to the best of who you are. it will get you in trouble, but at least you'll be able to one, sleep better at night and most importantly when it comes to your funeral and your bodies in the coffin, they won't just talk about how great your resume was, but they'll talk about how loving and courageous your life was. That’s ultimate. That’s Grandmamma criteria.

Cornel: Yeah. Well, Doc, you-you know, as the boys said in 1951, he bow before the storm but he did not break.

Eddie: He didn't break. Yeah, that's the Great Divorce. He’s wrong on styling. he's wrong on my, but he loved us and there's love for black people, his love for press people in so many ways, especially on the western side of things and in Africa and other places allowed him not to break, and we love him for that.

Cornel: Well, we love you. We love you for everything that you have done and you continue to do, so, Doc, so thank you for joining me with this discussion today. It’s b- it's been amazing.

Eddie: I salute you. You parted a great tradition we talked about. Indeed, indeed, beautiful thing to have students all around the country and the world who try to keep track of the best of you. I got a lot of the worst in me and folk sometimes imitate the worse even when they students, you know what I mean? But lo and behold, you know. We all try to do the best that we can but we have to be very honest and candid, even when we fall on our faces and bounce back.

Cornel: Thank you once again for taking the time.

Eddie: Thank you, my brother.

Cornel: Additionally I want a special thanks to Courtney Bryan for providing the music for this podcast, to the staff of the Department of African-American studies at Princeton University, our office manager, April Peters, our event coordinator, Dion Worthy, our social media specialist, Allison Bland, and our technical specialist and audio engineer. Eliot Leo. Remember you can find this podcast and more by 

(52:00)

visiting our website aas.princeton.edu. Take care. 

[music]

[end]

 

 

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