Cornel West, 'Living And Loving Out Loud'

Philosopher, civil rights activist and professor Cornel West has described himself as a "bluesman in the life of the mind, and a jazzman in the world of ideas." He talks with Neal Conan about his memoir, Living And Loving Out Loud.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

For decades now, Cornel West has been a leading voice on politics, religion, race and culture. He's a teacher at Princeton and Harvard, in prisons and churches, an author whose books include bestsellers like �Race Matters,� and �Democracy Matters,� and a performer, maybe Councillor West in two �Matrix,� movies.

Today, we'll speak to him as Brother West about his new memoir called, �Living And Loving Out Loud,� where he describes himself as a blues man in the life of the mind, and a jazz man in the world of ideas. We'll talk to him about what that means and ask him about his family, his thinking, and his many passions.

If you would like to speak with Cornel West about the people and forces that shaped his life, the many controversies he has been involved in, or about the role he hopes to play as Fredrick Douglas to Barack Obama's Abraham Lincoln, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And joining us, now, from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta - our member station there.

Cornel West - he's a class of 1943 university professor in the Center for African-American studies at Princeton; and with David Rizt, he wrote, �Living And Loving Out Loud.� Nice to have you back on the show.

Professor CORNEL WEST (Author, Princeton University): It's always a blessing my dear brother.

CONAN: By writing a memoir, I wonder, are you, in a sense, holding up your life for examination and offering your story as a kind of model?

Prof. WEST: Well, I'd say, not so much a model, but maybe to provide an insight, here or there, to help somebody come to terms with the dark corners of their own soul, to come to terms with the undecided, their own sense of self, and maybe help develop a capacity to love - to love wisdom, love justice.

CONAN: You seem to have been, from a very early age, a very self-possessed person.

Prof. WEST: Well, I was blessed with tremendous passion, tremendous energy, tremendous enthusiasm. As you know, early on I had to find a right channel because I was a gangster when I was young. I had a Robin Hood mentality and tended to always want to support the weak against the strong, but sometimes it was cohesive and I really needed to fall in love with the power of education to find the right venue - the best venue - to express my rage. I still have a righteous indignation at injustice, no matter what form it takes. It could be homophobia, it could be white supremacy, male supremacy, imperial arrogance, class subordination or whatever.

So, the rage is still there but I found the right kind of channel, because it's tied to a love, it's tied to a struggle for justice. And most importantly, for me, it's tied to a recognition that I am a cracked vessel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The�

Prof. WEST: I'm a broken one.

CONAN: There are any numbers of tests that all of us as children go through. You described one - there's a bridge that you needed to cross, a rickety old bridge you needed to cross. I guess all the black kids in your town needed to cross to get on their way to school. And it was only wide enough for one car and if you're walking on the bridge when the car was there, you're in big trouble.

Prof. WEST: No, and it's very true, you know, in that chocolate side of town, in my blessed city of Sacramento, California - that was beginning of my death shudders, oh brother, that's why Kierkegaard and Kafka began to make sense to me when I was very, very young - that radical sense fragility of life and inevitability of death; those trucks coming, if the truck came at a same time I was on the bridge, I was in the creek -my body would be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. So that, early on, you had to have this sense of do I have the courage, am I brave enough to walk across that bridge everyday when I went to kindergarten.

CONAN: And one other things that drew you across the bridge was the fact that a really pretty girl lived on the other side.

Prof. WEST: Yeah, old Sister Delores(ph); I remember listening to the great Curtis Mayfield - gypsy woman from nowhere through a caravan around the campfire lights. I'll tell you, that song meant much to me, and Delores meant much - and of course, I never got a chance even talk to the sister. It was like �Just My Imagination� by Eddie Kendricks and The Temptations.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WEST: It was a projection. It was a fantasy - but fantasies are real. They have effects on your soul, even though, as I was too young to really step forward.

CONAN: There is so much of your life that you describe in terms of the music that you're listening to at the time, and the way it moved you, the way it propelled you. And yes, it's the Rock & Roll and the R & B of your youth, but it's also other kinds of music too.

Prof. WEST: Well, all kinds. I mean, shoot(ph), getting to Stephen Sondheim - I couldn't live without the genius of Stephen Sondheim, be it not just �West Side Story,� but �Follies,� �Company,� �Sweeney Todd,� �Passion.� You can go on and on.

CONAN: I assume you know that there is a revival of �A Little Night Music.� It's going to open in New York in a couple of weeks.

Prof. WEST: Yes, and �Send In The Clowns.� I can't wait with Desiree, �Send In The Clowns.� I know they won't sound like Sarah Vaughan when she sings it, but the song itself - it's such a majestic powerful and, of course, comedic in its own way. But, I mean, most importantly for me, you know, growing up, it was a spirituals, it was a gospels, it was James Cleveland, Aretha Franklin, Marion Williams; and then it was Curtis Mayfield - The Main Ingredient, The Whispers, Black Blue Magic(ph), James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross - that music helped me preserves my sanity, help me preserve whatever dignity I was able to preserve, helping to keep going. It was a source of tremendous strength in my life.

That's why, for me, music is in no way ornamental or decorative, it's constitutive of who I am. And that's why, when I say I'm a blues man, that's a very serious vocation - to muster the courage to find your own unique voice, to forge your distinctive style in the world, to leave your imprint in the sands of time in such a way that your singularity, your individuality, remains something that people have to come to terms with. That's B.B. King, that's Ma Rainey, that's Bessie Smith, that's Leroy Carr, that's Bruce Springsteen, that's Bob Dylan, that's Janet Joplin. And that's even Daryl Halls - my dear, dear brother's a blues man too.

CONAN: There are other aspects of being a blues man, though; among them, you got to keep moving.

Prof. WEST: Yeah, you got to keep moving. That's the difficulty, though, brother, because, you know, sooner or later you do get tired. You know, we're all vanishing organisms and disappearing creatures in space and time - that death sentence in space in time that Kafka talked about with such profundity. And so the question becomes, what you do in the meantime? And you go - if you're forever on the move, especially in the life of the mind; forever reading veraciously, writing, speaking, lecturing, trying to unsettle minds, trying to touch souls, trying to encourage and inspire, on the one hand, but also trying to unhouse(ph) and unnerve people, so that they have to reexamine themselves, society and the world on the others. There's tremendous joy in it.

I've been blessed, I think, to have tremendous joy in my life in pursuing my vocation, my calling. And yet, as you know from the story, there's an underside to that, too. You know, I had blackouts, fallen out, of course, the death threats, people showing up, putting guns to my wife's head with mask, and people having shot guns in the driveway, looking for me or announcing that I've already died before lectures and sending it through newspaper - sending it to newspaper columns they send my mother and so on. There's a real night side to my particular calling, which is try to bear witness to love and truth.

CONAN: We're talking with Cornel West. The latest book of his many, is called, �Living And Loving Out Loud.� He is with us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Emanuel(ph), Emanuel with us from Concord in California.

EMANUEL (Caller): Good morning. Dr. West, it's an honor and a pleasure to speak with you.

Dr. WEST: An honor to speak to you, too, my dear brother.

EMANUEL: Okay, thank you. I've heard you address the topic of rap and hip-hop on a number of occasions, and I was wondering if you acknowledge a distinction between the two art forms, rap and hip-hop.

Dr. WEST: Well, I appreciate it. No, rap is just a movement within the larger culture of hip-hop. KRS-1 and others, as you know, has theorized this in such a way that hip-hop embraces a variety of different activities. Rap is a movement in it. You've got graffiti, and a host of other movements, as well. But the important thing for me as an educator is how to - how do we unsettle the minds and touch the souls of significant numbers of young people who don't read texts or don't read my texts, and that's why I've made three CDs. It's spoken word, but I have a number of hip-hop artists. Talib Kweli is on there. KRS-1 is on there. M-1 is there. Rah Digga is there. Jill Scott is there, Prince, of course - collaborating with the musical genius of our time in some ways with Prince himself - late, great Gerald Levert.

All these are forms of singing education, what the Greeks call paideia, P-A-I-D-E-I-A, that deep education to get us to shift from superficial things to serious things, to shift from bling-bling to life and death to justice and pain and joy, those fundamental, elemental things that we must come to terms with as we make our moves from our mother's womb to the tomb. And I think hip-hop can be prophetic and progressive, and at the same time, the dominant forms tend to be homophobic, misogynistic and something that we need to critically call into question.

EMANUEL: That's why I actually called. I kind of beg to differ with you. All those positive aspects, those artists you name, I consider those hip-hop artists.

Dr. WEST: Oh, I see.

EMANUEL: And those (unintelligible) with the negativity with no poetry involved, no substance involved (unintelligible).

Dr. WEST: Oh, I see. So yeah, you've got your own definition, different than brother KRS-1 and the others because, I mean, I think that - you know, in a certain sense, we're concerned about the same issues. How do you accent the progressive, the prophetic, those things that are critical of all forms of injustice, all forms of bigotry, all forms of dehumanizing other people, and yet still allow for a certain kind of flow, linguistic flow, certain kinds of melodies and harmonies in the samplings that take place?

But I think KRS-1 in some ways has laid out the real framework because there's a number of hip-hop artists who are highly talented but politically retrograde.

CONAN: Hmm. Emanuel�

Dr. WEST: I mean, this has been true for art form. Look at Saleem's novel, you know, anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, and yet it had the lyricism at the same time. What are you going to do with Saleem's novel?

CONAN: �Birth of a Nation,� pretty good movie, unfortunately, but a pretty good movie.

Dr. WEST: Well technologically and so forth, it's a breakthrough, and yet, you know, it's very white supremacist to the core in terms of the narrative content. You're absolutely right.

CONAN: Emanuel, thanks very much for the call.

EMANUEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Dr. WEST: Thank you so much, man.

CONAN: Can you tell us, we just have a few seconds left before we have to go to a break, but what are you doing in Georgia?

Dr. WEST: Oh no, I'm down here, I was just on the �The Mo'Nique Show.� I had a chance to choose one artist. I chose George Clinton, and we just taped the show. I spoke at Emory last night. I've been on radio and TV. I'm speaking tonight at a church, so I'm in ATL on tour and loving it because I do love Atlanta, Georgia.

CONAN: We're talking with Cornel West. More in just a moment on music, philosophy and, well, what he's wearing today. His memoir is called �Loving Out Loud.� We're taking your questions at 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Type Cornel West into Google, IMDB or Amazon, you'll begin to get a sense of his range. He's a much lauded public intellectual, an actor in the �Matrix� movies, he's released a spoken-word and rap album, not to mention 20 books now.

We're talking about his latest. It's a memoir. If you'd like to read an excerpt, in which Cornel West discusses great blues artists from Marvin Gaye and B.B. King to Toni Morrison and Bruce Springsteen and his own journey as a blues man moving through America, you can go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. If you'd like to speak with Cornel West about the people, forces, blues men and women that shaped his love, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. And click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And as our listeners have figured out, Cornel West, this is radio, you're in Atlanta. I can't see you, but because I believe it's such a part of you, I know what you're wearing: a three-piece black suit, a white shirt, black tie. What does that outfit mean to you?

Dr. WEST: Well, you're absolutely right. And I was deeply influenced by the sartorial practices of both preachers and jazz musicians and actually Masha in Act One of Anton Chekhov, my favorite writer's master piece, �Three Sisters,� when she arrives reflecting on whether they're ever going to get to Moscow, memories of the death of their father, and she's in black, and she says I'm in mourning for the world, saying in part that I have a sad soul and a cheerful disposition. I can be up, but I know deep down, I'm still trying to come to terms with the suffering not only of myself, not only of my loved ones, but all of those around the world.

CONAN: There's a comment you quote in the book, somebody saying you also look like a funeral director.

Dr. WEST: Well, that's true in a certain sense because all of us are living on the edge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WEST: You know, death is always a constant possibility and probability and of course an inevitability, as well. But I was so glad to hear you playing John Coltrane, �The Love Supreme.�

CONAN: Oh, that wasn't me. That was Gwen(ph), our director, Gwen Outen. So give props where they're due.

Dr. WEST: Oh, is that who that was? Oh, that hit me so hard, my brother Neal. You know, the chapter I have on �Trane in the book?

CONAN: I do indeed.

Dr. WEST: He changed my life. How rare it is that he's a spiritual saint and an artistic genius at the same time, but he knows that a saint is nothing but a sinner who looks at the world through the lens of the heart and therefore has a hypersensitivity to the suffering others. And then as an artistic genius, he has a mastery of his craft, a mastery of technique, but he uses it in such an unpredictable way, a creative way. He takes risks. It's a rare combination. Dead at 40 years old. That's the same age as Franz Kafka, 40 years old.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the line. This is Chilandra(ph), Chilandra with us from Birmingham.

CHILANDRA (Caller): Hi, Dr. West. This is Chilandra Capers(ph).

Dr. WEST: How you doing there?

CHILANDRA: I attended your speech yesterday at Emory.

Dr. WEST: Oh yeah.

CHILANDRA: My question - yeah. My question is not so much about your memoir, which I read and loved, but from your book �Hope on a Tightrope.� You made a statement about women being the next wave of leadership. I just wanted you to kind of expound on that a little bit more, about what you meant and what did that look like to you, that new wave of leadership being led by women.

Dr. WEST: I just think that as the ugly forms of patriarchy begin to fade or be pushed back - there's still some subtle forms actually operating in a variety of different ways - but as the ugly forms of patriarchy are pushed back, I think the next wave, especially of high-quality leadership, will be disproportionately women. I think there's a real sense in which the kind of male-centered, ego-oriented, status-obsessed forms of leadership are simply just running out of gas, and people want something real. They want somebody who's got an honesty, a candor, someone who is willing to take a risk and step out and tell the truth, and I do believe that the decline of patriarchy provides that possibility. Now of course, the women can always choose the patriarchal models, and you end up with a Margaret Thatcher.

CONAN: Interesting. I wonder, Chilandra, you read the book, there's a passage in which Cornel West is talking about the breakup of a personal relationship and said he had to go his way to pursue his calling, which was teaching and dialoguing with dozens of people whose minds nurtured my own, and then you write the line, Cornell West: Women want and deserve inordinate attention. What do you mean by that?

Dr. WEST: You can't have a high-quality relationship without time and without trust. Now, I'm pretty good on the trust, but my time is always so tight because I'm on the move all the time. It is very difficult to sustain a high-quality relationship that has the kind of mutual intensity, that has a kind of mutual respect, without putting in time.

Now, of course, I could have said that the other way. The men also require inordinate attention in terms of a high-quality relationship because the standards apply to brothers as well as sisters, sisters as well as brothers of all colors, all cultures, all civilization.

But you have to have that time. And I think B.B. King and James Brown and Aretha and the others will tell you that it's hard to sustain high-quality relationships when you're a blues man or woman.

CONAN: Chilandra, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

CHILANDRA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Dr. WEST: Thank you so much, sister love.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Tom(ph), Tom calling us from San Lorenzo in California.

TOM (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: You're on the air, Tom, go ahead, please.

TOM: All right, my brother, I am so happy to hear you, I mean just hearing your voice. I think you are the articulation of my soul, man, just every word you speak. I mean, it's like I'm living it.

Dr. WEST: That's very kind, my dear brother Tom.

TOM: Yes, I love you, but listen, I'd like to ask you a question. I know you've been a vocal proponent for sexual minorities, mainly homosexuals, and that's fine, but I was wondering: How do you feel about people who are transgender? Do you offer the same level of support for them?

Dr. WEST: Oh absolutely, though, brother. I mean, I love my gay brothers. I love my lesbian sisters. I love my transvestite, my gender-bending folk. For me, it's a matter of embracing their humanity, allowing them to choose in such a way that they are in the driver's seat regarding their lives. And of course, there's always effects and consequences, tremendous challenges, especially in a homophobic society. But I don't draw any distinctions between forms of bigotry or forms of ideology that lose sight of the humanity of people. I can't stand white supremacy. I can't stand male supremacy. I can't stand imperial subjugation. I can't stand homophobia.

TOM: (unintelligible)That's exactly what I'm talking about. You are so honest.

Dr. WEST: I can't stand anti-Jewish hatred. I can't stand anti-Arab hatred.

TOM: I love that.

Dr. WEST: All of those to me have to be radically called into question. And if I'm the last brother who's saying that, then I'll be the last brother saying it because that's what I believe, you know?

TOM: And I'm right with you. I want to ask you one more question. How do you perceive the black community's perception of those topics, homosexuality and transgenderism? And I'm done. I'll listen to you off the air.

Dr. WEST: I appreciate the question.

CONAN: All right, Tom, thanks very much. Just put that in the context of Proposition 8, in which the black churches in California were perceived as playing a very important role in the defeat of Proposition 8 - the passage of Proposition 8, excuse me.

Dr. WEST: No, absolutely. I mean, it's too many - and it wasn't just black churches, too many black folk in general played a regressive role tied to the Mormon brothers and sisters who actually provided certain financial undergirding for that campaign against my gay brothers and lesbian sisters. But it's just a matter of being honest and candid and acknowledging homophobia cuts very deep in the culture across the board. I don't care what color the culture. I don't care what slice or part of the country.

Homophobia is very, very difficult to root out, to extricate. That's why we have to bear witness. That's why we have to be so public about it, and that's why we can't just play footsie with it. It's one part of my critic, even with the Obama administration in this regard. You have to explicitly call it out for what it is in the same way other forms of bigotry had to be called out in the history of this nation, the male supremacy and the white supremacy and so on. But it's difficult, and so in the black community, okay, we have discussions in the church. Well, the Bible says gay (unintelligible) lesbian. What did Jesus say? Not a mumbling word. Well, if it was so important, how come he didn't say anything? Well, Paul did, yeah, but Paul said slaves be obedient to your masters. We got around that one, a lot of hermeneutical tap dancing in order to get around that one.

Well, Paul said women be quiet in church. Well, I'm black Baptist in origin, right? So we got around that one quick in terms of the joyful noise we make in the name of the lord so that we have to be honest in terms of what do we mean by not just love thy neighbor, which is part of prophetic duty as of Leviticus 19:18, but even love thy enemy. And by enemy, we're not talking about persons but principalities, deeds that warrant hatred, and yet you hate the deed even as you love the doer.

So it looks like the doer is an enemy, but you still love the doer. That's what Martin King meant when he said he loves Bull O'Connor. He's not sadomasochistic. He's not loving the white supremacy in Bull. He's loving the fact that Bull O'Connor was made in the image of God, who chose to be a cowardly white supremist even as he was a Sunday school teacher and oftentimes would condone the death of precious black brothers and sisters. That's the kind of spirit that for me is necessary. I don't think Christians have a monopoly on it. I think it's necessary for democracy to flower and flourish.

And one of the reasons why democracy is in such crisis in the American empire is because we don't have enough courage in terms of cultivating that kind of spirit, of struggle, of courage, of empathy, of imagination. That's why the poets are so crucial.

That last line of Percy's, in �Defense of Poetry,� - poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And he wasn't just talking about versifiers, he was talking about all of those who have the courage to cultivate their empathy and their imagination and to provide alternatives to a cold and cruel world, to use the different bits of reality to create new realities. This is what Eudora Welty, one of the grand American Jacobean writers, would say. Same point. That's why I love the poets.

For me, musicians are poets. You know, Beethoven describes himself as a poet of tones, just like Coltrane's a poet of tempo.

CONAN: Here's an email from Melissa. I'm reading your memoir and take inspiration from your drive for education. I live in Ithaca and I feel there's a disconnect between the university colleges and the community. How do you suggest universities and colleges can reach out to their underserved communities?

Prof. WEST: Yeah, appreciate the question. Know what I mean? One of the points I try to make in the memoir is the ways in which, you know, I worked on the breakfast program with the Black Panther party, and I am a Jesus-loving free black man, so some of the secular sensibilities, even (unintelligible) of the Panther Party we had debates on. But I loved their love of the poor. They had a breakfast program. I worked with them three years. Same is true with the prison program.

We need more town-gown relations to consolidate and solidify so that the community feels as if they're part and parcel of the university, the university feels part and parcel of the community, but the university never loses sight of its distinctive function in the society, which is to courageously pursue true - small T - knowledge, small K, knowing that, of course, that quest for truth is perennial and endless. We never possess the truth - capital T - or possess knowledge - capital K. It's endless.

But still, the university can have that kind of mission and embrace the community, and the community, of course, can learn so much from the university and teach the university some things because community is not simply about truth and knowledge, it's about a lot of love and taking care of the kids and nurturing the young ones and so on.

CONAN: �Living And Loving Out Loud: A Memoir� is the latest of Cornell West's many books. He wrote it with David - excuse me, with David Ritz. And he's joining us today from Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

Let's Go to Kabba(ph). Kabba with us from Cleveland. I hope I'm pronouncing your name properly.

KABBA (Caller): Yes. I'm on the air?

CONAN: Yeah.

KABBA: Oh, okay. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

KABBA: Mr. West, I recently saw you with a picture next to Basheer Jones in Cleveland and I was pretty impressed. And I've always had a respect for you. My question is�

Prof. WEST: Yes, hi.

KABBA: When I look at black on black crime in black communities and I see the trend in the South - correction, in Congo, places like this, where blacks are murdering other blacks and problems are happening, do you ever - and also since we have our first black president, we do see some form of equality occurring in America. If there isn't a check on, I would say, the attitudes of some black people, do you think that it's possible to have black supremacy in America, just as their was white supremacy in America at one point in time? And if so, do you think it's a concern to address those sort of black-on-black crime issues or a threat of black supremacy?

Prof. WEST: Well, appreciate the question though (unintelligible) - no, I don't think we have to worry about institutionalized forms of black supremacy at all. I mean, even dear brother Barack Obama, as the first black president in the history of the United States, that he recognized it, of course, that his team is not just multiracial and multicultural. But other than him, you don't have too many black folk, Negroes, at the top anyway.

So that the real question is, how do we speak to the kind of black self-hatred and self-violation and black self-destruction? I'm concerned about white brothers and sisters killing other white brothers and sisters too. There's a lot of white self-hatred, white self-destruction, white self-violation as well.

A lot of it has to do with the generational neglect, we can say the neglect of generation after generation of generation of people in poor communities, in hoods, families shattered, communities feeble, guns available, bullets flying, drugs being sold, or bought and sold, people feeling as if there's no way out other than using the guns to violate others or even kill and murder others. We see it with the precious brother Albert in Chicago. And we need to make it a priority.

I really believe that the kind of violence in poor communities, it could be black, it can be white, it can be red, are issues of national security in the same way the war in Afghanistan is an issue of national security. But it's hard to make it a priority in our society. And that's the real challenge.

And that's why I don't think we have to worry about black supremacy at all, because black supremacy would be then a whole society organized around the notion that black people are better, more intelligent, more beautiful, more moral than white folk.

And we don't have any evidence of that kind of regime emerging. It's certainly not in the Obama administration or Barack Obama. His real challenge is whether he's going to be a great statesman like Lincoln or another politician like Bill Clinton. And so far he's leaning toward the latter. But we shall see. He has a chance to be great. We've got to just put a lot of pressure on our dear brother.

We've got to make sure he is protected, we have to make sure he is respected, but he also - we have to make sure he is corrected when he's not leaning toward the weak and supporting the poor and supporting working people, as opposed to being tied in to Wall Street investment bankers and the corporate oligarchs and plutocrats at the top who have been embezzling and sometimes just outright looting when it comes to just making money based on predatory lending, obsessed with profits that are so excessive in a nation in which 20 percent of his children live in poverty in the richest nations in the history of the world. What kind of society are we? What kind of people are we given that kind of wealth inequality and greed running amok?

CONAN: Kabba, thanks very much for the call. And we just have a minute left with you, Cornel West. But I did want to ask you, as you know, the president's in the middle of making a decision about policy in Afghanistan. If he called you in the same way that President Lincoln spoke with Frederick Douglass from time to time, what would you tell him?

Prof. WEST: I would tell him it would be very difficult to have a peace prize and be a war president. I would say that Afghanistan has been the graveyard and the cemetery of empires from Britain, Soviet Union, and now the American empire. Yes, maybe some NATO troops; yes, maybe some collective activity, but this notion of sending precious and priceless young people to Afghanistan in the thousands and thousands and thousands does not look promising. Think it over. I'm praying for you, President. I love you and your first family, but I'm first and foremost someone who tries to tell the truth, blues man in the life of the mind.

CONAN: The book is �Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir,� Cornel West with David Ritz. And Cornel West, we're going to ask you to stay with us for a couple of minutes, if you would, because coming up�

Prof. WEST: Absolutely.

CONAN: �singer/songwriter Carly Simon is with us. And what you may not know is that she and Cornel West have an interesting connection he wrote about in his book. We'll tell you about it in just a minute or two. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'Living And Loving Out Loud'

Cover of 'Living And Loving Out Loud' i i
Cover of 'Living And Loving Out Loud'

Plane's due to take off in a few minutes. Awfully tight here in the coach compartment of the big 747, but, as the O'Jays put it, "money can do funny things to some people," and my money's been funny for years, so coach will have to do. Coach is cool. It's a blessing to be on this plane at all. Blessing to be alive. Blessing to be on this journey of love.

I take my phone from my vest pocket and call my blessed mother in Sacramento.

"Off to see Zeytun," I tell Mama. Zeytun is my eight-year-old daughter who lives in Bonn, Germany.

"You give that beautiful child a kiss for me, son."

"You know I'm going to do that. Stay strong, Mama."

I look around the cabin and see that just about everyone is equipped with a laptop computer. Everyone except me. Haven't caught up with the high-tech world of the instant Internet. I have a bag full of books and a writing pad. A good pen is all I need.

It's enough to bring along volumes of the poets I love best — John Donne, John Keats, Walt Whitman — and the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, whose questioning approach to the deep notions of existence and knowledge help keep me halfway humble. It's enough to scratch out my ideas on the pad, enough to drift off to sleep and dream unremembered dreams that quiet my mind and relax my body.

A week in Bonn with my precious daughter Zeytun. I can't wait to see her and give her a hug. Midday walks along the Rhine and thoughts of Karl Marx, who attended the ancient university in this very city and whose attraction to Jesus as a teenager attracted me to him as a graduate student intrigued by the ethical dimensions of feeling and thought.

At the end of the week, it's back to Princeton. This is my sabbatical year, but I'm returning to my home university for a joyous occasion: "Ain't that a Groove": The Genius of James Brown Conference, the first such academic assembly to take the Godfather seriously, that funkafied genius whose "Get Up Offa That Thing" lifted me high during low days at Harvard. I give the keynote address. I acknowledge that JB is integral to the formation of my spirit and my soul. I say that, like all of us, James was a featherless two-legged linguistically conscious creature born between urine and feces. Like all of us, he was born out of the funk and, like the great Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy, he was still-born. JB was abandoned by both parents, saved by an aunt, raised in a brothel, and yet, through it all — or because of it all — the man managed to transform social misery into artistic delicacies of the highest order. His funk raised us and renewed us. His funk got us through.

I'm getting through.

I'm pushing on.

I'm a bluesman moving through a blues-soaked America, a blues-soaked world, a planet where catastrophe and celebration — Frankie Beverly and Maze call it "Joy and Pain" — sit side by side. The blues started off in some field, in some plantation, in some mind, in some imagination, in some heart. The blues blew over to the next plantation, and then the next state. The blues went south to north, got electrified and even sanctified. The blues got mixed up with jazz and gospel and rock and roll. The blues got on the radio, got in the movies and went all over the world. The blues had to grow.

Like the peerless Russian writer Anton Chekhov and the matchless Irish author Samuel Beckett, the bluesmen sing of real-life, here-and-now experiences of tragedy and comedy even as they offer up help. They offer up strategies for survival. They share their coping skills. They get us to dancing and laughing, rapping and exposing the hypocrisy of a soulless and sanitized civilization.

Bluesmen aren't sanitized. Bluesmen aren't deodorized. Bluesmen are funky. Bluesmen got soul. The great blues artists — Toni Morrison, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Sterling Brown, Koko Taylor, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Lil' Wayne, Alvin Ailey, Curtis Mayfield, Giacomo Leopardi, Sarah Vaughan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, Muriel Rukeyser, Savion Glover, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Thomas Hardy, Ella Fitzgerald, August Wilson, Mary J. Blige, Jacob Lawrence, Federico Garcia Lorca, Duke Ellington — fight the good fight by doing what they can and moving on.

But what does it mean to be a bluesman in the life of the mind? Like my fellow musicians, I've got to forge a unique style and voice that expresses my own quest for truth and love. That means following the quest wherever it leads and bearing whatever cost is required. I must break through isolated academic frameworks while, at the same time, I must build on the best of academic knowledge. I must fuel the fire of my soul so my intellectual blues can set others on fire. And most importantly, I must be a free spirit. I must unapologetically reveal my broken life as a thing of beauty.

I try to give heart to intellect by being true to the funk of living. For me, this can only be seen through the lens of the cross and realized in the light of love. This is the reason that I greet each person struggling through time and space in search of love and meaning before they die as brother or sister no matter what their color. I affirm them as brother or sister to acknowledge their human struggle and suffering. It's not simply a greeting that Christians reserve for other Christians, or even an acknowledgement reserved for and between black people. Both are too narrow.

In a dark world, this means making pain and sorrow my constant companions as I engage in an endless quest for healing and serving others. If I can touch one person — you, holding this book right now — to examine the funk and the capacity to love in your own life so that you become more truly you at your best, then I will not have labored in vain.

Excerpted from Living And Loving Out Loud by Cornel West, with permission from the publisher.

Books Featured In This Story

Brother West
Brother West

Living and Loving Out Loud A Memoir

by Cornel West and David Ritz

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