The American academic and firebrand campaigner talks about Britain’s deep trouble, fighting white supremacy and where Obama is going wrong
Cornel West, the firebrand of American academia for almost 30 years, is causing his hosts some problems. They are on a schedule but such things barely move him, for as he saunters down the high street there are people to talk to, and no one can leave shortchanged. Everyone, “brother” or “sister”, is indeed treated like a long lost family member. And then there is the hug; a bear-like pincer movement. There’s no escape. It happens in New York, where the professor/philosopher usually holds court. And now it’s the same in Cambridge.
The best students accord their visitors a healthy respect, but West’s week laying bare the conflicts and fissures of race and culture and activism and literature in the US and Britain yielded more than that during his short residency at King’s College. There are academics who draw a crowd, but the West phenomenon at King’s had rock star quality: the buzz, the poster beaming his image from doors and noticeboards; the back story – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, his seminal work Race Matters, his falling-in and falling-out with Barack Obama.
Others can teach, and at Cambridge the teaching is some of the best in the world, but standing-room-only crowds came to see West perform. He performed. Approaching 60 now, he is slow of gait. But he always performs.
“Britain is in trouble,” he tells me. “Britain is in deep trouble. The privatising is out of the control, the militarising is out of control and the financialising is out of control. And what I mean from that is you have a cold-hearted, mean-spirited budget that the Queen just read; you have working and poor people under panic, you have this obsession with immigration that tends to scapegoat the most vulnerable rather than confront the most powerful. And it is not just black immigrants, but also our brothers and sisters from Poland and Bulgaria, Romania; right across the board.” He isn’t ranting. He doesn’t rant. He smiles, he growls gently, he leans in and whispers conspiratorily. There is an upside, he says. “Britain has a rich history of bouncing back too.”
They looked after him at King’s, he says. Incongruous in his trademark black three–piece suit, with fob watch and old-time, grey–flecked, fly-away afro, he berthed in the understated splendour of the Rylands room in the Old Lodge. Named after Dadie Rylands, the literary scholar and theatre director educated at King’s and a fellow until his death in 1999, it was where Virginia Woolf lunched with Rylands and John Maynard Keynes. West likes such evocations. “I feel her spirit,” he says, leaning back on a chair.
But then he is accustomed to the star treatment. A graduate of Harvard University in 1973, he received his PhD at Princeton; returning to both as professor of religion and director of the programme in African-American studies at Princeton and later professor of African-American studies at Harvard. He departed Harvard in 2002 after a bitter dispute with the then president of the university, Lawrence Summers, Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, who was later picked by President Obama to head the US National Economic Council. Some claim Summers’s clash with West formed part of the spiral that led to his own departure from Harvard. West says Summers had an agenda to cut African American studies, and him, down to size. He “tangled with the wrong Negro”, the professor said later. He returned to Princeton, from which he has recently retired. Now his centre of academic operations is the Union Theologiocal Seminary in New York, where he began his teaching career.
But he is multi-platform, which, critics contend, added something to the fall-out with Summers at Harvard. He is the author of 19 books and editor of another 13. A regular TV pundit. Co-star of the popular public radio show Smiley and West. Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. He even played the wise Councillor West in The Matrix Reloaded. While the right throws the socialist tag at Obama like a poisoned dart, West wears it as a badge of honour. A “non-Marxist socialist” eschewing Marxism in favour of Christianity. A complex package. Hence the enthusiasm at Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities to invite him over and peel the layers.
Last week West appeared three times in conversation: on race and politics, with academic Paul Gilroy – their double header had to be moved to a larger venue and ended with a standing ovation; on philosophy and the public sphere, with philosopher MM McCabe; and with Ben Okri on literature and the nation. The fact is that he’ll talk indefinitely and on anything. In between Cambridge appearances, he headed to Sheffield University to unveil a memorial to a previous visitor there, “my brother Malcolm X”. Also to London to an event hosted by former race chief Trevor Phillips.
For his radio show in the US, he also travelled to the Ecuadorian embassy for an encounter with Julian Assange. Exhilarating, by his account. “Boy, that was a rich one,” he says. “Oh my God, we went on for an hour and a half: about the militarising of the internet and the use of US imperial power. They’re trying to squelch any whistleblower who wants to reveal the secrets of the dirty wars of the US empires and other governments. We talked primarily about courage. He is a very smart man and very courageous too.”
They found points of contact. “He talked about Martin Luther King’s courage and how he has been inspired by Martin Luther King. We talked about the 3 June case with brother Bradley Manning and the witnesses the US government has lined up. I wanted people to hear his voice and to revel in his humanity; revel in his wrestling with his situation and to see what his vision is.”
He found some optimism, he says. “He has this situation with the sisters in Sweden and that’s got to be resolved, and I think that’s in the process of being resolved. We have to be concerned about someone accused of violating anybody, but I think for the most part that is going to be resolved, and that was probably an attempt of the powers that be. One woman has already said she is pulling back and the other one admits it was consensual, so it is not as ugly as it was projected in the press. But once that is over he has got the big one coming. He has got a behemoth coming at him; the US empire and its