Cornel West GS ’80 is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion. Prior to returning to Princeton in spring 2002, he taught at Harvard from 1994 and at Princeton from 1988 to 1994, when he was head of Princeton’s African-American Studies program. Ten years ago his essay collection Race Matters sold 400,000 copies and influenced the national discourse on race. In September he released a follow-up of sorts, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism, in which he assesses the current state of American democracy. Blake Sercye talked to Prof. West recently about his work, his controversial move from Harvard, and of course, those trademark three-piece suits.
Blake Sercye: Your most notable feature is certainly your three-piece suit. Why do you wear it, and what does it mean to you?
Cornel West: To me it is the sign of a certain kind of calling, an armor of being on the battle field of justice for truth, goodness and beauty. It’s very old school, it goes back to the jazz musicians of 1950s and it goes back to some of the black preachers of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s who viewed themselves as servants. They had a particular type of calling. They had to keep their focus on that calling. Everyone falls off track sooner or later but you try to stay on track with what your vocation is. And it’s kind of nice; I get to the wear the same kind of suit everyday, of course it does limit the tutorial imagination since it is the same kind of black suit all the time.
BS: What prompted your move from Harvard to Princeton?
CW: Well, I had a clash with the president (Lawrence Summers). He showed such contempt and disrespect. Life is short; I had to draw a line in the sand and I had to leave. There’s no way I could stay in the face of that contempt and disrespect. I wish him well, I wish Harvard well. Harvard’s a great institution. But I was very, very blessed to come back to Princeton thanks to President Shirley Tilghman. She’s one of the great visionary leaders in higher education in our country. I’ve had a wonderful time.
BS: You mentioned that you were shown great “contempt and disrespect”. I know that most of this was mainly over your controversial hip-hop CD. (Sketches of My Culture). How much did your CD influence your move to Princeton?
CW: That was part of it; you know I think one of the things for the (Lawrence Summers) was that any association with hip hop was an embarrassment to Harvard. Whereas for me, any human expression, whatever particular genre it is, has the capacity to be excellent, mediocre or low brow. I think there’s excellent hip hop, there’s mediocre hip hop, and there’s low brow (hip hop). I have a passion to communicate; part of my calling is to communicate. I communicate through books, through lectures, though teachings, through CDs… a number of media. I wanted to communicate to young people as well as others and so it was useful for me to use one of their own idioms, that they created thirty some years ago.
But (my CD) is not really hip hop. I’m not a hip hop artist. When I was at Cambridge, I’d have a professor saying, “You ought to be ashamed putting out that CD with all those naked girls and cursing.” I’m saying, “What CD were they talking about?!” “Oh, we know about your CD!” At that point there’s no evidence, Harvard didn’t do their homework. And then you say to yourself, this is what is called the (stereotypical) approach to the Negro which means that you don’t need evidence, you don’t need to do your homework, all hip hop is naked girls is cursing. Listen to the CD! It’s just ridiculous. The music is rich. That was just pure ignorance and willful blindness saying that the professor had something to do with g-strings. Listen to the CD.
NW: So what is it that you would most like to see taken out of modern hip hop?
BS: I wish there was much less misogyny, much less homophobia, much less materialism and hedonism. I do, however, believe that you have to talk about all aspects of life which include the personal, the sensual, the sexual as well as the political and the social. But I think so much of contemporary hip hop especially has been made to feed a particular constituency. Seventy-two percent of hip hop CDs are bought by white suburbanites… And many of them, not all, because you have a lot of serious ones too, but many of them are interested in a sort of exotic rebellion, a kind of association with black bodies as means of vitality. So you really don’t get the high quality hip hop that’s out there. A lot of that is local. You get a Kanye West here and there. That Kanye West is unbelievable, Jesus Walks is amazing. And I have a respect for Brother Andre, Outkast.
BS: What is it that you respect most about modern hip hop?
CW: I respect the courage to ask certain painful questions and to care for people outside of one’s own family, clan or tribe. And the courage to hope. Those to me are fundamental forms of courage. You know that’s why I like Chuck D., or KRS One, I have tremendous respect for them even though they’re not as popular as they once were.
BS: When I think about black hip hop, my focus always turns to the words of Thurgood Marshall who stated that he was sick of black culture being defined by athletes and entertainers. Since the image many gain about blacks from “black music” is negative, do you think that modern music has helped or hurt blacks in America?
CW: You have to look at those who are defining it… You can have as many black scholars and lawyers as you want, but if you have people who look solely at the athletes then your doctors and lawyers are going to be rendered invisible… If the folk defining it have a narrow tunnel, that’s all they’re going to see. I have nothing against athletics; I’m excited to see great athletic talent of any color, especially black. Same is true with entertainment. Entertainment is an indispensable part of life and great art is one of the highest levels of achievement. They’ve (athletes and entertainers) always been a part of black culture, even though they’ve been cast as center-stage by the mainstream. The mainstream is attached to those two (professions) rather than to the doctors, lawyers and engineers. Really, it’s the mainstream that needs to change their viewpoint.
BS: Why not leave Harvard and teach at a historically black college or university?
CW: Well, there are two things. One: Princeton is a kind of a home for me. I attended graduate school here, I have a lot of wonderful friends here…Secondly, the teaching load. Howard and Morehouse are great institutions but you teach eight courses a year. My calling requires time for reading; I’m first and foremost a reader. My writing is a byproduct of my reading. I have to have time to read. Of course I also lecture and you have to have time to read in order to lecture well. If I had to teach eight courses a year at Howard, Morehouse or Prairie View, I could forget it, man. But teaching is a noble profession. And for those that opt primarily to teach, I admire them, but that’s not my calling.
BS: I know you like to remain partial in your teaching, but who are you supporting in the 2004 presidential election?
CW: All my heart is basically with Ralph Nader’s vision and analysis. I’m gonna pray for him, but not vote for him this time. I think you have to be a part of an anti-Bush united front; he’s very dangerous. I hope that Kerry would find his voice in a very powerful way. He might in the very next month or so. We shall see, we shall see. But we’re in a very dark moment in the history of American democracy… A very dark moment, brother. We just need those three forms of courage, man: to think critically, to care for others outside of our own narrow little boundaries, and to hope. We have to continue to hope against all of the difficulties, it’s a tough time to be human and American.
(Special thanks to Ms. Mary Ann Rodriguez for scheduling this interview.)