[What follows is drawn from an article I wrote for the Washington Post in 1993.]
Cornel West was raised in a segregated, working-class neighborhood of Sacramento, Calif., the son of a schoolteacher and a civil servant. “All-black world,” he recalls. “Black music, black love, black care, black joy. It was a wonderful world, actually. Indescribable world.”
His grandfather had been a Baptist minister for 40 years in Oklahoma, so the black church was “fundamental” to his growing up. “I loved to go to church, man.” West’s brown eyes brighten as his syntax relaxes.
“One, you had the best music in the world. Sly Stone used to play the organ for us,” he says, “so we had some serious music, man. He didn’t stay a long time, he went to San Francisco right away. But he used to be there.”
And there was Sunday school, where “we’d have serious discussions.... Why is there so much suffering in the world? How come black people catchin’ so much hell?”
It just so happened that the Sacramento branch of the Black Panther Party was headquartered next to his church. So Cornel and his older brother, Clifton, on Saturdays after usher practice and also on Sundays, would engage the Panthers in debate on the street.
“They were the ones who started raising [the issue of] the distribution of wealth when I was 13,” West says. “I’ve been asking the same question ever since. See, I learned it from Huey, and Bobby.”
West admired the Panthers greatly. “Any time you get young black people who are willing to die for a freedom struggle, you’ve got something serious.” But he never felt he could join them because “they had such a hostility toward religion,” he says.
“They used to have the ‘handkerchief-head nigger of the week,’ and it was always a preacher.
“I could resonate with that because I knew a lot of preachers were, in fact, not doing the right thing – not treating people right, taking money and so forth. But I knew there was a whole host of preachers who were loving the people, struggling with the people.
“So we used to fight over this,” he says. The Panthers “were gettin’ with what Marx said about religion. I said, ‘Marx can kiss my black behind! I know the Lord.’ You know?” West flashes a huge, gap-toothed smile.
“It was ironic. One thing I liked about the Panthers was, they appreciated black music. Which is something that I think the Nation of Islam is deeply in need of. You can’t have no movement among black people without a hymnal or some music, see. And the Panthers liked music.
“And I would tell ’em, ‘Look, you’re sitting up here listening to Aretha, and it ain’t no ’Retha without the church! She’s the Queen of Soul because she’s rooted in a tradition where folk learn how to moan and groan and sing at levels of artistic craftsmanship that’s damn near unprecedented in the modern world!’
“And they would say, ‘Well, that’s an interesting way of putting it, Brother West.’ I’d say, ‘Put the record back on, shoooot...’ ” He laughs, bringing a pencil-thin cigar to his lips.
The peculiar synthesis of church kid and revolutionary persisted within West – a “creative tension,” he likes to say – throughout his undergraduate years at Harvard, which he attended on a partial academic scholarship.
While studying philosophy, literature and Near Eastern languages (so as to examine the origins of Christianity), he helped run the Black Panthers’ local prison outreach and breakfast programs.
Today, West remains an activist as well as a thinker. “I spend most of my time with multiracial progressive groups,” he says, such as those affiliated with the Long Island, N.Y.-based Industrial Areas Foundation, founded in 1940 by Saul Alinsky.
Cornel West also lives two months out of each year in Africa. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, specifically. His wife, Elleni Gebre Amlak, whom he met while teaching at Yale, happens to come from a prominent Ethiopian family.
West says 2,500 people attended their wedding in Addis Ababa. For the Coptic ceremony, West was given an honorary Amharic name: Ficre Selassie, “Spirit of Love.”
“The link between people of African descent here and Ethiopians in my case, but Africans in general, is very important to me,” he says. “For me, it is very different than the imaginary notions of Africa that you often get among Afrocentric folks. Because many – not all, but many – have much more romantic, idealized conceptions of Africa.
“Whereas when I go back home – my second home in Addis Ababa – you’re dealing with just actual human beings. Who do have a rich culture, who do have a grand civilization, but also are involved in tremendous struggles. Against tyrants, against corrupt leadership, against soil erosion, against the [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank and a whole host of other forces that impinge upon the life chances of African brothers and sisters on the continent.”
What Prof. West has seen in Ethiopia seems to confirm his analysis of race in America. There, “you have a people never been colonized by Europeans,” he says. “Which means they’ve never had white-supremacist tricks played on their minds. Which means that they’ve never doubted their humanity.
“Which means they’re tremendously self-confident. They just assume that they’re not just human but they’re great, they’re capable of anything.
“For we Africans who have had white-supremacist tricks played on our minds, we got to deal with self-love and self-respect and self-affirmation,” West says softly. “Those are fundamental issues in our lives. Because it’s hard to love oneself in a white-supremacist society. It’s hard to trust one another. But they don’t have those kinds of battles.
“So when I go back home to Addis Ababa, I think, ‘Dang, this is the way black people could conceive of themselves if Europeans had left us alone.’ ”