A few days after I first spoke with Cornel West, one of the preëminent public philosophers in America for three decades now, he gave a short, impromptu interview to the gossip-and-celebrity-news outlet TMZ. West was in Los Angeles, at the Sunset Plaza mall, and a TMZ reporter, recognizing him, asked for his thoughts on a comment made by Kanye West, who had recently insisted that Black History Month should be forever changed to “Black Future Month.” Kanye’s notion was that we’ ve talked enough about slavery and the sundry other horrors of the past. “Ohhh, Kanye’s wrong,” West—Cornel, that is—told TMZ. “Every performance is the authorizing of a future, in the midst of the present, trying to recover the best of the past,” he said, rattling off the tripartite thought quickly and with high animation, as if he’d practiced it many times before, waiting for just this moment. “You get that in Kanye’s music, but you don ‘t get it in his rhetoric. There’s a sense in which his artistry is much more profound than his rhetoric.” The second time he said “rhetoric,” West forced his voice into a half-melodic and fully ironic sigh that he sometimes uses to punctuate a funny phrase. In answer to Kanye, and to others who might harbor the fantasy of a purely futuristic Blackness, West said that “as long as white supremacy’s around, you’re going to have the need to stress Black love, Black dignity, Black history—those things that are being excluded and rendered silent!”
The quick tabloid-media encounter served as a neat encapsulation of what makes West’s career and comportment unique. He is a product, and a longtime inhabitant, of the academy, having taught in tenured positions at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Union Seminary. But he has made it a point of pride to apply his analysis to popular culture and, on occasion, to do so in popular forums. After writing academic manifestos such as “Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity” (1982), he achieved a new degree of fame with “Race Matters,” from 1993, a collection of self-consciously populist essays addressing such hot-button topics as the Rodney King riots, affirmative action, and Black-Jewish relations. More recently, he joined the online adult-education behemoth MasterClass to teach a course on philosophy. In both 2016 and 2020, he served as a tireless surrogate for Bernie Sanders’s 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 started his teaching career, in 1977. Last year, West got into a dispute with Harvard, where he had been a tenured professor more than a decade earlier, about receiving tenure again; he ultimately resigned, and used the occasion to comment on the “decline and decay” and “spiritual bankruptcy” in élite academia. The pointed note, addressed to his Harvard dean, opened in a cordial way: “I hope and pray you and your family are well! This summer is a scorcher!” It was characteristic of West, who often begins conversations that way, allowing them to radiate outward from the personal and the near at hand. He started our chat by asking after my family, and then about a book I’m writing, about R. & B. music—which I’d mentioned, over e-mail, in a brazen bit of brownnosing, since West, in his rollicking lectures, uses music (John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Curtis Mayfield, and on and on) as a symbol and a model for his ruminations on religion, politics, and race. The rest of our conversation seemed to proceed under the awning of that warm familiarity, as we discussed the crisis in secular confidence, the meaning of public philosophy, the seeming convergence of radical and reactionary attitudes toward American interventionism, and man y other things. We spoke twice: once, at length, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and once, briefly, afterward. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cornel West: How’re your loved ones, man?
Everybody’s good, thank God. It’s just trying to keep track of everybody, you know?
No, I hear you. Brother, you’re writing a book on rhythm and blues, man?
Well, it’s still coming together. I’m finishing up a novel first. I’m just, right now, deep in research, and thinking about—I mean, a lot of the things that you talk about: how R. & B . is love music, that it’s about bringing together communities.
Absolutely, man. Oh, that’s beautiful. And what is your novel about?
Well, as a young man, I worked on the Obama campaign—I actually met you while I was doing that.
Is that right? Which city, which town?
In New York. I was on the fund-raising team, and you did an event for Obama at the Apollo.
Oh, I remember that.
I was backstage, and you greeted me very warmly. Of course, I was the youngest and meekest person around. But I’ve never forgotten that. The book is about a young man working on a Presidential campaign and thinking about his religion and his changing ideas about politics and the country—things like that.
And where were you born and raised and reared, my brother?
I was born in New York City. My parents met at a Baptist church. My dad was a musician. My mom was a singer in the choir, and he was a choir director and organ player.
Wow. Which church was it?
White Rock Baptist Church, on a Hundred and Twenty-seventh.
Oh, that’s Ashford and Simpson.
Ashford and Simpson, that’s right. A lot of my mom’s friends knew them very well.
Lord. You got so much nobility coming out of White Rock, man.
All the time, when I was a kid, somebody would show up on the 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 of the works on Nickolas and Val. And, when we finally met, we did a special thing at—I think it was the Schomburg or the Apollo, I can’ t remember. Both of them were working with Maya Angelou.
Working with her on what?
A big album together. And when I did an interview with Maya Angelou, she brought ’em there. And so I finally got a chance to meet ’em. We all went out, we went to a club, we danced. Matter of fact , I asked Nick, I said, “Man, I just want to be very respectful of things, but you think it’s all right to dance with Val? I know she’s a free woman and everything, but just want to let you know. It’s just a dance, man. She’s so beautiful.” “Oh, man. Go on out there and do your thing, brother. Go and do your thing.” Me and Val got out there, and, brother, it was a Baryshnikov kind of thing, you know?
She danced you off the floor?
We both danced, man. “I didn’t know you danced like that. You brought things out in Val.” I said, “Man, I was trying to just hang with it. Because Val got so much style, it just oozes out every second.”
It’s funny—during the Bernie campaign, there were several videos of you really getting it in on the dance floor.
Is that right? See, you got me—I didn’t even remember. I remember I was dancing with Sister Nina one time.
I think that might have been it.
Yeah. I remember. That’s true.
This is your second stint at Union. Does it feel different being in a specifically religious environment, as opposed to Harvard, a secular space? Does that change the way you approach not only your teaching but your public presentation?
In many ways, no doubt, because a sense of vocation is a given at Union—people have a deep sense of calling. Everybody’s not Christian: we got Buddhists, we got Jews, we’ve got Hindus, and so forth. But they do have a deep sense of vocation, whereas at Harvard you got a site of formation of professional managers. And so they’re tied to profession, but not as much the vocation—they’re tied to career, not as much to calling. But my sense of vocation and my sense of calling is the same no matter where and what I’m doing. It could be at Harvard, Union, White House, crack house, our mama’s house. You know what I mean?
But at Union, because it’s taken for granted, I’m able to be much more forthright. Because, when you’re in a liberal educational space, it’s good to let folk know where you’re coming from, but you don’t really have the kind of thick, prophetic Christian or revolutionary Christian orientation all the time. You’re one voice among a whole host of other voices in that secular space. And that makes a difference.
Do seminary students, in your observation, these days, feel cowed, or more embattled? They’re entering a world that might be less receptive to the fruits of their training.
I started teaching at Union in 1977. At that time, the secular was much more elevated, and was much more prominent. The secular has taken tremendous wounds and bruises in the last thirty years, because commodification is almost taking it over—and so, when you think of the secular, you don’t think right away of scientific authority, scientific breakthroughs. When you think of the secular these days, you think of careerism, opportunism, hedonism, egoism, individualism—and the ways in which science seems to be driven by corporate greed, seems to be moving toward the explosion of the planet or the collapse of the environment. So that the secular has a very different resonance now than it did in ’77. It’s almost as if everybody recognizes the spiritual decay and the moral decrepitude of the culture. And then the question becomes, Well, what blame do we give to religious institutions for accommodating to the empire, accommodating to capitalism, accommodating to white supremacy, homophobia, t ransphobia, accommodating to anti-Jewish, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, or anti-Palestinian orientation?