Cornel West is a professor of religion and black studies at Princeton University and the author of numerous books on race relations.
Mr. West, born in 1953 in Tulsa, Okla., was reared in Sacramento, Calif., and once described his Christian viewpoint as “idiosyncratic and iconoclastic.” When the iconic Bill Cosby drew criticism in 2004 for saying blacks should take more responsibility for themselves, their children and their communities, Mr. West defended Mr. Cosby, saying the entertainer was trying to “get folks on the right track.”
Mr. West has just published his memoir, “Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.” In it he writes, “I’ve never taken the time to focus on the inner dynamics of the dark precincts of my soul. Like St. Augustine once said, I’m a mystery to myself.”
Q: What do you mean by this, professor West?
A: I’ve been on the run for 30 some years. I’ve never really stopped and viewed myself as an object of examination and investigation and put it on the page. Writing about your life is a transforming experience. The struggle with cancer was in some ways a catalyst to lay bare my story so that it might provide an insight and some instruction, and, most importantly, inspiration to somebody else.
Q: You were born in Tulsa, Okla., and grew up in Sacramento, Calif., where your father was a general contractor for the Defense Department and your mother was a schoolteacher.
A: The West family, Cliff and Irene, were the source of indescribable love. The book is very much about the power of love. It’s about the church, Shiloh Baptist Church, the source of so much love. It’s about my teachers. It’s about my friends. It’s about my family, my son and daughter and wives. But it is also about the power of learning, the power of education. Those two are intertwined: the power of love and the power of education.
Q: In your memoir, you talk about your uncle, who was lynched when you were 7 or 8 years old.
A: Hanging from a tree wrapped in the U.S. flag. That’s why I was kicked out of school. I refused to pledge allegiance to the flag because of that memory in my mind.
Q: People think you are a preacher, but it was your grandfather C. L. West who was a preacher.
A: He was a great preacher - Metropolitan Baptist Church in northeast Tulsa, Oklahoma - for 42 years. There was nobody like him.
Q: Your theology, is it rooted in the black church experience?
A: Rooted in the prophetic, Christian tradition of which the best of the black church is an example. It goes back to the first chapter of Isaiah that talks about the orphans, the widows and the oppressed, and the fifth chapter of Amos that talks about justice, and the 25th chapter of Matthew that talks about the least of these: the poor, working people, those who have been left out.
Q: This year is the 40th anniversary of James Cone’s “Black Theology and Black Power.” What kind of impact did this book have on you?
A: It had a tremendous impact - linking the gospel with the struggle for freedom in the context of black history. It’s essential to me. It opened up a whole new world. I read it when I was 15. I was a young brother in those days.