The Supreme Love and Revolutionary Funk of Dr. Cornel West, Philosopher of the Blues
(A version of this article first appeared in the May 28, 2009 Rolling Stone.)
Cornel West is a slender man, but he hugs like a sumo wrestler: crouch, grab, wrap and squeeze. “I want to love everybody,” West tells me not long after he greets me at his Princeton University office with a bear hug that is warm and wonderfully conspiratorial. ”Ah, yes, Brother Jeff!” he exclaims, like I’ve arrived just in time for a clandestine mission.
I’d feel special if it weren’t for the fact that there’s hardly a soul on Earth whom West won’t call “Brother” or “Sister.” As we walk around town, West embraces and is fully embraced by a maintenance man, a schoolteacher, a group of street missionaries and a class of fifth-graders visiting from Queens, who recognize him from the cover of his 1993 bestseller, Race Matters, still so popular that it’s sold on the street in some inner-city neighborhoods. West never holds back from anyone who wants a piece of him—whether it’s a blessing or banter, an argument with the great man or simply a hug that lasts too long—but he never gets pinned down, either. He locks eyes and holds hands, asks and answers real questions, and then pirouettes away.
West has been called “perhaps the preeminent black intellectual of our generation” by Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., himself a candidate for that mantle. It might be more accurate to say that West is the preeminent intellectual of our generation, no qualifiers. No other scholar is as widely read, no other philosopher courted by presidential candidates, no other Ivy League professor referenced not just by other academics but by popular filmmakers (The Matrix trilogy, in which West played a bit role, was inspired in part by his work) and musicians (West has collaborated with Prince, Talib Kweli, and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, among others).
What makes West’s fame even more remarkable is the fact that he’s among the most radical figures in American public life. He stumped for Obama last year but only with the caveat that he would be Obama’s number-one critic the day after the inauguration. He started even sooner. In his book Hope on a Tightrope, published weeks before Obama’s election, West declares, “I’m not an optimist at all. Brother Barack Obama says he has the audacity to hope. I say, ‘Well, what price are you willing to pay?’“
There is a sense in which this may be West’s moment as much as it is Obama’s. It’s one thing to speak truth to power when the powers-that-be are as crassly reactionary as George Bush; it’s another when all the power is in the hands of the very man you campaigned for. Now is West’s chance to move beyond Democrats and Republicans to the real work of rebuilding the American left. Race, as always, matters—some liberals expected West to give his allegiance to Obama because they’re both black. In fact, West despised Obama’s widely-praised Philadelphia speech on race—“It was weak, man, weak”—in which the candidate described slavery as America’s original sin. “That’s not true,” West says; American democracy was born out of the dispossession and murder of the continent’s first peoples. To West, that fact doesn’t invalidate democracy, it makes it messy. He thinks it should be messy. At times, he sounds like a conservative: Freedom isn’t free, he says, and anyone who leads you to believe as much is lying. “Innocence itself is a crime in America,” he tells me. He laments what Henry James called our “hotel civilization”—“no darkness, no despair, no dread, no suffering, no grief.” No truth. “Where there is no death, there is no life,” he writes. That’s the Westian turn. He roots himself in what he calls “the night side of American democracy” so he’ll be ready for the dawn. He begins with anger so we can end with love.
“My dear Brother Barack,” he tells me one evening at the basement restaurant across from his office, “he’s gotta inscribe himself in the sentimental narrative.” The American dream, that is, which West sees as a menace to actual American democracy, since it carries within it the idea that we are special, maybe even better than the rest of the world. West hears that narcissistic tone in Obama’s insistence that “in no other country on earth” is his personal story possible, and that his story is proof that America is getting better all the time. “Every generation the union is being perfected,” West paraphrases Obama. “But that’s a lie. There’s retreat, there’s regress, there’s setbacks, there’s moving backwards. The history of race in America is not a history of progress.”
West thinks Obama’s presidency may become one of those setbacks. “Because you end up with a selective appropriation of Obama and people like him. And his cousins on the street, Jamal and Latisha and Shaquille and all of them, they’re not a part of that. Their suffering is rendered invisible as people are preoccupied with Obama and company, who make whites more comfortable. Lessens their fears and anxieties. Allows them to embrace him while still demonizing, marginalizing, Latisha there!”
West has been jailed for half a dozen causes since he was first arrested as a Harvard freshman at a student protest. His second arrest, though, was an almost textbook case of demonization: The police rounded up the three black men on his dormitory floor after a white classmate said she’d been raped by a stranger. “Lined us up three times,” he remembers. “Kept us in for a number of days. Had her come in, shaking, crying, and the police are saying, ‘Now, these three did it.’ She said ‘No.’” West’s voice sounds like Southie as he plays the part of the cop: “‘Now please, don’t be worrying about hurting their feelings. You know they did it.’” The woman said no again. “Three times over two days. That white sister saved our lives! She held on to the truth, man.” Years later, when West was commuting to Williams College in rural Massachusetts to teach a course, a highway patrolman pulled him over and accused him of trafficking cocaine. West said he was a professor on his way to a class. “And I’m the Flying Nun,” the officer answered. “Let’s go, nigger.” When West began teaching at Princeton, cops stopped him three times in his first 10 days. He still has a hard time catching a cab in Manhattan. West speaks of these experiences not as revelations but as simple facts. “Just the way the world is,” he says. Critics who accuse him of racial opportunism ignore his commitment to a class-based economics of redistribution for everyone. He’s a scholar of Marx, hardly a career booster in America, and a professor of religion, a job that doesn’t usually lead you to semi-regular appearances on Real Time With Bill Maher. He comes under frequent fire from his own comrades on the left for his insistence that moral values must be at the heart of any movement worth dying for, which to his mind is the only kind worth fighting for.
“It’s all about witness, brother,” he tells me one evening in his office, rocking in his chair. “Every person who bears witness has to have the depth of conviction of a martyr. You have to be willing to die. That’s the statement allowing you to live.”
He calls himself “a Martin man,” after King, but not predictably so. His religion is rooted in the angry prophets of the Old Testament and a Christ story as awful as it is redeeming, “the painful laughter of blues notes and the terrifying way of the cross,” he says—a radical Christianity diametrically opposed to the suburban sermons of Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. It’s not a belief in a Christ gladly crucified on Good Friday or risen from his tomb in time for church Easter Sunday, but a faith drawn from a recognition of the despair of the Saturday in between. ”That Saturday,” West tells me, the normal humor of his voice giving way to a growl, “it’s the full-fledged experience of the death of God. Which is spiritual abandonment. By any of the positive powers in the universe.” West rears up and spreads his arms and his fingers wide, his voice suddenly loud and staccato. “That’s Christ on the cross: ‘My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?’” He laughs and shifts into a Richard Pryor voice: “‘Hey man,'” this Jesus says to the Lord, “‘I thought you were coming through!'”
West leans across his desk, peering through big black-framed glasses. “That’s part of the humanity of Jesus. But it’s also part of the Jewishness of Jesus. Because in the Hebrew scriptures, you can’t have the prophetic tradition”—the Martin tradition—“without Ecclesiastes. Y’see, the prophetic goes hand in hand with the comic.” West reads the most existential book of the Bible—”that which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered”—with the bleak humor of the blues.
A few weeks later, West travels to New York to give a speech at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. West lives as much on the road as in Princeton, delivering more than 100 public talks a year. But tonight’s lecture won’t be his stump speech. It’s a tribute to one of his late heroes, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish-born rabbi who marched with King in Selma, best known for his first book, The Prophets. West wants to be a prophet, himself, an ambition that would be grandiose if it weren’t for the fact that he wants the rest of us to be prophets, too, speaking truth to power. “To prophesy,” he writes, “is not to predict an outcome but rather to identify concrete evils.” He’s concerned not with divine revelations but with what he sees as jazzlike improvisation, the radical hope he tempers with the tragic sensibility he takes from the blues. “I’m a bluesman in the life of the mind,” he says, “a jazzman in the world of the ideas.”
He dresses the part: a hand-tailored three-piece black suit with cufflinks of 25 karat Ethiopian gold, each featuring a tiny image of Africa. It’s an ensemble deliberately reminiscent of jazzmen and preachers, Duke Ellington and “Daddy” King, Martin’s father. Men with callings as well as style. “A sense of vocation,” says West, a pious devotion to the usable past.
“What is piety?” he asks at the Jewish Museum, working the stage like a tent revival preacher. He stops, holds one hand up like he’s just caught the word by a wing. “It is the acknowledgment of the debt to those who came before, the wind at our backs, the source of the good in our lives. Could be your mama, could be your daddy. Could be your jazz teacher, your dance teacher. If you’re religious like myself it could be God and all of those.” The future, he says—the democracy he dreams of, the democracy we have yet to achieve—demands prophesy, piety “and the poetic. And by poetic I don’t mean a person who writes verses.” He draws the word out like an English don. “I mean what Shelley had in mind when he said poets are the unacknowledged”—he goes into a Westian growl—“legislators of the world! All those who exercise imag-i-nation, and get us outside of our egocentric pre-dic-ament! Give us a sense of awe and wonder! So we become concerned about something outside of our own little bubbles, our own little suburbs, our own little slices of reality, our own little professional managerial spots”—he makes that sound a like a filthy word, then pulls up in a hard pause, hunches down close to the edge of the stage, and whispers slowly—“our own little iron cages.” He stands. “There’s a lot of material toys in the cages. But you’re still in prison. And poets allow us to shatter those bars.”
When the talk is over, West gets down on his hands and knees so he can greet at eye level the fans filing by the stage, alarming and delighting one after another as he swings his arms out from under him—is he going to fall face-first?—only to wrap them around the person in front of him, hugging every potential poet and comrade in turn.
West came to his sense of self by way of a peculiarly American convergence of influences. His is not an “only in America” story but an “especially in America” one, part Emersonian self-reliance, part Motown funk. He’s an intellectual mutt in the best sense, a “freestyle, California spirit,” as he puts it, “rooted in gutbucket blues and jazz dispositions.” Even his trademark black suit is layered with influences—beneath jazz and the blues, there’s 19th century Russian literature. “It’s in emulation of Masha,” he says, one of the heroines of his favorite play, Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a drama of provincial manners set amidst the Russian gentry. West identifies with the lonely woman at the heart of the story. “She’s wearing black, says she’s in mourning.” Her father has just died, she’s trapped in a pointless marriage with a boring man. “But it’s even deeper than that. How do you make deep disappointment a constant companion and still persevere? There is this sense with Masha, when you see her in that black dress, of having a sad soul with a sweet disposition.”
West was born on June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, back then known as the “Oil Capital of the World” and also as the site of America’s worst race riot, when tens or maybe hundreds of black citizens were murdered one night in May 1921, killings anticipated by a headline in a local paper that read, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” When West was two, his father—“a PK,” says West, “a preacher’s kid”—moved the family to Topeka, Kansas so he could study biology at Washburn College in the hope of becoming a dentist. Cornel’s older brother, Clifton, was one of two African Americans in the first kindergarten class to follow the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka desegregation decision, which began in his school.
In 1958, the family moved to Sacramento, a civil service town of sleepy jobs and no great riches where West’s father had been hired as a civilian administrator in the Air Force. There they lived in a new house in the all-black suburb of Glen Elder. It was a slice of small town Americana: Friday nights were for all ages dance parties—“Corn has the gift of gyrating hips,” says his brother, now 59, “he was a James Brown, funkified kind of cat”—Sunday mornings were for church, and the Saturdays in between were for baseball. His mother, Irene, read him poetry and played him records, Nat King Cole, crooners. “How loved we were! I don’t want it to sound idyllic,” West says, “but it was. Love-saturated.” At first, white meant little more than the color of Donald Duck’s feathers or the cowboys on Bonanza. “I didn’t interact with white brothers and sisters at all. I think, in the end, that was a very positive thing, because it gave me a chance to really revel in black humanity.”
But white America made itself known. Glen Elder was one of three black neighborhoods in Sacramento, each subtly cut off from the rest of the city. To get to school, the Glen Elder kids had to cross a creek. There were two options: they could walk over a rickety wooden footbridge or they could wait for a lull in the traffic and dash across main bridge, which had no sidewalks or guard rails and was high enough over the water to make a fall a life-threatening possibility. “If a truck came the same time you were on the bridge,” says Cornel, “you’d go under.” His neighborhood had no streetlights, no public transportation. But it was the bridge that educated him. “You could just see the racial politics. You could see Jim Crow.”
Cliff knew his little brother was smart. The bridge showed him that Cornel was brave. “There’s a signature moment we all go through in life when we have to step out of this box of fear where we’re at,” Cliff says. “That bridge was Corn’s moment. He was five years old and alone, and he had to go across the bridge. And he did it. Lot of us older kids didn’t want to do it, but he did it. That was his moment of stepping out into nothing, and landing on something.”
“That was the first death shudder,” Cornel tells me, 51 years removed from that day and still shaken by it, rocking in his chair, his voice a murmur. He’s felt them ever since. “The sense of, of sheer feebleness and—and relative helplessness of we human organisms experience in the face of cosmos and the face of death and the face of despair. All those things that rattle you, make you shudder and shiver and quiver. After that, it’s just a matter of imagining what non-existence is like, what life is like after bodily extinction.”
Cornel kept those ideas to himself. “It was strange sensibility for a kid. I just think that most people had other things on their mind. You didn’t want to distract them or irritate them by sharing these kind of thoughts that I was having.”
The following year, the city built a new school—on the black side, for black children. Cornel understood what was happening. Summer trips to see his grandparents in Texas and Oklahoma made it plainer. “We sat on the back of the bus,” remembers Cliff, “couldn’t look people in the eye.”
“I had a rage, man,” says Cornel. He began fighting almost every day. He’d line kids up and go down the row, relieving them of their milk money. “Everyone in the neighborhood knew I’d be going to jail.” When he was eight, he says, he beat another boy so badly he nearly killed him. “I was a gangster,” he says, not yet five feet tall. The first time he clashed with a teacher was in second grade, for no good reason. A year later, he did it again. This time it changed his life. “That one was morally inclined,” says Cliff.
The family had just returned from Texas. While they’d been riding in the back of the bus, the Freedom Riders were being beaten and firebombed for riding in the front. In West’s family, old stories were surfacing: Cornel had learned about a great uncle who’d been lynched years before, his broken body wrapped by his killers in a flag. One day, when his teacher told the class to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, Cornel sat down. “Why we saluting this thing that don’t love us?” he asked. “I’m not gonna do it.” The teacher stared. “Cornel West! You stand up right now!” She waited. The other kids got nervous. One by one, several more sat down. The teacher, late in a pregnancy, waddled over to Cornel.
“She hit me first,” West says.
The principal didn’t care. “She hit a little black kid,” West remembers. “She got a prize, man. Gotta keep us in order.” Cornel was expelled.
At first, no school would take him. Then his mother arranged for an IQ test. He scored north of 160. That won him a seat at Earl Warren Elementary, an “enrichment” school on the far side of town. He was one of two black children in his class, but there the students were all geniuses, none so bright as Cornel. He loved it. “Sheer act of grace,” he says of the twist by which expulsion led him to the school. He read a biography of Einstein, and decided he wanted to be like him. (He took up the violin in emulation of “Albert.”) He read a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and decided he’d go Harvard because T.R. had. (“I loved his strenuous mood.”) He worked his way through every volume in the bookmobile that was the black side of town’s only library.
When he was 14, he picked up the book that would make him a philosopher. It was an anthology of the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, most famous for his Fear and Trembling, a meditation on Genesis 22, in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. It’s a fantastically difficult work for a reader of any age, but for young Cornel the book was a revelation: nothing, not even the love between a parent and a child, God and humanity, is as it seems. “In the end,” he says now, “we’re beings headed toward death. I was convinced for the most part we don’t have any control. So you really have to make a leap, you have to acknowledge the magnitude of the mystery.” Not so much the mystery of life as the mystery of death. “It is a kind of vertigo,” he told the philosopher George Yancey, “a dizziness, a sense of being staggered by the darkness that one sees in the human condition, the human predicament.”
By then, West had become a model teenager, a track star who rose before dawn every day to train, a straight-A student at the head of his class and its elected president, a young man so passionate about scripture that he was already spoken of as a possible successor to the pastor of his church, Shiloh Baptist. One life, a good life, was laid out before him. But he began to have doubts. To Cornel, the average Christian now seemed like a well-behaved child. Be a good boy or girl, and you’ll get your dessert in heaven. (“American Christianity,” he writes in Hope on a Tightrope, “is all about identifying with a winner.”) But the “leap of faith,” as Kierkegaard conceived it, was absurdly dangerous, like trying to jump across an abyss with no reasonable hope of success. Why try? Because once he’d felt the death shudder, once he’d become aware in his bones of the reality of death, ordinary life—waiting to die, living as if you never will—seemed even more awful. There was no choice but to step out into nothing, hoping he’d land on something.
Today, Kierkegaard is just one face in a crowd lining the walls of West’s office in Stanhope Hall, a simple but handsome three-story sandstone building at the heart of the Princeton campus. Nearly every inch of his bookshelves features not the spines of his library but its covers, and every cover has been chosen for its portrait of one of West’s heroes. Talking with West means talking with them all. “Brother Fyodor might disagree with that,” he’ll say gesturing toward glowering Dostoyevsky, or, speaking of how he learned to love movies, “It was this sister right here,” nodding toward an arch-eyed vamp. “Bette Davis. Good God!” Bessie Smith smiles between Herman Melville and Flannery O’Connor. The radical black crime novelist Chester Himes looms beneath a tiny portrait of Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French pioneer of modern architecture. A bare-chested Fela Kuti, the Afrobeat revolutionary, dances around the corner from the Greek opera star Maria Callas. A couple of “bad men”—William Faulkner and Robert Johnson—are bookended by a couple of witty ones, Oscar Wilde and Billy Wilder. Tupac Shakur offers his baleful gaze next to that of another poet murdered by greed, Federico Garcia Lorca. “These are soulmates, man,” he says. “You carry them around with you, they inhabit your heart and mind and soul.”
West has published 18 books, ranging from philosophy to politics to pop culture (his 19th will be a memoir called Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud), but he understands himself first and foremost as a reader. He reads a minimum of three hours every day regardless of his schedule and rarely sleeps more than three hours a night. “I’ve been blessed with a powerful metabolism,” he says. Eddie Glaude, Jr., a West protégé and rising star in African American studies whose office is across the hall from his mentor’s, recalls traveling with West and talk show host Tavis Smiley, another longtime collaborator of West’s. Smiley had just gotten advance proofs of a memoir he was about to publish, and he gave Glaude and West copies at the end of a long night, around two in the morning. At seven a.m., they were on the road to their next event, Smiley and Glaude blinking with fatigue. West was bright-eyed—he’d read the book cover to cover and wanted to discuss it right away. “The only other reader in my intellectual inventory who’s comparable to Cornel is Ralph Waldo Emerson,” says Glaude, speaking of the 19th century essayist whose work shapes both his and West’s writing. “And Emerson loses his sight!”
West has a reputation as a ladies’ man, but it’s hard to believe—how romantic can it be to crawl into bed with you lover and a copy Georg Lukacs’ 1923 History and Class Consciousness, one of the many texts West rereads every year? Married three times, with a 31-year-old son, Clifton, by his first wife, and separated from the mother of his eight-year-old daughter, Zeytun, West is cagey about his current romantic condition. “I’m just dangling and adrift, in a certain sense. I’m hoping somebody’s praying for me.” In his voiceover commentary for the DVD box set of The Matrix trilogy—a brilliantly free-form conversation with spirituality writer Ken Wilber about the movies’ philosophical roots, from Plato to Schopenhauer to William James to West’s own writing—West strikes an oddly mournful note when Neo and the love interest, Trinity, get intimate. “Love itself is a certain kind of death,” he muses. “That deep sense of lack and loss are part of the structure of desire.”
“There’s a way in which you could think about Cornel as a kind of sick soul,” says Glaude. “In the sense that he begins with the dead, with darkness. He begins with suffering. The blue note. And all too often people want to move too quickly beyond that.”
“That’s the American way,” says West when I raise the question of the blue note and its dismissal, the common conviction that looking forward means forgetting the past. “ ‘No problem we cannot solve,’” he says, paraphrasing conventional wisdom. Well, that’s a lie. I don’t know why Americans tell that lie all the time.” He laughs, shaking in his chair, mimicking a voice that sounds like a suburban golfer in pants a size too small. “‘No problem we can’t get beyond.’ That’s a lie! But—it generates a strenuous mood.”
This, to West, is a good thing, the naiveté that makes ambition possible. “Engagement! I like that. Now, Brother Leopardi on the other hand”—Giacomo Leopardi, a 19th century Italian poet-philosopher revered in Italy but little read in the U.S—“he starts with what he calls, ‘The mind’s sweet shipwreck.’ Ain’t that a beautiful phrase?”
Leopardi should be the poet of our times, West tells me—late empire, mid-recession. “You hear about people rereading Steinbeck now,” he says, referring to a recent surge in sales of Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s Great Depression chronicle. “They got to go deeper than that!” Steinbeck lets us off too easy. West prescribes Brother Leopardi for “deep-sea diving of the soul,” a process’s not just personal but essential to understanding “the paradox of human freedom”: that we must summon the strength to resist and endure oppression even as we acknowledge that we are ultimately weak in the face of death and despair. “We are organisms of desire,” West defines the human condition, “whose first day of birth makes us old enough to die.”
West gets down on his hands and knees, crawling along the bottom shelf until he locates a green volume. “This is the Leopardi, brother.” He flips through the pages. “Oh, man! See this one? ‘I refuse even hope.’” He repeats the line, his body suddenly slack, staring at me as if to ask, “Do you follow?” I do, or, at least, I’ll try. West begins to read, rocking forwards and backwards at his hips like a metronome. “‘Everything is hidden,’” he reads, “‘Except our pain.’” He looks up. “Deep blues, man.” He returns to the green book in his hand. “We come, a forsaken race, / Crying into the world, and the gods / Keep their own counsel…’” I bend close, following the rhythm of his handwritten annotations down the margins: “blues,” “jazz,” “blues,” “blues,” “jazz.”
The blues, West says, is the suffering that’s at the heart of the American story, both tragic and comic, darkly grandiose and absurdly mundane. Jazz is democracy, or “deep dem-oc-racy,” as West likes to say, emphasis on the first word and the second syllable, the sound of a system we have yet to achieve. “Y’see, you take a military band, it’s like”—West bangs out a martial beat. But jazz? He drums a complicated rhythm. “Under. Below. On the side of the note. Not just the note itself, y’see. It’s a powerful critique.” Jazz—improvisation—is his answer to things as they are, the negation of the status quo and thus the affirmation of another possibility.
“Now, this, this is the greatest one,” West says, petting a page of Leopardi’s poems and looking at me with giant poem eyes as if to communicate the gravity of the words in his hand, the necessity of their immediate recitation. He resumes rocking and reading:
That man has a truly noble nature
Who, without flinching, still can face
Our common plight, tell the truth
With an honest tongue,
Admit the evil lot we’ve been given
And the abject, impotent condition we’re in;
Who shows himself great and full of grace
West closes his book and stands still. His head shakes back and forth with admiration. That’s too polite a word for the emotion flooding over him: it’s relief, gratitude.
“To know the wretchedness of who we are,” he says. “Yet the fact that we know it, is itself a noble thing, because that kind of knowledge means we can know a whole lot of other things.”
I think of a passage in West’s 2004 Democracy Matters. In a chapter that ranges from the Stoic philosopher Zeno to Emmett Till’s mother standing over her murdered son’s coffin, West quotes Ralph Ellison writing on the blues. I’d copied it into my notebook on the train to Princeton. “‘The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness,’” I read aloud, “’to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.’”
West nods, a teacher triumphant. “That’s right!” he says. “It’s knowledge the way Adam knew Eve. Adam knows Eve. It’s embracing. Some think it’s just sexual, but it’s not just sexual. To know is to be engaged. The blues knows because the song is an action.” It’s recognition of the death shudder, a naming of the pain. “That’s the way in which a song of despair is not despair.” He points to the craggy features of the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, staring out from a book cover eye level with West’s desk chair. Beckett, in West’s reckoning, is like Chekov what he calls a literary bluesman. “Brother Beckett. He doesn’t allow despair to have the last word. The last word is what?” He paraphrases Waiting for Godot: “ ‘I can’t go on. I will go on. I can’t go on. I will go on.’ Y’see?”
West hunches his shoulders, striking a pose like a creature about to spring. He fixes a gap-toothed grin, his spectacles framing his eyes as if to emphasize the double duty they perform as exclamation points at the end of a train of ideas. West likes to say that for him thought is a weapon, but “train” might actually be the right metaphor—all aboard or miss out on the ride.
“He has an extraordinary ability to connect,” says the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, at whose Brooklyn church, the House of the Lord Pentecostal West preached as much as wrote his first book, Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, nearly thirty years ago. (It later became one of the sources for The Matrix movies, and it’s still cited by radical activists and academic philosophers to this day.) “I’ve never seen him be pedantic. I want to say he’s simple, but I don’t want to be misunderstood. He’s like a serpent in a sense, coming out of his coil”—slow moving, Daughtry explains, “a y’all kind of person”—“then boom! He hits with you the brilliance of his mind.”
West is fond of citing a scene from one of his favorite plays, Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche DuBois, “the American Hamlet,” in West’s words, is a Southern belle fallen on hard times and forced to move in with her sister and brutish brother-in-law. There she finds solace for a while in the arms of a workingman named Mitch. Only, she poisons the relationship with lies—she calls them “magic”—of a mythical past at odds with the truths of her morbid mind and her years of suffering. Clued in by Stanley, Mitch confronts her, ripping a shade off a lamp to see her in the light of the bare bulb. “That wonderful moment,” West says, one afternoon, widening his eyes and rearing back in a look of horror to play the part of an outraged Mitch: “Let me see who you really are!”
West tells the story with as much sympathy for the deceiver as for the deceived; Blanche no more knows who she really is than Mitch does. “To thine own self be true,” advice given by Polonius to his son in the original Hamlet, is in West’s thinking one of the most fundamental challenges each of us faces. Torn between books and the world, it hasn’t been easy for him.
Around the same time Kierkegaard transformed West’s understanding of religion, the particulars of American history converged to reveal the reality of race in its rawest form: the murder of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. That year, the Black Panthers came into West’s life when they opened an office close to West’s church, Shiloh Baptist. West walked over one Saturday after choir practice. “Young black brother? They said, ‘Come on in!’”
West knew the image: the black leather jackets, the berets, most of all the guns. The year before, Bobby Seale had led a contingent of armed Panthers in a march on Sacramento to protest a bill that would outlaw loaded weapons in public. “Looked like a little army,” remembers West. There were guns in the office next to the church, too, guns West was glad for—as much guarantee as could be had that the people gathered there wouldn’t be killed like Martin. “The problem of violence is that it’s often connected to revenge and hatred,” West says now. “But certain forms of violence are tied to love on a deep level. Self-defense is self-love.” The guns, for West, were on the same plane as James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” released that year.
But West never took up arms himself. “I could never join because of my Christian faith,” he says. “You had to be an atheist. My whole life as a person on the left, I’ve been saying, I’m with you, but I’m a Christian. I’m with you in part because I’m a Christian. But I’m never fully with you because I’m a Christian.”
The book West that grew from West’s early ’80s talks at Brooklyn’s House of the Lord Church, Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, was an attempt to reconcile his twin passions, both of which he saw as fatally flawed in practice, through the lens of blackness. He believes in Marx’s radical critique of capital and empire, but he also believes in God. To West, Marxism without what he calls “the love ethic” is inhumane, just as Christianity without a systemic economic and political analysis is incomplete. And what would blackness contribute? Death; or, to put it another way, the blues, a sensibility both tragic and comic that was lacking in the utopianism of the left and the messianism of religion. American blackness, he hoped, would bring both down to earth by drawing the church into the frontlines for social justice and pushing genuine radicalism—disciplined, patient, and pious, in the Westian sense of “subversive memory,” an ongoing engagement with one’s intellectual ancestors, black and otherwise—into the main currents of American life, or, at least, African-American life.
He published his next major work, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism in 1989. It’s driven by almost lyrical lists of opposites paired, as in his description of pragmatism as a philosophy of “profound insights and myopic blindness” that’s equally the product of America’s revolutionary roots and its history of slavery, our “obsession with mobility” and a longing for fixed rules. The same instinct that leads us to discount theory, philosophy, even the idea of ideas—the anti-intellectualism of American life—is that which drives us toward innovation and the invention of new things. Or, to turn this seemingly fair trade upside down: our talent for technology comes at the cost of the perceptive powers with which we might understand our own creations.
Therein lies the rational miracle of West’s vision of a “prophetic pragmatism.” He takes that last paradox—technological innovation without ideas, invention without the context with which to comprehend—and performs pragmatic ju-jitsu. Whereas academic philosophy seeks either ultimate truths or proof that no such truths are possible, pragmatism “evades” the question, instead trying “to deploy thought as a weapon to enable more effective action.” The super-agents of pragmatism are action-oriented philosophers, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey to West’s own mentor, the late Richard Rorty, thinkers who commit themselves to “continuous cultural commentary,” drawing their ideas from the world as they find it and wrapping those ideas around the circumstances of any given moment. A cultural critic—the label West has come to prefer to “philosopher” or “theologian”—attempts to “explain America to itself.” That explanation is itself an action, an intervention, a heroic attempt at what West calls “American theodicy.”
Theodicy is a term more common to theology than philosophy. It is, essentially, a word for the central question of West’s life, his self-declared obsession: “the problem of evil.” Theodicy asks, “If God”—or simply the universe—“is good, why does he permit evil?” It’s the thorny knot at the heart of the self-help conundrum, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It’s a risky question, one not easily reconciled with the pragmatic tradition. One possible answer is nihilism; another is sanctimony and self-regard. James H. Cone, the founder of black liberation theology and one of West’s mentors early in his teaching career, cites West’s transformation of the question of theodicy as crucial to the importance of West’s project, prophetic pragmatism. West, he says, locates the problem of theodicy not in the abstract of heaven but in the concrete of the world: “How do you really struggle against suffering in a loving way, to leave a legacy in which people would be able to accent their own loving possibility in the midst of so much evil?”
West calls himself a libertarian, but he’s not the kind who mistakes selfishness for wisdom, the fool who knowingly declares “I got mine and tough luck for you if you don’t.” Libertarianism, in West’s view, is a collective affair. The chains that bind the slave also entrap the slave owner; the prison of poverty requires the affluent to act as wardens. We’re all locked in a box together—and that means that we can only win our freedom to be individuals together. Both slave and slave-owner must free one another and themselves from the framework of slavery, the rigid structures of thought—the matrix, a term present in West’s work long before the movies—that prevent us from imagining a better way of being.
West sees glimmers of that imagination in Barack Obama, but he thinks the new president, like the Panthers years ago, is torn between his best and worst inclinations. “They both got gangsters around ’em,” he says. For the Panthers, it was Eldridge Cleaver and the men who loved bullets more than books; for Obama it’s establishment goons like Larry Summers and his protégé Timothy Geithner. West has a personal beef with Summers, with whom he tangled when he was teaching at Harvard and Summers was the university’s president (Summers was later forced out). But now he sees Summers as simply one more representative of a certain political style. “These folks have no history whatsoever to being fundamentally committed to justice for working people. Nobody else on the team ever thought about defending poor people. Rubinites? No history of it. Arne? In Chicago?” As in Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, who has pledged to run schools like businesses. “Please. Rahm? Please! What are we talking about here? He does not have one figure from the social movements who helped promote his campaign. It’s the typical move of a newcomer who wants to reassure the establishment. ‘Hey, I’m not going to upset you. Please realize your boys are giving me all the advice I need.’”
West campaigned for Obama in Iowa, Ohio, Texas, South Carolina, and all over the airwaves, but it was strange advocacy. He derided change as an empty slogan, reminded anti-war crowds that Obama isn’t anti-war, and warned African Americans against voting for Obama just because he’s black. “I got trashed like I don’t know what. I’d get emails from inside Obama people, ‘You’re hurting the campaign, you’re going to impede the first black man from becoming president with your critique on television, blah, blah, blah.’”
Obama staffers sing West’s praises in public, but in private resentment simmers even now. “Dr. West,” a White House source told me on condition of anonymity, “he would go on, I don’t want to say on a rant, but on a hoop, as we say in the black church. He might say something that if you were writing his comments, you would prefer him not to have said.”
But Obama, West believes, understood. “Because up until the end he’s still allowing me to go to Ohio and do 15 events a day, Cleveland 14 events, Columbus 14 events. He knew I had some ability to bring folk in. With Barack, you got a brilliant and clever strategist, and I’m always suspicious of strategists. It’s the distinction between the quest for truth vs. the quest for power. My calling is Socratic”—asking tough questions. “His calling is one of running the country”—delivering answers broad enough to satisfy the majority of people most of the time, truth be damned at least some of the time.
“I think he has progressive potential. But it will be events that push him. The irony is we’re now living in age of Obama and Barack Obama may be reluctant to step into his own age. We got to help him do it.”
I ask him if, given the chance, he’d take a White House job to help Obama in that direction. It’s late in the evening and we’re picking at desserts after dinner and five hours of conversation. West startles for the first time, his brow furrowing, his eyes narrowing. He looks like I’ve just called him an Uncle Tom.
“That’s not my calling!” he says, rebuke in his voice. Then he softens, laughing to himself. “Yeah, brother, you find me in a crackhouse before you find me in the White House. I’ll go into the crackhouse before I ever go that far inside.”
The last time a Democrat took the White House, West almost gave up on America. “I was ready to go,” he says. Ready to leave behind two decades of radical activism and writing during a political “ice age,” ready to leave behind two failed marriages. It was January 1993, Bill Clinton’s inauguration: West watched it from the other side of the world, in his adopted homeland, Ethiopia. He’d moved there with his third wife, Elleni, Ethiopian royalty, after a fashion, a direct descendent of the modern nation’s founder.
“Brother Lerner,” he told Rabbi Michael Lerner, with whom he was working on a book of black-Jewish dialogues, “I may not be coming back.”
“I understood the attraction,” says Lerner, a longtime activist like West who’d considered making aliyah to Israel. “Being in a society where you’re not a minority, where there’s a possibility of being more regular, less bizarre. We discussed it many times, the possibility of him staying there, a life with his wife, a princess, made him feel like he was not going to be an outsider. Cornel is a very lonely person. For a long time, I thought I was his best friend,” says Lerner. “But he had probably about 1,000 best friends. He was best friends with everybody. That made him more isolated. It was more like he had a whole lot of one-night stands. Not sexual, of course, but in terms of intimacy. People would fall in love with him, and I believe he genuinely fell in love with them. It was such a series of people and so many, that you couldn’t possibly–there was no depth to those friendships. So much intensity, but no depth.” Lerner isn’t calling West shallow. He believes West is one of the most profound thinkers he’s ever encountered. “West has a prophetic consciousness,” he says, language no honest rabbi dispenses lightly.
But that’s the trouble. When West speaks of love, he means it in the biblical sense of the prophets. “Hesed,” he tells me one evening in Princeton, the Hebrew word for “lovingkindness.” “Steadfast commitment to the wellbeing of others, especially the least of these,” West says. That demands a lot of love, but West doesn’t stop there. “Justice is what love looks like in public.” For him, justice is not vengeance but fairness; the respect he believes should be accorded every soul. “And democracy,” he continues, “is what justice looks like in practice.” That is, a society where there is justice—a vast, public lovingkindness—for all.
West is steadfastly anti-utopian. He thinks perfectionist illusions drive both religion and radicalism to murderous ends. He knows that love for all is a hopeless cause, that thus justice is a hopeless cause, too. Democracy? Not a chance. It’s a blues dream of a jazz impossibility.
But still, he can’t help dreaming. I ask West why he came back to America. His marriage was fading—“it’s hard to pursue a vocation and have a high quality relationship,” he says—but his star was rising, as Race Matters turned into a bestseller and he became a different kind of royalty at home in America. “Cornel West became ‘Cornel West’,” as his former student Eddie Glaude puts it.
West’s answer, though, is both more personal and more abstract. “Two reasons,” he says. “My mother”—West’s father died in 1994—“and the music.” The Whispers, The Stylistics, and The Dramatics; Curtis, Marvin, and Aretha; Sinatra, Sassy, and Coltrane. “In the end, as a bluesman, as a jazzman, it’s about the life that you live that is artistically and musically shaped. And you can do that in the academy, you can do it on the street, you can do it in the library, you can do that on the basketball court, you can do it in the nightclub.”
You can even do it in America. In fact, for West, you must. Simple opposition—to racism, to oppression, to American empire—is no more an option in his mind than submission. “I’m for the revitalization of democratic possibility within the empire,” he says. “I’m still part of the American grain.”
West is sometimes criticized from the left as a reformer rather than a revolutionary. There is a sense in which that is a radical understatement. West is a conservative, in the truest, oldest sense. He’s inspired by Giambattista Vico, an 18th century Italian philosopher who in his New Science—his attempt to construct a theory of almost everything—pointed to the common roots of “human” and the Latin humando, which means “burying.” To be a scholar of the humanities—to be human—is to begin with the dead, to see that our futures are linked to our pasts, to acknowledge, deep in our bones, the truth of our own dying selves, “from womb to tomb,” West says.
For him, this is a present fact. Several years ago, he was diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer, given just months to live. Instead, he has thrived. But the cancer isn’t gone, merely “contained.” Then again, that’s the way it’s always been for him. One day, in the midst of a riff on some of his heroes, Richard Pryor and Toni Morrison, Malcolm and Martin, he comes to an abrupt halt. It’s the death shudder. Imperceptible if he didn’t tell me, just a pause, a consideration of what unites them all. “It’s always there,” he says, and he’s grateful for it; the death shudder makes him glad to be alive. “Wrestling with death,” he writes, “not simply as some event that’s going to happen to you at the end of your life, but calling into question certain assumptions and presuppositions that you had before you arrived—that’s learning how to die.” That, for West, is the beginning of freedom. “To learn how to die in this way is to learn how to live.”
There’s something almost funny about that paradox. Not funny “ha ha” but funny like the blues, the absurdity of a situation—from slavery to segregation to a simple broken heart—so painful that the bitter laugh of the blue note becomes resistance to suffering. “Subversive joy,” West says. It’s an American tradition, John Coltrane’s jazz and Bessie Smith’s growl, the deepest rhymes of hip-hop and even the wisdom of dead white men. “The impassioned odes to democratic possibility in Walt Whitman,” West writes in Democracy Matters, “the dark warnings of imminent self-destruction in Herman Melville.”
Consider Moby-Dick, he says one evening at a bar across the street from his office. It’s the quintessential American novel, and look how it ends: the whaling ship dashed to smithereens, crazy Ahab gone beneath the sea, and only the narrator, Ishmael, left alive, clinging to a coffin in the whirlpool that has swallowed them all. “Most critical,” says West, hunching forward and giving me a great, gaptoothed grin, waiting for me to catch up. “The raft,” he says, running his fingers along the edge of the table, nudging me toward his favorite kind of ending, tragic and comic at the same time. “The coffin constitutes a raft. He’s spared to tell the tale.”
© 2009 Jeff Sharlet. A version of this article appeared in the May 28, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).