A few days after my first conversation with Cornel West, one of America’s foremost public philosophers for three decades now, he gave a short impromptu interview to gossip and celebrity news outlet TMZ. West was in Los Angeles at the Sunset Plaza mall, and a TMZ reporter, recognizing him, asked his opinion on a comment by Kanye West, who had recently insisted that Black History Month be forever. changed to “Black Future Month”. “Kanye’s idea was that we had talked enough about slavery and the various other horrors of the past. “Ohhh, Kanye is wrong,” West—Cornel, that is—told TMZ. “Each performance is a license for a future, in the midst of the present, trying to reclaim the best of the past,” he said, spouting out the tripartite thought quickly and with great animation, as if had practiced several times. before, just waiting for this moment. “You get that in Kanye’s music, but you don’t get it in his rhetoric. There is a sense in which his art is much deeper than his rhetoric.” The second time he said “rhetoric,” West forced his voice into a half-melodic, fully ironic sigh that he sometimes uses to punctuate a funny sentence. In response to Kanye, and others who might harbor the fantasy of pure futuristic blackness, West said that “as long as white supremacy exists, you need to emphasize black love, dignity black, black history – those things that are excluded and silenced!
The quick encounter between the tabloids and the media perfectly encapsulated what makes West’s career and demeanor unique. He is a product and longtime resident of the academy, having taught tenured positions at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Union Seminary. But he took pride in applying his analysis to popular culture and, on occasion, doing so in popular forums. After writing scholarly manifestos such as “Prophesy Deliverance!: An African-American Revolutionary Christianity” (1982), he achieved a new level of fame with “Race Matters”, from 1993, a collection of self-consciously populist essays dealing with such hot topics. key topics like the Rodney King Riots, affirmative action and Black-Jewish relations. More recently, he joined online adult education juggernaut MasterClass to teach a philosophy course. In 2016 and 2020, he served as a tireless surrogate for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, delivering stem winders across the country.
When we spoke, he was in California, preparing to return to New York to resume teaching at Union Seminary, the place where he began his teaching career, in 1977. Last year, West argued with Harvard, where he had been a tenured professor more than a decade earlier, over being tenured again; he eventually quit and took the opportunity comment the “decline and decadence” and “spiritual bankruptcy” in the academic elite. The pointed note, addressed to its Harvard dean, opened cordially: “I hope and pray that you and your family are doing well! This summer is hot! It was characteristic of West, who often starts conversations this way, allowing them to radiate outward from the personal and the close. He started our conversation by asking about my family, then about a book I write, about R.&B. music – which I had mentioned, via email, in a cheeky little, from West, in his exuberant lectures, uses music (John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Curtis Mayfield, and so on) as a symbol and model for his ruminations on religion, politics, and race. The rest of our conversation seemed to take place under the hood of this warm familiarity, as we discussed the crisis of secular confidence, the meaning of public philosophy, the apparent convergence of radical and reactionary attitudes towards interventionism. American, and many other things. We spoke twice: once, at length, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and once, briefly, afterwards. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cornel West: How are your loved ones, man?
Everyone is fine, thank God. It’s just trying to keep track of everyone, you know?
No, I hear you. Bro, are you writing a book on rhythm and blues, man?
Well, it always comes together. I’m finishing a novel first. I’m just, right now, immersed in research and thinking about – I mean, a lot of the things you’re talking about: how R&B loves music, that it’s about bringing communities together.
Absolutely, man. Oh, it’s beautiful. And what is your novel about?
Well, as a young man I worked on Obama’s campaign – I met you while I was doing that.
Is it correct? What city, what city?
At New York. I was on the fundraising team, and you organized an event for Obama at the Apollo.
Oh, I remember.
I was backstage and you welcomed me very warmly. Of course, I was the youngest, sweetest person around. But I never forgot it. The book is about a young man working on a presidential campaign and reflecting on his religion and his changing ideas about politics and the country, things like that.
And where were you born, raised and raised, my brother?
I was born in New York. My parents met in a Baptist church. My father was a musician. My mother was a singer in the choir, and he was a choir director and organ player.
wow. What church was it?
White Rock Baptist Church, the hundred and twenty-seventh.
Oh, it’s Ashford and Simpson.
Ashford and Simpson, that’s right. Many of my mother’s friends knew them very well.
Lord. You got so much nobility coming from White Rock, man.
All the time when I was a kid, someone would come on TV and my mom would say, “You know they came to White Rock and sang.” Have you visited there a lot?
I mean, I’ve been there, but I just remember reading all the Nickolas and Val books. And, when we finally met, we did something special at… I think it was the Schomburg or the Apollo, I can’t remember. Both worked with Maya Angelou.
Work with her on what?
A big album together. And when I did an interview with Maya Angelou, she brought them there. And so I finally had the chance to meet them. We all went out, we went to a club, we danced. I actually asked Nick, I said, “Man, I just want to be very respectful of things, but do you think it’s okay to dance with Val? I know she’s a free woman and all, but I just want you to know. It’s just a dance, man. She’s so beautiful.” “Oh, man. Go ahead and do your thing, bro. Go and do your thing. Me and Val went out, and, bro, it was a Baryshnikov thing, you know?
She danced you on the floor?
We both danced, man. “I didn’t know you danced like that. You got things out of Val. I said, “Man, I was trying to stick with it. Because Val has so much style, it oozes out every second.
It’s funny – during the Bernie campaign, there were several videos of you hitting the dance floor.
Is it correct? See, you got me – I didn’t even remember. i remember i was dancing with sister Nina Once.
I think that could have been it.
Yeah. I remember. It’s true.
This is your second time at Union. Is it different to be in a specifically religious environment, as opposed to Harvard, a secular space? Does it change the way you approach not only your teaching but also your public presentation?
In many ways, no doubt, because a sense of calling is a given at Union, people have a deep sense of calling. Not everyone is Christian: we have Buddhists, we have Jews, we have Hindus, and so on. But they have a deep sense of purpose, whereas at Harvard you have a site for training professional managers. And so they are related to profession, but not so much to vocation – they are related to career, not so much to vocation. But my sense of vocation and my sense of calling are the same no matter where and what I do. It could be at Harvard, at Union, at the White House, at the crack house, at our mom’s house. You know what I mean?
But at Union, because it’s taken for granted, I’m able to be a lot more direct. Because, when you’re in a liberal educational space, it’s nice to let people know where you’re from, but you don’t really have the kind of prophetic Christian or revolutionary Christian orientation all the time. You are one voice among a host of other voices in this secular space. And that makes a difference.
Do you think seminary students these days feel intimidated or more beleaguered? They enter a world that might be less receptive to the fruits of their training.
I started teaching at Union in 1977. At that time, secularism was much higher, and was much more important. Secularism has suffered tremendous wounds and bruises over the past thirty years, because commodification is almost taking over – and so when we think of secularism, we don’t immediately think of scientific authority, to scientific breakthroughs. When you think of secularism these days, you think of careerism, opportunism, hedonism, selfishness, individualism – and how science seems to be driven by the greed of businesses, seems to be headed for planetary explosion or environmental collapse. So the profane has a much different resonance today than it did in ’77. It’s almost as if everyone recognizes the spiritual decay and moral decay of the culture. And then the question becomes, Well, what blame do we give to religious institutions for accommodating empire, accommodating capitalism, accommodating white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, having accommodated the anti-Jewish, the anti-Arab, the anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian orientation?