Television

Dr. Cornel West's Extraordinary Conversation With Craig Ferguson

Dr. Cornel West talks with Craig Ferguson about Black History Month on last night's episode of The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson.

Dr. Cornel West talks with Craig Ferguson about Black History Month on last night's episode of The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. Sonja Flemming/CBS hide caption

itoggle caption Sonja Flemming/CBS

Last night on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, Dr. Cornel West, a professor at Princeton and the author of several books (he appeared on Talk Of The Nation here a couple of weeks ago with Tavis Smiley) sat down with Ferguson to mark the beginning of Black History Month. Their discussion took up the lion's share of the show, which then closed with a performance by George Clinton.

The full show isn't available legally online yet (CBS tends to delay a bit), but here's a five-minute clip.

It was a genuinely extraordinary and often very funny conversation about race, kids, sex, history — everything from whether it made sense to sanitize the language of Huck Finn (West called it a futile attempt to "deodorize the funk of the text" and proposed instead good teaching to place it in some historical context) to whether Elvis Presley was a rip-off artist. They talked about the blues (with West including Tennessee Williams, Stephen Sondheim, and Lil Wayne in his list of bluesmen), they talked about slavery, and they talked about the importance of possessing the ability to choose to change your mind.

One of the things that makes Ferguson such a compelling and effective host for discussions with really smart people (he won a Peabody Award for his discussion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and he spent a spellbinding hour with Stephen Fry last year) is that he's one of the few talk-show hosts who can behave with humility and be convincing. It's partly the willingness to both laugh at and express embarrassment about his own past (he notes in this clip that he was "a blackout drunk for 15 years"), but it's also the fact that he seems to like this job, and doesn't seem to be trying eternally to get a different job.

So he uses here the fact that he only became a U.S. citizen a few years ago to say to West that he doesn't know very much about Black History Month — or, really, about U.S. history — and he's curious about it.

And he acts curious. He doesn't do the half-turn where the host sort of faces the guest but really is playing unendingly to the audience. He watches, his brow wrinkles; he is listening. It is a conversation between two extremely smart men who have very different backgrounds who are genuinely, intelligently listening to each other.

West, meanwhile, bubbles over with historical tidbits so fast that it's hard to keep up (pointing out, for instance, that we had more Black U.S. senators during the Reconstruction than we have now), offers quotable and provocative ideas again and again, and repeatedly tries to bring this discussion, which is partly about race, back to — as he keeps saying — humanity.

That's right. Late-night television brings you what is truly and sincerely intended as a discussion of your humanity.

What made the show so unusual doesn't rely on whether you agreed with everything either of them said, or whether this or that comment had any element of awkwardness, or anything of that nature. It was the calm good humor and ... really, the gentleness of this exchange. It is a qualitatively different use of this form. It is an effort to use, of all things, the late-night talk show as a home for the kind of conversations that too rarely happen in public and are almost never broadcast on commercial television.

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