Lunch with the FT

Last updated: May 19, 2012 12:20 am

Lunch with the FT: Cornel West

Over steak and fries the professor of African-American studies and religion talks about losing faith with Obama

There’s no such thing as a quiet lunch with Cornel West. From the minute he stalks into the Witherspoon Grill in the leafy university town of Princeton, New Jersey, to the moment he sweeps out, he is the centre of attention.

“Sister Anna! I’m so blessed to meet you!” he bellows across the restaurant, embracing me, then putting his hand on his heart and bowing slightly. With his bushy Afro, black three-piece suit and booming Baptist preacher voice, there is no missing the arrival of this celebrity academic and self-appointed keeper of Martin Luther King Jr’s flame. As we sit down in our booth, it seems as if every guest and every waiter stops by to pay homage to West. To each he says, “Do you know Sister Anna?”

West, who will be 59 next month, is one of the US’s most prominent liberal intellectuals but this does not do justice to the breadth of his influence or the boundlessness of his energy. A professor of religion and of African-American studies at Harvard, then at Princeton, he has written more than 20 books and appeared as Councillor West, a version of himself, in two of the Matrix science-fiction films. He has collaborated with Prince and André 3000 of Outkast on spoken word albums, and with the eclectic hip-hop ensemble named in tribute to his teaching The Cornel West Theory.

He is also a political activist who regularly gets arrested at leftwing protests, occasionally ending up in jail. Earlier this month West and 34 others were convicted on disorderly conduct charges following a demonstration last October against the New York Police Department’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy. The policy is aimed at keeping guns off the streets but critics say it amounts to racial profiling. The protesters were sentenced to time served.

West also finds time to host a radio show with fellow black progressive Tavis Smiley, and last month the pair released a book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. “There are some very painful and unsettling truths that we’re trying to tell in terms of keeping alive the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr,” West explains. “When we see the face of poverty, we no longer see a black face or a brown or red face, but more and more we see a white brother or sister who was middle-class but has experienced downward mobility and social slippage.”

The Witherspoon Grill is a wood-panelled, standard-issue American steakhouse with a well-stocked bar, and television screens silently tuned to a golf tournament. Jazz booms from the sound system – “The in-im-i-tab-le Dinah Washington!” West declares, almost as loudly as the singer herself. He’s hovering over the filet mignon but it’s a hefty $34 – West expresses concern about the FT’s finances before ordering the steak, at my insistence. He asks the waitress’s advice on which vegetable to get on the side – “I’m told that green is good” – and settles on the sautéed spinach. I have the pasta special: fettuccine in a dill butter sauce with asparagus and mushrooms. He orders a Sprite, I opt for club soda.

Born in 1953, West and his brother grew up “on the chocolate side of town” in Sacramento, California, where his father was a civilian in the air force and his mother was a school teacher. He tells me it was “a family of supernatural love” but he soon ran into problems at school, and was expelled at the age of eight for his first act of rebellion against authority: hitting a pregnant teacher who slapped him for refusing to salute the American flag.

Other children in his position might have headed off the rails but West’s mother insisted her son be given an IQ test, which landed him in a school for gifted students. He went to Harvard in 1970 to study Middle Eastern languages and literature (he reads classical Hebrew and Aramaic) and in 1980 gained a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton. His first teaching job was at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. He says his primary identity is his Baptist Christian faith – it was the reason he didn’t join the secular Black Panthers while he was a teenager, and why he stops short of being a fully-fledged Marxist now.

West hit the national stage with his book Race Matters, published in 1993 on the first anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, sparked after the acquittal of four police officers – three of them white – who had been videoed using their batons to beat a black motorist, Rodney King.

He believes poverty and income inequality to be the key 21st-century civil rights struggle. His primary target is President Barack Obama, a man for whom he campaigned in 2008’s election but now describes as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats”.

He tells me that “morality cuts so much deeper than pigmentation. People think I shouldn’t be critical because he’s a black man and I’m a black man?” he asks, his sonorous voice rising with indignation. “Puh-leeeease. Good God almighty.”

West says he lost faith in Obama when the president brought people with close ties to Wall Street and the financial crisis into his administration. West names the president’s former economic adviser Larry Summers, his current Treasury secretary Tim Geithner, and his budget chief, now chief of staff, Jack Lew.

The Obama administration has concentrated the power of both government and the financial sector, West says, in ways that have been good for banks and bad for common people. “I’m a Main Street brother and I’m very critical of all forms of concentrated power, be it in government or be it in the private sector,” he says, seeing little difference between the political parties.

Though conceding that liberals by far prefer Obama to the presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, West describes the president’s neo­liberalism – citing the deregulation of markets, social services cuts and the slashing of wages of government workers – as “morally bankrupt”.

“You’ve got some decent people there who know that the greed is running amok,” West says, referring to Gregory Smith, a former Goldman Sachs executive who wrote a highly critical opinion piece about the bank in the New York Times in March. “My brother Gregory Smith is a decent brother who says, ‘Look, this culture of greed and avarice is getting out of control. I can’t take it, my moral conscience is violated.’ We’re going to see many more people like Gregory Smith, even inside of the big banks, saying we’ve gone much too far in terms of spiritual emptiness and moral constipation.”

He believes that last year’s Occupy movement came up with a language for discussing these issues – one that will endure regardless of whether or not people are camping in public squares. “We have to come up with a democratic way of talking about it because it’s not a matter of hating oligarchs or taking revenge on the moneyed class, it’s a matter of hating injustice. That’s the [Martin Luther] King legacy.”

West is making decent progress on his steak and persevering with the spinach but hasn’t touched his fries. He offers some to me but I show unusual willpower and decline.

I ask him if he is hopeful that a second term for Obama will be more fruitful, once freed from the political tyranny of re-election to the White House. He is not optimistic. “I think at this point he’s obsessed with being on Mount Rushmore, he wants to be a great figure in the pantheon of American presidents.” he says.

Obama, West believes, has not been willing to listen and evolve – he should have been listening to progressive economists such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Sylvia Ann Hewlett – in the way that Abraham Lincoln listened and changed his views on slavery. “If you’re thinking about Mount Rushmore, you’re thinking about your legacy, your legacy, your legacy. Puh-lease.”

I suggest that part of the reason so many have been disappointed with Obama is that their expectations were unattainably high, and also because his supporters, especially liberals, projected their hopes on to him with little regard for his innate pragmatism. West admits this but says Obama is partly to blame. “When you mobilise the legacy of Martin [Luther] King and put a bust of Martin King in the Oval Office, people elevate their hopes. Martin King is not just every brother,” he says. “It’s like a novelist being obsessed with Tolstoy or Proust and then he ends up writing short stories that can barely get into some middlebrow magazine. Hey, you got our hopes up man! I was expecting Proust or Tolstoy, instead it would barely get in Newsweek.”

Even while unloading this invective, he concedes that Obama has been unfairly attacked by the right wing, especially those in the US’s conservative Tea Party movement. “He’s not a Muslim, he’s definitely not a socialist,” says West in an “I would know” way, drawing out his vowels and rolling his eyes. “Oh my God! Oh Lord! That is the truth.”

Obama can try to redeem himself with liberals by championing the eradication of poverty, West says. He vows to keep encouraging popular pressure and civil disobedience. “I might end up going to jail again,” he sighs. He sleeps only a few hours a night and rarely spends a weekend at Princeton, instead travelling the country, speaking in his trademark black suit – “I put them on every day as a sign that I have to live or die for something,” he explains.

As for his own legacy, a brush with near-fatal prostate cancer a decade ago gave West pause to think. This summer he leaves Princeton and will return to New York and to the Union Theological Seminary, where his career started, to become a professor of philosophy and Christian practice.

“Princeton has been very good to me but it’s time to go back and be a more robust Christian witness in a Christian seminary that is willing to connect witness with intellectual work,” he says.

Critics over the years have accused West of being low-brow and acting in a way that ill befits an Ivy League professor. Indeed, his antipathy towards Larry Summers dates from 2000 when West was teaching at Harvard and Summers was the university’s president. Summers met West and berated him for neglecting serious scholarship and spending too much time on his popular pursuits. West subsequently left to return to Princeton.

As we ask for coffees to finish off our lunch, West dismisses those who look down their noses at his musical collaborations and movie appearances. “I’ve got to be true to who I am, and I want to use every possible venue to communicate and to touch people’s minds, hearts and souls,” he says. “I have nothing against academicians who remain tied to the library and books – I spend a lot of time in the library and books too – but my calling is one of being a democratic intellectual, which means I must speak to the demos, not just speaking to the scholars.”

He says he is “not crazy” about his celebrity but admits it can be helpful for advancing his causes. “Coltrane was going to blow his horn in a way that no one had ever blown that European instrument before. Wow John! That’s what I’m about. I’m a jazzman in the life of the mind, and I’m going to blow my horn and sing my song in such a distinctive way that people will have to take notice. Not notice of me but of the point.”

Who, I ask him, is his biggest intellectual influence? “Chekhov. There’s nobody like him – he has a depth of humility, a depth of subtlety, a profound commitment to love as the fundamental force but knowing how impotent it often is.”

The waitress comes over to check on us and to bring the bill. West managed to get only halfway through his spinach and she asks if he’d like to take it away.

“Ooh no no no. That’s all I need, walking down the street with spinach,” he chortles. “They’ll say I’m on my way to the crack house. Brother West walking down the street with green.”

Then he leaps up and is out the door, smiling and waving to his brothers and sisters in the restaurant’s courtyard as he goes.

Anna Fifield is the FT’s US political correspondent

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Witherspoon Grill

57 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, NJ 08088

8oz filet and fries $34.00

Sautéed spinach $6.00

Fettuccine in dill butter sauce with asparagus and mushrooms $14.00

Club soda $2.00

Sprite $2.00

Coffee x2 $4.00

Total (including tax, service) $81.30

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African-American studies: the birth of a new discipline

African-American studies as a formal academic discipline was born out of the wider civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. San Francisco State University was the first college to create a “Black Studies Department”, following a five month student strike that ended in 1969. Others lagged well behind – the department of African-American studies at Georgia State University was established only after a student sit-in in 1992.

Black students were protesting against what they saw as a bias within the social sciences and humanities towards European and white American history and philosophy. They said such history and culture must be told from their own perspective and not as a footnote to American and European studies.

“There was a moment in history where black people demanded the institutionalisation of black studies and that it have a space within these universities,” says Professor H. Ike Okafor-Newsum, chair of African-American and African studies at Ohio State University. “Black people asked why there was space for Spanish and Portuguese, French and Italian, English history but no space for other ‘ethnic’ studies.”

W E B Du Bois©Getty

W E B Du Bois circa 1910

African-American studies became an interdisciplinary field incorporating history, literature, culture and politics.

The pioneer in this field, however, was an academic from much earlier times. W. E. B. Du Bois, who in 1895 became the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, went on to become a noted scholar and prolific author. His essay collection The Souls of Black Folk became a seminal work and the African and African-American research institute at Harvard bears his name. Its current director is the distinguished scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. He made headlines worldwide when he was arrested for trying to break into his own home in 2009 after the door had jammed, causing an uproar over racial profiling. President Barack Obama weighed in, saying the arresting police officer acted “stupidly” and later convened a “beer summit” in the White House’s rose garden, where Professor Gates and the officer sat down with the president and vice-president.

Other early academic pioneers included Carter G. Woodson, Alain Locke and John Hope Franklin – all Harvard graduates.

More than 40 years since the beginnings of the institutionalisation of African-American studies as an academic discipline, the field has been developing a wider brief. Caribbean and African studies have grown in prominence but so, too, has the study of the African diaspora. “We’re now talking about blacks in south-east Asia. At the beginning of black studies, people were not talking in that way,” says Okafor-Newsum.

Where once students could only minor in the discipline, there are now more than a dozen universities in the US that offer doctorates in African-American studies.

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