Spreading the word about his new book, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, Cornel West gives an interview at The Root:
TR Black politics and religion have been so intertwined. The new black politics—still involved in the church in the same way?
CW: Traditionally black life was so circumscribed—even under slavery, of course, the black church was an illegal, invisible institution. You couldn’t worship God without white supervision. The church is where you had some courageous preachers who would tell the truth—and not live—and others who could walk a tightrope, and be very coded. And up until the ‘60s and ‘70s, a significant number of our leaders were preachers. Thurgood Marshall, a serious brother, he was not a preacher, and frankly he didn’t like preachers too much. Charles Hamilton Houston, his mentor, as well. Now Adam Clayton Powell was a combination, that’s true—but in the 1960s you get politicians who are over against Rev. Jesse Jackson and some of the others.
TR How do you think religion informs our politics—for good and bad?
CW: One religion has no monopoly on rich, deep spirituality, and much of religiosity is so thin and vacuous and empty. You have preachers who are pimping the church, the prosperity gospel, and religion-as-business enterprise. You can be just as market driven, gangster-like and obsessed with fear and greed and bigotry as the worst of the market. And the market can be a place where you encounter Curtis Mayfield, where you encounter Aretha, where you encounter Mahalia, or you encounter Martin. You might get deeper spirituality listening to the O’Jays Friday night at a nightclub than in a church with some of these praise teams singing for money, so the preacher can make money for another Benz.
Cornel West’s work was once bold, challenging, exciting. The past tense here is unavoidable. His critical edge and creative powers might yet be reborn (he is 56). But in the wake of his latest book, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, this hope requires a considerable leap of faith. Published by Hay House, the book also bears a second subtitle: “A Memoir.” It is the most disappointing thing I have read in at least a year. This is not the intellectual autobiography West promised a decade ago. In essence it is a fawning celebrity profile—one in which reporter and superstar have somehow fused into a single first-person voice.