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Dr. Cornel West Releases Long-Awaited Memoir, “Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud”

StorySeptember 30, 2009
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Dr. Cornel West, the celebrated Princeton University professor of religion and African American studies, has just come out with his long-awaited memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. In it, he writes, “Until now, I’ve never taken the time to focus on the inner dynamics of my soul.” In a wide-ranging conversation, we speak to Dr. West about his upbringing, public healthcare, post-election disappointment, the role of music in his life, his spat with former Harvard president and current White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers, and more. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: John Coltrane, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, the favorite musician of our next guest, who is considered one of this country’s most provocative and admired public intellectuals. Yes, Time Magazine called our next guest “one complex dude: brilliant scholar, political activist, committed Christian and soul brother to the bone.” I’m talking about Dr. Cornel West, the celebrated Princeton University professor of religion and African American studies, author of a number of books, including his seminal work, Race Matters. And he has been a guest on Democracy Now! many times over the years, talking about issues of race and politics.

Well, Cornel West has just come out with his long-awaited memoir. It’s called Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. In it, he writes, “Until now, I’ve never taken the time to focus on the inner dynamics of my soul.” Dr. Cornel West joins us today in our firehouse studio for his first broadcast interview nationally here on television and radio.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to be with you.

CORNEL WEST: Always a blessing, my dear sister Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why did you write this?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I just wanted to lay bare the truth of love in my life, the ways in which I’ve tried to bear witness to love, truth, justice, and the crucial role, of course, of Mom, Irene; father, Cliff; my brothers, Clifton; and Cynthia and Cheryl, my sisters; my two precious children, Zeytun and Cliff.

And most importantly, for me, right now, I think we need stories of inspiration. These are very depressing times, very bleak times. Even the age of Obama looks like we’ve got profound disappointment. How do we try to galvanize our spirits and our minds and our hearts and souls?

And thank God, you know, Brother Tavis Smiley books, and just Cheryl Woodruff and Mary Ann Rodriguez, my mama’s assistant, and Brother Colby Hamilton and others were able to convince me, to say, “Tell your story, Brother.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, where were you born?

CORNEL WEST: Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, same place as the Gap Band, Greenwood, Arch and Pine, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

AMY GOODMAN: What were your parents doing there?

CORNEL WEST: Dad was then — he just got out of the Army, actually, and Mom was finishing college. And we ended up in Topeka. In fact, my brother was part of 1954 Brown v. Board. Then we made it to California, because, as you know, I am —-

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean, Brown v. Board.

CORNEL WEST: Oh, that historic legal decision that called into question the segregation-based education, and tied to public taxes.

But I’m basically a Californian. See, I grew up in Sacramento. I was born in Tulsa, spent a couple years in Topeka, but from Sacramento, California.

AMY GOODMAN: Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the race riots took place.

CORNEL WEST: 1921. See, my grandfather arrived in ’27. You see the picture, Granddad two, Reverend C.L. West. I’m the grandson of a Baptist preacher. My father was a preacher’s kid, but he didn’t become a preacher. I didn’t become a preacher. A lot of people think so. I’m neither ordained nor licensed, but I am a teacher, though I have a preacherly style sometimes, absolutely. And, of course, strong Christian, but always falling on my face, as most Christians do.

AMY GOODMAN: And you talk about death shudders as a kid. What do you mean?

CORNEL WEST: Yeah. Yeah, you know, this sense that death could come at any moment and snatch your loved ones away or snatch you away. And I wrestled with death shudders, as I mention in the book, beginning about five or six years old. And I didn’t really come to terms with that death shudder in any substantive way until I nearly died with the cancer, my battle and bout with cancer. And for some strange reason, after I almost died with cancer, I realized I had borrowed time, for the most part. I was forty-eight then, I’m fifty-six now. And I haven’t had the death shudders since.


CORNEL WEST: You know what I mean?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wasn’t going to go there so fast, but let’s talk about -—

CORNEL WEST: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — you write movingly about the cancer. I’m spending much of my time now at my mother’s hospital bedside —-

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, bless your precious mother, though, Sister Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: At Mount Sinai here in New York, as she deals with cancer. And you learned of your cancer when, what, you were almost fifty?

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, forty-eight years old, really. And it was a shock, because I’m on the move, as you know. You know, I would give 150 lectures a year. I had written eighteen books at that time, edited another sixteen. I had no idea that I was sick. I had never been sick before. I never engaged in athletic activity since I was seventeen. I was a pretty good athlete in high school, but been on the move ever since, reading, writing, lecturing, spending time in libraries and so forth, and, of course, night clubs and churches. Got to light the fuse, the cognac and Jesus. You know what I mean? That’s the kind of Christian I am. But -—

AMY GOODMAN: Just don’t let Larry Summers, your former president, know about that.

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, I pray for that brother, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: But we’ll talk about that in a minute.

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: How you found out that you had cancer?

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, but I ran into a friend, and he said, “You got to check your PSA.” And I said, “PSA? What is that?” He said, “Ask your doctor.” And I checked my PSA, and the doctor said, “You are in deep trouble, stage 4. You may have just a few months to live.” I said, “I’ve got to move.” I was blessed Sister Leslie was kind enough to have me connect with Brother Jerome Groopman. Oh, and Skip Gates and Leslie actually connected me with Jerome Groopman, who connected me to Peter Scardino here in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: At Memorial Sloan-Kettering.

CORNEL WEST: At — exactly. And he did a marvelous, marvelous job, and I bounced back. But it’s really borrowed time, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: I just remember when you were told, talking about the difference between white men and black men’s survival.

CORNEL WEST: Yeah. That hit me so hard. He looked me in my face.

AMY GOODMAN: This was the doctor?

CORNEL WEST: This is the doctor. And he said, “If you were a white man, you have a chance, an 80 percent chance of living. A black man, a 20 percent.” I said, “Race matters at that level? You’ve got to be kidding.” Prostate cancer, yes. I said, “What about the research?” They don’t have too many research papers on this issue. And I said, “Well, wait a minute. Black brothers dying like this, and they don’t have major scholarly research to find out why the differential?” You know, this is a major problem, and this is part of the issue of healthcare again.

I mean, I’m dealing with the depression of this rejection of the public option. What a joke! You’re going to get a bill through with no substance and poor people left dangling, working people left dangling, and a bonanza for the companies again? If that doesn’t reinforce the levels of cynicism, when you and I give our lives trying to call into question to get people to become active, if that doesn’t reinforce cynicism, what does? When do elites finally have to give substantive concessions to poor people and working people? The history of the human drama, right? Trying to preserve the dignity and decency of poor and working people.

And you say to yourself, well, you know, we’ve got to keep — keep at it. I’m deeply inspired by your example also, Sister Amy, I tell you that. You landed a long time. And this book very much is an attempt to touch one life. I would not have labored in vain in this book, if I can touch one life to get somebody to say, “I want to deal with the funk in my life. I want to generate a capacity to love in such a way that I promote justice, and I’m willing to pay a cost for truth, not just become tied into the powers that be, and duplicitous the forms of injustice.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the route you took, how you grew up in Sacramento, though coming from Tulsa, and end up being an Ivy League professor.

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, it’s true. Well, I start off igniting — acknowledging the fact that I am a Shiloh Baptist kind of brother, you see, which is to say that who I am is rooted in the Black Church. There’s no doubt about that. I was a gangster when I was small. I was beating up folk. I was a Robin Hood-like gangster, beating up folk who had something and giving to people who did not. It could be food. It could be clothes, a host of things. It was my encounter with the Church that turned me around. The same was true in terms of education, what I talk about as paideia here, that deep education, that formation of attention to get me to deal with the serious, the substantive.

AMY GOODMAN: Who got you to deal with it?

CORNEL WEST: That was really two teachers: Nona Sall and Cecelia Angell. I was kicked out of school in the third grade because I refused to salute the flag. I had a great uncle who was lynched, and they wrapped a flag around him, so I had bad memories of the flag. And I was not going to salute a flag that signified that for a young person at that time, seven, eight years old. And so, no school would take me. And that was bad, because they put —-

AMY GOODMAN: Third grade.

CORNEL WEST: Third grade, see.

AMY GOODMAN: But you had an angel.

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, I did.

AMY GOODMAN: Mrs. Angell.

CORNEL WEST: But it was Mrs. Angell and Mrs. Sall. But it was also the tears in my mother’s eyes, you know, that I hated to see her so sad. She was a schoolteacher herself, you see? And I said, I have got to channel this rage that I have into a righteous indignation, rather than gangster orientation. And that’s been the story of my life. And that’s one of the reasons why I spend as many hours as I do in prisons, because I know there’s a very good chance that I could have ended up in prison, and still might. You know, I could snap any minute, you know what I mean? You just don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Or they could snap.

CORNEL WEST: Or they could snap or whatever. You know, the CIA, the FBI come down on me, whatever. But the thing is, is that I was just blessed to have Mrs. Sall; Mrs. Angell; my mother; Sarah Ray, my Sunday school teacher; Willie P. Cooke, my pastor; Deacon Hinton and others; and especially my brother Clifton, channeling my rage so that it became one of a much more creative, positive force, rather than a negative and self-destructive one.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about growing up in a neighborhood rather than a hood. What do you mean?

CORNEL WEST: Oh, that neighborhood, Glen Elder, Sacramento, we had such deep ties of sympathy and bonds of empathy, taking care of each other. Mom ran out of sugar, I’d go to Ms. Durham and Ms. Reed or Ms. Stuckey’s house, get the sugar; same would be true if they ran out. When Mom and Dad were working, we were babysat by the whole block, you know.

So we had almost kind of a web and a womb of support, whereas a hood now is just survival of the slickest, a social Darwinian preoccupation of just getting over by any means or preoccupation with the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shall not get caught. And it’s treacherous. That’s why I salute a lot of the young folk who make it out of a hood, because out there out of a neighborhood, that was easy, because the love was there. I still got in trouble because of my gangster activity and proclivity.

AMY GOODMAN: Like what?

CORNEL WEST: Just beating folk up. You know, just I loved to fight. I loved -— I’m a fighter now, but now it’s a fighter against injustice, rather than just a fighter against a person.

AMY GOODMAN: So what happened after high school? How did you decide to go to college?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I was an athlete, so I ran cross-country and set the, actually, city record at the two mile. I’m still proud of that. My dear coach Bill Mahan, boy, he loved Cliff and I, so he’s a towering figure in my life, that track — that sports played a very important role. Just like music and just like the sisters, you know. Those three pillars, actually, kept me going. But I was working hard. I was a straight-A student, student body president, concert maestro’s first violin, ended up going to Harvard College. Never been to East Coast, never even seen Ivy League university.

And Harvard was magnificent. Martin Kilson, my dear mentor, Preston Williams, my mentor, as well, they’re at Harvard. John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Roderick Firth — I had a magnificent time at Harvard. And it did change my life, since it exposed me to a much broader array of ideas, connected, of course, to the Black Panther Party. I couldn’t join, for the most part because of my Christian faith, but I loved their love of the people. So I worked in the prison program, as well as in the breakfast program. I worked at a church there, running the Sunday school, with my dear brother Reverend Boykin Sanders. Harvard was magnificent.

It was a moment of social movements, you know. Took over the president’s office when they invested in Angola, the corrupt regime. The connections to South Africa at other universities was going on at the time. Of course, Vietnam. And for me, of course, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm and Fannie Lou Hamer. And I vowed then that just when I joined church and accepted Jesus, I’d be faithful unto death, that I would be faithful until the day I die to struggling for the same kinds of conceptions of justice that Martin King and Malcolm and Philip Berrigan and Dorothy Day and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and others represented and, in my own feeble way, try to enact and embody the kind of ideals that they were putting forward.

AMY GOODMAN: After the break, I want to ask you about your encounters later at Harvard, to lay out, as you do in Living and Loving Out Loud, your encounter with the president of Harvard, now one of the top advisers to President Obama, Larry Summers.


AMY GOODMAN: But before we go into break, bluesman, the blues, the role of it throughout your life?

CORNEL WEST: Yes, well, I am a bluesman in the life of the mind; I’m a jazzman in the world of ideas, which means I’ve got to forge my unique voice, tied to my vocation with a vision, and a unique style. And it’s a voice and style that doesn’t fit well within highly professionalized and specialized contexts.

A blues person is always one who keeps his funky and resists all forms of sterilization, sanitation and deodorizing of funky reality. And by sanitation, I don’t mean I’m against keeping things clean, but I don’t like those discourses that are so clean that they don’t allow the funk, like the squeegee men in New York, like the marginalized, like our gay brothers and lesbian sisters who are often dishonored and dehumanized even by some on the left, or forgetting of indigenous people. I have a whole section here talking about I will never forget about my dear indigenous brothers and sisters, whose suffering is rendered invisible, and oftentimes, like the Zapatistas, they got to put on a mask in order to be seen at that level of invisibility, you see. That’s what a blues man’s about, telling the truth with a smile on his or her face. That’s Bessie. That’s Ma Rainey.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Cornel West, professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University, author of a number of books. His latest, coming out now, Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir. And our break, well, is brought to you by one Cornel West. Stay with us.



“Dear Mr. Man,” yes, by our guest, Cornel West, and BMWMB featuring Prince. Our guest today for the hour —

CORNEL WEST: The one and only incomparable musical genius Prince, absolutely.


Cornel West. So, you know him well. You’re friends.


Oh, he’s my dear brother. Indeed, we were just in Montreal. Brother Tavis and I and Prince, we stayed up all night talking, about seven hours. And Prince is very progressive, not just vis-à-vis the recording industry that’s been so exploitative of so many musicians, but also his broader vision. He’s quite a — he’s quite a human being. He really is.


The role of music in your life was part of perhaps why you ended up leaving Harvard, not as a student, but you were at Princeton, then you moved to Harvard to be with Skip Gates and a number of other professors in the African American Studies Department. You were also in Religion. Can you tell us what happened in your encounter — you write about it in your memoir — in your encounter with the president, Larry Summers, who plays a key role in the economic meltdown today?


Oh, I know. No, indeed. But no, Brother Larry Summers, I think, he had a long history of arrogance and relative ignorance about poor people’s culture and working people’s culture and so forth. You know, he’s made remarks about putting pollution in Africa, because they suffer from overpopulation. Allegedly already deeply insensitive and so on.

When he arrived at Harvard, he met with every department other than Afro-American Studies. And so, Skip, my dear brother Skip Gates, knew something was wrong, so Skip Gates had already written a three-page single-spaced letter to Larry Summers when Larry Summers requested to meet with me, because he figured that Summers had something to say to me. And I said, “Why do you have to write that to the president?” I’d never met him before. But Neil Rudenstine, who was magnificent, who had been president, we had no problems with.

And as soon as I walked into the office, he starts using profanity about Harvey Mansfield. I said, “No, Harvey Mansfield is conservative, sometimes reactionary, but he’s my dear brother.” We had just had debates at Harvard. Twelve hundred people showed up. He was against affirmative action; I was for it. That was fine. Harvey Mansfield and I go off and have a drink after, because we have a respect, but deep, deep philosophical and ideological disagreement. He was using profanity, so I had to defend Harvey Mansfield.


Wait, so you’re saying Lawrence Summers was using profanity?


Larry Summers using profanity about, you know, “help me ‘F’ so and so up.” No, I don’t function like that. Maybe he thought that just as a black man, I like to use profanity. I’m not a puritan. I don’t use it myself. I have partners who do. But I don’t like people who feel comfortable using it without my permission and not knowing me, you see what I mean? And then from there, it went on and on. “Well, you supported Bill Bradley, didn’t attend classes.” Not true. “Well, you’re deeply into hip-hop, and it’s an embarrassment.”


Wait, saying that you supported Bill Bradley as president, for presidential candidate?


Exactly, which I had.




He was my dear brother. But I didn’t miss a class, and anybody knows that, flying back and forth, Iowa, New Hampshire and so on, and ended here in New York for my dear brother Bill Bradley. But talking about the hip-hop, “it’s an embarrassment.” I said, “Embarrassment to who?”


Wait a second.


What kind of hip-hop?


Larry Summers talking about you and your hip-hop CD?


Right, exactly.


That it’s an embarrassment.


Exactly. “I don’t want you to have anything to do with the hip-hop.” Well, no, I’m a free black man. I do what I want to do. I could do ballet, I could do Baroque. I can work with Chuck D, I can work with Talib Kweli. I can work with KRS-One or Rah Digga. You see what I mean? But I had to tell him that.

He has a Harvard, I have a Harvard. I was as much Harvard as he was. Harvard has a vicious anti-Jewish tradition, vicious anti-black, vicious anti-woman, and homophobic, too. I said, but Harvard also has critiques of anti-Semitism, critiques of white supremacy.


And, of course, Larry Summers was in the midst of a anti-woman debate that had to do with women’s role in math and science.


Well, that came a little after. You see, that came right after my encounter, you see. So he continually got in trouble and got in trouble. And I say this not to really just bash the brother. But that kind of arrogance and ignorance is dangerous in public places.

That’s why I was so surprised when Barack Obama chose him to be the national economic adviser. I said, here’s somebody who has no history whatsoever of sensitivity to poor people or working people, who had been supporting deregulation for a long time as a Clintonite, in the Clinton administration. What is going on here? Or has Obama already become so comfortable with the establishment that you had to have an economist who was legitimate to the establishment in order for him to get his regime off the ground? OK. I mean, if that’s the kind of argument you have, then put it forward. But don’t tell me you’re a progressive, then, and generate that kind of support or major advisers speaking to you — speaking to you every day. Now, if he had Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz or Sylvia Ann Hewitt, I’d say, “Hey, you got something going here. I think we’ve got a chance for some progressive policy that actually focuses on poor and working people.”

But I do forgive Larry Summers for this reason: that I think we all ought to have joy in life, and you can only have joy when you overcome arrogance and open to your own ignorance, because you end up being smart and brainy, but suffering from spiritual malnutrition, emptiness of soul, you see.


But what happened after that meeting?


What happened? I knew I had to go.




Because I don’t — I draw a line in the sand.


Could you have stayed if you wanted to?


No way. I don’t believe in any kind of disrespect or dishonoring in that way. The latter part of the meeting, he said he wanted to monitor my work, meet with me every two months to make sure he knew what I was writing, what I was doing. I said, “You must be losing your cotton-picking mind.” Here I am a university professor, twenty-two university professors out of 2,000, already published fifteen books.


Explain, for people who don’t understand what a university professor is.


Yeah, Harvard has 2,000 professors. The university professors, they choose twenty-two, and of those twenty-two — the twenty-two have no departmental connections whatsoever. They can teach as many courses or as few courses as they like. I could have chose to teach two courses; I taught four. I had a class of 700. They tried to cut it back to 300, saying they couldn’t find a room. So I left Harvard, and the Catholic Church allowed me to use the basement, so I could keep my 750 students, you see? So that’s what I was up against. But we’ve been up against much more difficult things than that.

So, thank God, Shirley Tilghman, my dear sister, visionary leader, president of Princeton, said, “Come back home to Princeton.” I said, “Thank you very much. I love New Jersey and New York.” And thank God I did go back to Princeton, because I’ve had a magnificent time at Princeton. As I mentioned before, I’ve had colleagues, you know, Eddie Glaude —- of course, Brother Anthony Appiah had already left Princeton. You know what I mean? And then, being able to do the kinds of works that I do, and Sister Mary Ann and the others, who provide such a context for me to soar like an eagle, so it was really a blessing to return to Princeton in that regard.

But Harvard’s still a magnificent place, a lot of good people. They’ve got a good new president, a very fine new president in Drew Faust now. I was just with her last -—


First woman president.


— last year. Yes, absolutely.


We’re talking to Cornel West. His new book has just been published, Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir. When you were last here, right afterwards the explosion around the issue of race erupted, with your colleague Skip Gates going home, coming home from China after a long trip, going into his house, being confronted by a Cambridge police officer there. President Obama’s famous answer to a question at his healthcare news conference, saying the police acted stupidly, describing what happened, and then backing off and having what they call the —- what was it? The beer picnic, the beer summit -—


Oh, yeah. The beer summit.


— where the police officer and Skip Gates got together.


Yeah, yeah.


What did you think of the whole thing?


I thought it was sad, because arbitrary police power in a democracy is one of the most serious issues you can come to terms with. And when it comes to arbitrary police power in poor communities, it could be in Appalachia among white brothers and sisters, it could be with brown brothers and sisters in barrios, and especially in chocolate cities, black sections of the city, where arbitrary police power has perennially been a problem. And, of course, all of the examples that I have here, where, you know, even in Cambridge, from my experience with the Cambridge police in the text, where they said that three of us raped a white sister. If the white sister had not held on and told the truth, I would have been in jail right now.


Wait, explain that incident.


That we were —


How old were you?


I was then eighteen years old. I was a sophomore at Harvard. And a white sister had been raped. The police came in and grabbed three of us, took us to jail.




Three students. Put us in a lineup and made her choose, saying, “You sure they didn’t do it, they didn’t do it, they didn’t do it? I know they probably did, I know they probably” — and this white sister just there shaking, and she said, “Yes, I was raped. It was the worst thing in my life” — understandably so — “but they didn’t do it.” And looking at me, “He didn’t do it.” If it wasn’t for that white sister telling the truth — that’s why I have great respect for bearing witness to truth and justice, in part — I would have been gone.

So, police power, arbitrarily deployed, is a serious issue. And so, when that hit Brother Skip, I wanted to make sure he was treated fairly, but I wanted to make sure the issue didn’t become just a joke or didn’t become just some kind of a marginal affair. I think Brother Skip tried to do that, but, of course, you know, with the exception of your show and Tavis and Bill Maher and others, it just became a circus, over and over again. So what happens? The issue gets pushed aside, they have a beer summit, President Obama pulls back. He can call Kanye West an a-s-s-h-o-l-e, you see, but not a Joe Wilson and not a policeman, who might be going beyond the bounds, and so forth. You see what I mean? So it was that kind of a relative spinelessness in high places that upset me.


Let’s talk about President Obama and the issue of race, the number of death threats against President Obama now, so far, exceeding anything in the past against presidents. But I want to go first to the comment of former President Jimmy Carter. Former President Jimmy Carter was widely quoted for saying the recent right-wing protests against President Obama were rooted in racism. This is a clip from NBC News.

    JIMMY CARTER: An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African American. I live in the South, and I’ve seen the South come a long way, and I’ve seen the rest of the country that shared the South’s attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African Americans. That racism inclination still exists. And I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South, but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.


Former President Jimmy Carter. Cornel West, your response?


No, no, I think, certainly, President Carter has a crucial point to make. I think the important thing is, is that we recognize that white supremacy, race, is one factor among others. Obama was right when — President Obama was right when he said there’s an anti-government attitude. That’s true for any president, no matter what color. It becomes entangled with deeply xenophobic and racist sensibilities that we saw on the placards in the recent Washington, DC protest. So you’ve got race, you’ve got class, you’ve got resentment, even cultural resentment in terms of working people vis-à-vis elites. Obama is associated with Columbia, Harvard Law and so forth. All of these factors come together.

And the frightening thing is, is that, of course, they can easily mushroom into or crystallize into a crypto-fascist movement. I pray, personally, daily, for Brother Barack, Sister Michelle, Sister Sasha, Sister Malia, Mrs. Robinson, because they could easily become, you know, targets for the cowardly and sick white brothers and sisters. But at the same time, we want all of our public officials to be accountable. They’ve got to be accountable to poor people and working people, first and foremost.


The US Secret Service has announced it’s investigating an online poll that asks respondents whether President Obama should be assassinated.


Oh, that’s sick.


Last week, more than 750 Facebook users reportedly cast votes on the poll, titled “Should Obama Be Killed?” The poll has since been removed.


Yeah, but this is part of the sickness. I mean, this is part of the sickness. And this is part of the white supremacist element. Thank God that America is not as racist as it used to be, but I think this certainly shatters all claims about America being post-racial. And this actually is very important, because, see, in the campaign —- of course, I had supported Obama very strongly, would do it again, but promised him, when he won, I would be a major critic, because it wasn’t just about him, it was about the cause. It was about how do you unleash democratic possibilities, how do you get healthcare for everybody, how do you make sure the levels of unemployment and underemployment in poor communities, and disproportionately black and brown, are eliminated and so forth. And what is -—


You’ve talked about being Frederick Douglass to his Abraham Lincoln.


Absolutely. If he’s going to be Lincoln. So far, he’s only been a black Clinton, a black neoliberal. Let’s see the real progressive move, Mr. Obama. You see what I mean? That’s hard to do.


What does it mean to be Frederick Douglass?


And Frederick Douglass is truth-teller, truth-teller, and truth-telling in such a way that you’re willing to cooperate but not be co-opted. You know, in fact, when I made that remark about, you’ll find me in the crack house rather than the White House, a lot of people said, “Oh, West is losing his mind. He’s against the White House.” No, no. The question is, there’s nothing wrong with going into the White House, but to take a job there, when one’s vocation, like Douglass, is to bear truth, bear witness to truth and justice, it’s a very different thing, you see. And in a crack house, reform can take place, too, but you don’t stay there, either, you see. But it’s your calling that is first and foremost. And what has happened is, people are so drunk with power and success, they’re losing sight of truth and the costs that go with bearing witness to justice.


Cornel West has been our guest. His new book is called Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir.

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MLK Biographer Jonathan Eig on King’s Early Life, Radicalization & How Racism Still Kills

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