Emory Report
November 9, 2009
Volume 62, Number 10

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Cornel West's campus visit.

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November 9, 2009
Questions for…Cornel West
Cultural icon on faith, race and roots in the age of Obama

By Tania Dowdy

To kick off Unity Month, Cornel West tackled challenging issues that surround the progress of race in America as the keynote speaker for the 10th Annual “State of Race” forum Oct. 28. West is Class of 1943 Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, an outspoken public intellectual and a best-selling author.

Before the event, West, who has just released his memoir, “Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud,” sat down with Emory Report to discuss faith, race and roots in the age of Obama.

Emory Report: What responsibility does the university have in fueling the conversation on race? And how is a forum like “State of Race” instrumental in conversations on race?

Cornel West: I think anytime you talk about a complex phenomenon — a social phenomenon, a historical phenomenon, an economic phenomenon — the university has an obligation to pursue truth and knowledge. Self-critically, in a spirit of intellect humility, but also in a sense of really trying to get at what do we mean when we use these terms? What are the lived experiences of persons who have had to come to terms with the effects of constructs like race?

I’m just so glad that a place like Emory, a very special institution of higher learning, has this kind of lecture series, to wrestle and grapple with these kinds of issues.

ER: How is this generation’s conversation on race different from conversations had 10, 20 or 40 years ago?

West: The age of Obama is very different than the age of Ronald Reagan. Our understanding of race is undergoing some real transformations with Brother Barack in the White House and Sister Michelle, and those two precious children in the White House. It’s unclear exactly what it’s going to be, the age of Obama is so relatively new. We have to proceed very [cautiously] because racism is still a major issue, even with a black man in the White House. At the same time, the unprecedented progress that Barack Obama in the White House signifies cannot be denied.

ER: How has President Obama’s election changed the conversation on race?

West: It has [changed] at the symbolic level. When you’ve got white folks voting for a black man and a black man winning that does change your sense of how you perceive yourself. That doesn’t mean it eliminates racism, it doesn’t erase white supremacy, but it does have an effect at the psychic level. So, we shouldn’t confuse the level of policy on the ground, with…how people are looking at things.

Same would be true among young people, especially black young people. The idea of having a black man on TV everyday—brilliant, charismatic, connected to public service, connected to the common good in the White House—that is just a mind-blowing thing. Myself, growing up, when I was in my teens, I could never imagine a black man [in the White House], but that’s at the perceptual level. But, then when I come back on the ground…I look at dilapidated housing, disgraceful school systems, I look at some of the perceptions of everyday citizens toward me, [and] I say ‘well, it hasn’t changed as much as I thought.’

ER: How does examining your own roots and your family enhance your knowledge on race relations and the progression of race in America?

West: I can’t conceive myself without my mom and dad, without my family. I would have gone crazy without the church, the black church. I probably would have been a thorough gangster without the soothing effect of black music. Mom and dad…bring love, compassion, and so forth. My church is just a formative institution — it can be a mosque, a temple, a synagogue, a trade union, an educational center— but it’s something that shaped me. I just can’t breathe without music. And, I began with black music and it spilled over to Beethoven, and Stravinsky. So, where you come [from] and where you’re going are connected.

When you dig deep enough in your own particularity, you find universality.