Dr. Cornel West is a prominent and provocative public intellectual dedicated to democracy. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his master’s and doctorate degrees in philosophy at Princeton. Since then, he has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. He has written 19 books and edited 13 other. He is best known for his classic Race Matters as well as Democracy Matters and his recent memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Since last fall, he can be heard regularly on “The Smiley and West” radio program.

West has also appeared in over 25 documentaries and recorded three spoken word albums. In short, Cornel West has a passion to communicate in order to keep alive the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – a legacy of telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice.

Here, he discusses his participation in “America’s Next Chapter,” a forum hosted by Tavis Smiley, where a panel of luminaries will wrestle with the question, “How do we make America as good as its promise?” The event took place on Thursday, Jan. 13 at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, and will air live on C-SPAN from 6-9 p.m. EST and will be re-broadcast on PBS on the “Tavis Smiley Show” on Jan. 18, 19 and 20.

Kam Williams: I have so many questions for you from my readers that I want to get right to them. FSU Grad Laz Lyles says: I love that “America’s Next Chapter” is a multi-ethnic forum. Why aren’t there more forums of this type?
Cornel West: I think it has to do with the vision of my dear brother, Tavis Smiley. There ought to be more forums like this which are concerned with informing folks about some of the painful realities of our country. It would be wonderful for them to be multi-cultural and multi-racial but, most importantly, they have to be willing to speak to those truths.

KW: Laz’s follow-up is: Given our cultural history, is there more of an onus on African Americans to be more inclusive with social and national discourse?
CW: I think that’s certainly the case, because there’s no doubt that many of the mainstream white institutions tend to be cosmetic and symbolic when it comes to including African Americans, whereas we Black folk tend to be much more sensitive about embracing others, and we have a long history of that.

KW: Sister Patrice Muhammad says: After the State of the Black Union, some people said it was just a bunch of talk. Then “The Covenant with Black America” was published. Where does “The Covenant” stand today?
CW: I don’t think talk is just talk. I firmly believe that talk can change people’s lives. Each life is precious…As for The Covenant, we had volume two, The Covenant in Action, which built on volume one in conjunction with local activists all across the country. And volume three, Accountability, was a call to keep track of all the promises that President Obama made. So, I think that what was originated by The Covenant is still ongoing. But unfortunately, when you look at the Obama administration, it hasn’t done that good a job at all in terms of poor and working people. It has been much more beholden to Wall Street oligarchs, and to pharmaceutical and private insurance companies.

KW: Teri Emerson asks: At the point where President Obama is now, what would be your view on what he would need to do improve his chances for reelection?  And would focusing more on the African-American community’s problems help or hinder his reelection?
CW: Reelection ought not to be the primary preoccupation of any politician. It ought to be standing up for truth and justice. If he is to be a statesman, he would act like Lincoln, and stand up for something that might be unpopular but not allow the right-wing to dictate the agenda, meaning Fox News, the tea party and others.

KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks: What does “America’s Return to Greatness” mean? Can American greatness permeate the class structure and have a multi-ethnic approach?
CW: So much hangs on your definition of “greatness.” I’m a Christian. I believe that greatness has to do with the quality of love shown to the least of thy brethren and the quality of service to those who are catching hell. When you look at it in that sense, I’d say America has had great moments, but I wouldn’t call it a great nation. I don’t think there have been any great nations in the history of the world, because in every nation you find poor people being subjugated. So, I see the term “great nation” as a contradiction, as an oxymoron.


Kam Williams

Special to the AFRO