Toni Morrison & Cornel West: A Historic Discussion on the State of the World, the 50th anniversary of the Brown Decision and Condoleezza Rice

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Today we spend the hour with two of the leading African American thinkers of our time: Cornel West and Toni Morrison in a public talk hosted by the Nation Institute. [includes rush transcript]

Cornel West has been described as one of America’s most vital and eloquent public intellectuals. A professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, West is a critic of culture, an advocate of social justice and an analyst of post-modern art and philosophy. He has written and co-authored numerous books on philosophy, race and sociology and also produced a hip-hop CD entitled Sketches of My Culture.

Toni Morrison is one the most prolific American writers of our time. She made her debut as a novelist in 1970, soon gaining attention for her poetically-charged and richly-expressive depictions of Black America. She has been awarded a number of literary distinctions and in 1993 became the first African American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

On March 24 at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, The Nation Institute sponsored a conversation between Toni Morrison and Cornel West. They spoke about the blues, love and politics.

  • Cornel West
  • Toni Morrison

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On March 24 at New York Society For Ethical Culture, the Nation Institute sponsored a conversation between Toni Morrison and Cornel West. This is how it began.

CORNEL WEST: We want to begin just by raising the general query of how you would characterize our historical moment.

TONI MORRISON: I feel two things: terrified and melancholy at the same time, and think, in both domestic and foreign affairs, it’s frightening, the alterations, the agenda. But at the same time, there have been other frightening moments. But this melancholy that I feel now is about a country like this with the best shot in the world, the best shot in the world, at this moment, at this time, with the certain kind of plenitude and intelligence and ambition and generosity and some history from which to learn, could indeed throw it away in a sense and become the worst parts of its own self.

AMY GOODMAN: Toni Morrison and Cornel West. Cornel West added his response.

CORNEL WEST: For me, I don’t think we’re going to talk about getting out of the mess that we’re in unless we engage the younger generation.

TONI MORRISON: No question.

CORNEL WEST: And the younger generation, they are on a different vibe than a lot of us. They’re on a different vibe.

TONI MORRISON: Well we need their language. We need their language and we have to talk.

CORNEL WEST: We have to talk.

TONI MORRISON: There’s a whole generation of us that have never said anything… to the younger generation.

CORNEL WEST: Exactly… to the young folk. They’re just out there, they’re struggling, they’ve got unbelievable creativity and imagination and they are trying to channel that are moral outrage. They’re locked into this market with it’s dominant market way of life, but they also know it’s empty and hollow in the end. All it is.. chains and bling-bling. It’s just what Nathaniel West called the “paraphernalia of suffering.” That’s a powerful phrase, it really is. But he was getting at something that we have got to engage the younger generation with. Because in some sense they’re imitating us, our materialism, and so on. But in another sense they also have grown up in a different kind of world. Their world is — so market saturated that it’s hard for them to gain access to non-market values and activities that they can ascribe weight to, because everybody is gimme, gimme, gimme.

TONI MORRISON: It’s vicious. When you think of after September 11, when anybody would have done practically anything to help, I was waiting for some guy the Mayor guy, the Governor guy — I mean, they did things, but there was something like — that I wanted to hear.


TONI MORRISON: Like go home. See if everybody’s all right. Build this. Check your neighbors. Get some food. Sort of a … action, but what they said was: “Go to the store.”

CORNEL WEST: Oh, yeah.

TONI MORRISON: Oh yeah, they said, go to the malls. Go to the theaters. Get back on those airplanes. Buy. Now, I understand what they were saying. They were saying that the market — you know, the point of the attack was to destroy things, one of which would be the economy and the capitalist system, et cetera, so we want the markets to go on. That was one thing, that could have been said along with some other things. But to tell people to go to the store — go to the mall? Get back on those planes? So people just began to send money because they wanted to help, but that was the only exchange there was.

CORNEL WEST: But, see —

TONI MORRISON: That meant that we were not to be called on as citizens, only as consumers.

CORNEL WEST: Ooh, that’s a deep point. That’s a deep point. It shows just how idolatrous the market is. It’s a fetish, you know we ascribe these magical powers to it so that your public interest and your public life is just drained. A good example of this is that , you and I travel all around the country. You meet so many Americans, all colors, all classes, sexual orientation, gender, and there’s tremendous creativity, imagination and intelligence among large numbers of American citizens all over. But then you raise the question: “How do we end up with the mediocre, mendacious leaders that we have?” It’s supposed to be a democratic process, but there’s a hemorrhaging that’s taking place when it comes to public life. Because public life is just an appendage and extension of the market.


CORNEL WEST: So our political elites are beholden to the corporate elites, the candidates just packaged in elections. The pollsters running what the consciences of the — the supposed consciences of the politicians are supposed to be, and then you make this point about after 9/11, they say consume, consume, consume…

TONI MORRISON: “That will save us!” And no request for, you know, something that would require us to stand up as citizens.

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

TONI MORRISON: Now of course, New Yorkers just did it anyway, but that was interesting to me at that moment. And then, of course, you know, it devolved into other things after that. So I’m not surprised that young people, you know, they don’t know quite what you are talking about. That and you know, and sexualizing them…

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

TONI MORRISON: .. to the point where they’re unrecognizable. Children begin to look seductive. When you begin to put 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds on the covers of adult magazines because they don’t have wrinkles. Then the parents who are trying to look like the children, and the children are looking like the parents. I know I sound a little old-fashioned, but still…

CORNEL WEST: No not really. I think you sound moral and mature. It’s a sick civilization that would be so obsessed with the sexualization of its children, the targeting of its children as a constituency to consume, and think that somehow the future is going to be in mature hands, when they’re one hundred percent of the future. That’s not just short-sighted. That’s pathological.


CORNEL WEST: But in that sense, it’s very much like white supremacy. It’s a pathology that shot through the civilization, and we have to confront it, without bitterness. And I know what you’re talking about in terms of love and something earned, but it’s still something that’s worth taking a risk for.

TONI MORRISON: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

CORNEL WEST: Do you see that? I think that in the history of black people, we have been so hated, that love takes on subversive status.

TONI MORRISON: Oh it’s really renegade, totally renegade.

CORNEL WEST: Our culture talks about “love supreme.” This is not just a gesture, you know what I mean? When Martin Luther King talked about love, it’s not just a gesture. This thing is rooted in a long tradition of a struggle against institutionalized hatred, that then becomes contagious because people want to be more human than they are, too and to be in on it. But how we it end up regenerating public life. I think that’s one of our major challenges at this moment. It’s about time for the questions. Okay. Thanks.

TONI MORRISON: Give it to the guy, right? CORNEL: Hmm? TONI: Nothing. You don’t have to answer all these questions. Have they been edited, these questions?

CORNEL WEST: If Condoleezza Rice were with us this evening, what would you say to her? (laughter) Did you want to answer that question?

TONI MORRISON: Oh, I would strongly suggest that Condoleezza Rice get another job. (laughter, applause) I know what her seductive power is — She’s an educated woman. She’s a gifted woman. She’s a talented woman. She has a lot of attributes. Why trash them? In an area, and I know that she has benefited time and time again from that part of the political spectrum, and particularly that family, but loyalty is not all there is in life. There’s something called real integrity. I don’t think she — she does not understand that.

CORNEL WEST: I would ditto that, I think. Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, it’s something that you think that black people and other people have struggled so hard to create spaces at the top for black people, and then to use such brilliance in the form of service to mendacious imperialists — I just — I got to pray on that. I really do. I got to pray on that.

TONI MORRISON: All right. What are your reflections on the 50th anniversary of the Brown Vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision this May? Well I might as well do a little self-promotion here. I hope you don’t mind. I was asked to do a memorial book about this — about the 50th anniversary by Houghton Mifflin, a children’s book, because what you were saying made me think of it instantly before, this question. So we put together some very beautiful pictures from the period and I wrote imaginary captions underneath. The book is called, “Remember.” It’s for young people, children in elementary school, who weren’t there, don’t remember — may have — don’t know quite what it is. But what was interesting to me about this period, in addition to everything else, the Supreme Court, the lawyers of NAACP, all of these families filing suit, the marches, et cetera. At the center, at the forefront, on the front line were children. Little children, who were led into school with guns perhaps and parents but had to go in that building and stay there all day, alone. Sometimes two or three, and they did it, obviously, because they were told, but what they knew — and this is what is extraordinary to me, that they were doing it for something bigger than they were. These people were eight years old, nine years old, ten years old. Just teen-agers. You know, in their little dresses and their little suits and going into these places, and then having grown people — you know what it’s like to be an eight year-old and having adults screaming at you, spitting at you? All right, when you got home, you were in your mother’s arms and your father was there, you knew you had that support, but at the moment —- these were strangers. White women who were mothers could actually do that to another child? It really boggles the mind. So, I was thinking how not just the courage of that gesture, but it’s unique. They were out front. And I wanted young people who were also eight and nine to feel the connection. That for me was more intimate than the history books and the movies and so on. So -—

CORNEL WEST: This is in a recent book.

TONI MORRISON: It’s out now, I think —

CORNEL WEST: It’s out right now?


CORNEL WEST: Let me mention this, though, that my dear brother Charles Ogletree has a new book called “With All Deliberate Speed.” And it’s a definitive text, it’s in the great the legacy of A. Leon Higginbotham and Charles Hamilton Houston and he makes a point that I think we need to keep in mind. There was Brown One and Brown Two. And it’s important to keep the two connected. One was a historic decision that had to do with undermining this vicious form of segregation in tax supported public schools, but Brown Two, to use that Latin phrase “festina lente”, “with all deliberate speed.” It was that phrase that constituted the rationalization for the glacier-like movement of those precious black kids into those schools. And we’ve got a large number of our fellow citizens who have been highly creative in ensuring that that integrated school system does not take place to this very moment, in this very city and in Jersey, LA, Chicago, to south across the border. And so, when we celebrate Brown, it’s not as if Brown One and Brown Two become so connected that we downplay that festina lente, that deliberate speed. And we know it has been very slow. Of course we live in a society today which is still de facto racial segregation.

TONI MORRISON: We can’t talk about public health, public education, anything without talking seriously about African Americans. Well, could you speak about black leadership in America. What are the conditions we need — to change? This begs the question that we need it, and there isn’t any. Or that it’s not working or something. What do you think?

CORNEL WEST: Well, when I talked about mediocrity in terms of leadership, I was making a multiracial statement. (laughter) But, we have to keep in mind the different levels of leadership. In a democracy, the real leadership is on the ground. We are the leaders we’re looking for. It’s in the Demos, it’s in the grassroots activists. You are have television leadership. You have elected leadership. Television leadership, you have a small slice of courageous, prophetic folk. Elected leadership, you have a smaller slice of prophetic, courageous folk. Most of the major leaders in this society are grassroots leaders. And that’s what Martin was, that what Fanny was, Fanny Lou Hamer, that’s what Myles Horton, our dear white brother, that’s what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. They were grassroots leaders. It’s the spilling over of that high quality grassroots leadership from the Demos into the political system and the economic system. So when I say black leadership, that’s why I think hip-hop culture is so important. Because you’ve got a highly colonized form among young folk of the industry where you just get very deeply reactionary hip-hop artists who are into the misogyny and homophobia and so forth, it all mirrors the larger forces of our society, but a lot of the courageous hip-hop artists can’t get a contract, because they don’t have access to the recording industry. That’s true for the activists. That’s true for those wrestling with ecological crises. That’s true for those dealing with the issue of homophobia, a vicious form of homophobia that’s surfacing now around gay marriage and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of a conversation between Cornel West and Toni Morrison from the Nation Institute sponsored event at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York.

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