Always Controversial Cornel West Disses Obama, Survives Cancer and Almost Spent His Life in Prison
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[Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of a recent interview with Cornel West by radio host Terrence McNally on KPFK's Free Forum program.]
"The capacity to produce social chaos is the last resort of desperate people. You can't lead the people if you don't love the people. You can't save the people, if you don't serve the people."
There's music in those words as well as pain, wisdom and honesty. Those are the words of Cornel West, who has just written a 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."
Educator and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. West has won numerous awards, including the American Book Award, and has received more than 20 honorary degrees. He's produced three CDs of music and spoken word, offers weekly commentary on The Tavis Smiley Show, and is the author of several books, including Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and Hope on a Tightrope.
Terrence McNally: How did the newest book, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, happen?
Cornel West: Tavis Smiley said, "Brother West, I would love to see you put on paper who you really are." I said, "As Augustine wrote, 'I am a mystery to myself.' I haven't examined the dark precincts of my own personality."
I wanted to make sure that this was a conversational voice, and I worked with my dear brother David Rich, who's such a towering artist when it comes to story and narrative, capturing voice. Because I aspire to be a blues man in the life of the mind and a jazz man in the world of ideas, I wanted somebody who had a sensibility to capture the voice of a blues man. It's a talking book in that sense.
Beginning with mom and dad, to Sacramento Shiloh Baptist Church, the neighborhood, sports, girlfriends and things, I wanted to really lay bare the making of this particular instance of a tradition. I am a person with my own individuality, and I try to forge my own voice and style, but I'm very much a part of a tradition. I'm not a self-made man, that American myth that goes back to Ben Franklin. There are even elements of it in Frederick Douglas. I am the opposite of that, I am in no way self-made, I come out of a tradition, a community of struggle, a heritage that exemplifies struggle for justice and freedom. I'm very blessed to be a part of that family and that traditional community.
McNally: What role did your cancer diagnosis play in it?
West: That's a good question, brother. I think that in some way my struggling with cancer was an intensifying of my dance with mortality. And death has a way of arresting the mind, as Samuel Johnson put it. So there's no doubt, you're absolutely right, the near death experience of cancer made me think about the life that I had lived. And I should say that telling one's life story is itself a life-transforming experience.
McNally: How so?
West: You begin to really slow down. I'm on the move all the time, you know, over 200 events every year for 25, 30 years. You have to just stop, engage in serious retrospection. In terms not just of events passing, but the deeper meaning and significance as it affected your heart, mind, soul and loved ones.
McNally: You've written many books, you write a lot. You're telling me this one was qualitatively different.
West: If I write History of American Pragmatism, from Emerson and Richard Rorty with Kline and Peirce and James and Dewey and others, I can write that in the library engaging with the text. Whereas this book is just me and the realities and the page. That's it.
McNally: And the choices then become, 'What do I mention, how deep do I go?'
West: How far do I pursue certain kinds of issues? When it gets painful, it really hurts. When it's joyful you want to stay there for a long time, but you've got to shift. So you're absolutely right, it's a very different kind of process.
I'd always vowed that I would hold off on doing something like this. Maybe just due to my Christian formation that a preoccupation with self for too long leads toward a kind of narcissism and an egocentrism that I abhor. So I had to walk this balance between telling a story about myself that revealed the degree to which I am tied, intertwined, entangled with mom, dad, sisters, brothers, friends, comrades and so on. But on the other hand I did have to focus just on me.
McNally: Luckily your original cancer diagnosis was much more threatening than it turned out.
West: Absolutely. When I found out about the prostate cancer, they said I had the most aggressive form, I was in the last stage, and I'd have a few months to live. I said to myself, Oh wow, I'd better slow down. I've been invited to the bank of life for 48 years, I've had an abundance of blessings, and I can't get greedy about this. If it's time to go, it's time to go. I accept my fate. If that's God's will, that's cool. I've already lived such an unbelievable life that death cannot in any way rob me of the joys I've already experienced and the love I've already had.
On the other hand, I said I've got to gear up and fight, 'cause I do love life now. I love to live, I'm blessed to live.
Thank God, brother Peter Scardino, one of the finest of doctors in the country dealing with prostate cancer, went in, radical surgery. Six hours later I'm bouncing back and here I am still going. We've all got a death sentence in time and space, sooner or later you've got to go, but not at the moment.
McNally: "Born astride the grave," right?
West: Yes, that's Samuel Beckett, that's my dear Beckett.
McNally: You say this book really began in a church in Sacramento. Tell us a little about that.
West: First I give people a sense of my travels, 'cause I'm on the move all the time. I don't think I've spent one weekend in Princeton ever in my life.