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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.

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 postmodern 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 politically 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.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we will spend the rest of the program with Cornel West and Toni Morrison.

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, an analyst of postmodern art and philosophy. He has written and co-authored numerous books on philosophy, race and sociology, 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 politically charged, richly expressive depictions of Black America. She has been awarded a number of literary distinctions, in 1993 became the first black woman in history to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

On March 24th at the 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 I 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 a 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: I think, 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. No question.

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

TONI MORRISON: Well, we need the language. We need the language. We have to talk.

CORNEL WEST: We’ve got to talk, and we’ve got to respect —

TONI MORRISON: There’s a whole generation of us who never said anything.


TONI MORRISON: To the younger people.

CORNEL WEST: To the young folk. And they’re just out there. They’re struggling. They’ve got unbelievable creativity and imagination. They’re trying to channel their moral outrage. They’re locked into this market with its dominant market way of life, but they also know that it’s empty and hollow in the end. All it is —

TONI MORRISON: Bling-bling.

CORNEL WEST: — chains and bling-bling. It’s just what Nathaniel West called the “paraphernalia of suffering.” That’s a powerful phrase, a powerful phrase.


CORNEL WEST: It really is. But he was getting at something that I think we’ve got to engage the younger generation with, because, in some sense, they’re imitating us, our materialism, careerism and so on. But in another sense, they also have grown up in a different kind of world. I mean, their world is so market-saturated that it’s hard for them to gain access to nonmarket values and activities that they can ascribe weight to, because everybody is “gimme, gimme, gimme.”

TONI MORRISON: Oh, it’s vicious. I mean, when you think of after September 11th, 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, you know, things, but there was something, like, that I wanted to hear, like, “Go home. See if everybody’s all right. Build this. Check your neighbors. Get some food.” You know, sort of a — action. But what they said was, “Go to the store.”

CORNEL WEST: Oh, is that what they said? “Go to a store”?

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 the market — you know, the point of the attack was to destroy things, one of which would be the economy and the capitalist system, etc.


TONI MORRISON: So we want the markets to go on. That was one thing. That could have been said along with some other things.

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

TONI MORRISON: 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, that just shows —

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

CORNEL WEST: Ooh, it’s a deep point. That’s a deep point. That’s a deep point. I mean, it shows just how idolatrous the market is in the culture. 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. I mean, a good example of this is that — you and I travel all around the country. And 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 an extension of the market.


CORNEL WEST: So our political elites beholden to the corporate elites, the candidates just packaged in elections, the pollsters running what the conscience of the — what the supposed conscience of the politician’s supposed to be. And then, when 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’re talking about. That and sexualizing them —

CORNEL WEST: Oh, absolutely.

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

CORNEL WEST: No, no, no. No, not really. No, 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 100% of the future. That’s not just shortsighted; that’s pathological. I mean, it really is. It really is.

TONI MORRISON: Yeah, right.

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 love what you’re talking about in terms of love being something earned, but it’s still something that’s worth taking a risk for.


CORNEL WEST: You see what I mean?

TONI MORRISON: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

CORNEL WEST: And I think that — I think, in the history of black people, we’ve been so hated, that love takes on subversive status.

TONI MORRISON: Oh, it’s real renegade.

CORNEL WEST: Look at that, see.

TONI MORRISON: Totally renegade.

CORNEL WEST: So, our culture is talking about “a love supreme.” This is not just a gesture, you know what I mean? And 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 other people want to be more human than they are, too, and to be in on it. But how we end up regenerating public life, I mean, I think that’s one of our major challenges at this moment. It’s about time for the questions? OK. Thanks so much.

TONI MORRISON: Give it to the guy, right?


TONI MORRISON: 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?” Did you want to answer? Did you want to answer that question?

TONI MORRISON: Oh, I would strongly suggest that Condoleezza Rice get another job. I know how seductive power is.

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

TONI MORRISON: She is an educated woman. She’s a gifted woman. She’s a talented woman. And 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 is something called real integrity. And I don’t think she not understands that.

CORNEL WEST: I would ditto that, I think.

TONI MORRISON: That’s what I would say, Condo.

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely, absolutely.

TONI MORRISON: She’s a clever girl.

CORNEL WEST: I mean, it’s something that you think of black people and other people who 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 imperial elites.

TONI MORRISON: A rationale for, you know.

CORNEL WEST: Yeah. 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 v. 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 got asked — 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. And the book is called Remember. And it’s for young people, children in elementary school, who weren’t there, don’t remember, may — 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 for the NAACP, all these families filing suit, the marches, etc. — at the center, at the forefront, on the frontline, 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 was extraordinary to me — that they were doing it for something bigger than they were.

CORNEL WEST: Yes, yes, yes.

TONI MORRISON: These people were 8 years old, 9 years old, 10 years old, just teenagers, you know, in their little dresses, in their little suits, and going in these places, and then having grown people — you know what it’s like to be an 8-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, and 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.

CORNEL WEST: They were out front.

TONI MORRISON: And I wanted young people who were also 8 and 9 to feel the connection between that — I mean, that, for me, was more intimate than the history books and the movies and so on. So —

CORNEL WEST: And this is in a recent book that you did?

TONI MORRISON: It’s out now, my dear.

CORNEL WEST: It’s out right now?

TONI MORRISON: Well, May. May, May, May, May.

CORNEL WEST: Let me mention this, though, that my dear brother Charles Ogletree has a new book called With All Deliberate Speed.

TONI MORRISON: Oh, yes. Yes.

CORNEL WEST: And it’s a definitive text. It’s in the great 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 1 and Brown 2. 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 2, we use that Latin phrase, festina lente, “with all deliberate speed.” And 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.

TONI MORRISON: Still, right.

CORNEL WEST: In this very city and in Jersey, L.A., Chicago, the South, across the border. And so, when we celebrate Brown, it’s not as if Brown 1 and Brown 2 become so connected that we downplay that festina lente, “with deliberate speed.”


CORNEL WEST: And we know that it has been very slow. And, of course, we live in a society today which is still de facto racial segregation.

TONI MORRISON: Yeah, we can’t talk about public health, public education —

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

TONI MORRISON: — anything, without talking seriously about African Americans.

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

TONI MORRISON: Well, OK. “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 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. You know what I mean? But we’ve got to keep in mind there’s different levels of leadership. I mean, in a democracy, the real leadership is on the ground. We are the leaders we’re looking for. It’s under this demos. It’s grassroot activists. You’ve got television leadership. You’ve got elected leadership. Television leadership, you’ve got a small slice of courageous, prophetic folk. Elected leadership, you’ve got a smaller slice of prophetic, courageous folk. Most of the major leaders in this society are grassroot leaders. And that’s what Martin was. That’s what Fanny was, Fanny Lou Hamer. That’s what Myles Horton, our dear white brother, that’s what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — they were grassroot leaders. And it’s the spilling over of that high-quality grassroot 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 and so on, all mirrors of the larger forces in 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 industries and A&R departments. But that’s so true for the tenant activists. That’s true for those wrestling with ecological crises. That’s true for those dealing with the issue of homophobia, the vicious forms 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. When we return, Cornel West on Emmett Till and a foreign policy guided by aggressive militarism. We’ll be back in a minute.

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Cornel West on the Death of Emmett Till, 9/11, Preemptive Wars and Race in America

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