Why race still matters

Cornel West, a Sacramento native who became the country’s leading black intellectual, returns to town with a message

Cornel West was recently in a South Sacramento recording studio, near the home where her grew up, recording his famed sociopolitical observations over a hip-hop soundtrack.

Cornel West was recently in a South Sacramento recording studio, near the home where her grew up, recording his famed sociopolitical observations over a hip-hop soundtrack.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Come with us as we unfold the story and lay bare the drama … ”
—Cornel West
Introduction to
Sketches of My Culture

Harvard intellectual Cornel West seems a little out of place in this dimly lit South Sacramento recording studio.

His Frederick Douglas-style afro, charcoal dress suit, and slim-lined spectacles offer a sharp contrast to others on the scene: young African-American musicians clad in casual athletic gear.

Yet this is where the 47-year-old West is the most comfortable—among his people, talking about their collective struggles. A Sacramento native, West recently returned home to record Sketches of My Culture, a 10-track album of West’s spoken word poetry and sociopolitical commentary, recorded over R&B, funk and hip-hop music.

The project will be the first release from 4 B.M.B. (Four Black Men in Business), a production company which consists of West, his older brother Clifton, their childhood friend Mike Daily, and Sacramento record producer Derrick “DOA” Allen.

West, who lives in Boston with his wife, Elleni West, is the current Alphonse University Professor at Harvard University and perhaps the country’s leading black intellectual, so he brings to the album not just a keen mind, but also the prestige of his name and background.

Influenced heavily by the artistic genius of John Coltrane and Russian writer Anton Chekhov, West is known for his intellectual inquiries and candid discussions of race and racism. His words offer a vibrant testimony to the oppression, tribulations and horrors endured by generations of African-Americans since their arrival in bondage to the Americas.

Yet there is hope in his words, hope stemming from the ability of black people to not only survive, but to thrive under the worst of circumstances.

And while West’s intellectual reflections on Sketches of My Culture may not contain the academic-minded phraseology which dominates some of his published works (he’s penned, edited and co-written more than 20), his message remains the same: “To speak the truth to power with love so that the quality of everyday life for ordinary people is enhanced and white supremacy is stripped of its authority and legitimacy.”

“That truth-tell is painful,” West explained at the recording studio. “In the music itself, we’re talking about the agony, anguish and the sorrow being wrestled with and transfigured from a people who went from slave ships to ‘hoods.’ ”

Before coming to prominence as “one of the most authentic, brilliant, prophetic and healing voices in America today,” in the words of Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, West spent his formative years in the South Sacramento community of Glen Elder.

Born on June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Okla., to Clifton L.West II and Irene West, the family moved to Glen Elder after his father landed a civil service position at McClellan Air Force Base.

His mother was the first African-American woman to teach for the Elk Grove Unified School District. She recalls her son as a voracious reader on a quest for knowledge, who began reading biographies during his early years of elementary school.

“It seemed to be something that was so innate with him,” said Irene West. “He wanted to know how other people acquired their knowledge and obtained their profession.”

While West’s academic performance at Camellia Elementary School was excellent, his behavior wasn’t. As early as the third grade, West was acutely aware of the upheaval occurring during the early ’60s, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.

That knowledge manifested itself in youthful rage, which came to a head when West struck his third-grade teacher for attempting to force him into saying the Pledge of Allegiance after he had refused. It was the second time he had hit a teacher for attempting to force him into that particular morning ritual.

“And he hit her when she was pregnant,” Irene West said. “She probably could have sued us for everything. He was quite a discipline problem.”

West was subsequently expelled and sent to Earl Warren Elementary. Unwilling to allow their child to be confined to an educational dustbin of mediocrity, West’s parents successfully pushed for him to take advanced courses. With his high IQ, West advanced through fourth and fifth grade in one year.

“The problem was he just wasn’t challenged,” said his 50-year-old brother, Clifton West.

“He was very violent as a young kid,” recalled Clifton West, a local computer software consultant. “With Corn, once he was able to put the book thing together and find a hook for how that was going to take him to the next level, then he was able to go forward. And that happened with a lot of discipline, encouragement and support from Mom and Dad.”

The close-knit community and extended family ties common throughout predominantly black Glen Elder were also important factors in West’s upbringing, according to his mother. She said Glen Elder at that time was reminiscent of many African-American communities in the Deep South.

“When someone saw your child doing something wrong, they could go out and straighten them up, and the kids knew that they had better be respectful,” she said. “That was the beauty of Glen Elder.”

The studio where West and 4 B.M.B. recorded Sketches of My Culture is near the 40th Avenue home where he grew up. West called his memories of Glen Elder as “wonderful and precious.”

“Glen Elder was like a paradise in terms of a high-quality people,” Cornel West said. “The best people in the world in terms of love and support.”

While West speaks specifically to the legacy of African-Americans on Sketches of My Culture, in the broader sense his words are a musical indictment of America’s foundation, which is built upon a history of human suffering.

“What we’re trying to continue to do is tell the truth about American society and the world in a musical form. It’s positive in terms of acting with a sense of tradition, but not too positive in terms of looking at how ugly and vicious the legacy of white supremacy is. But it’s certainly trying to improve and encourage people to go beyond themselves and connect themselves with something bigger than themselves.”

Layered over heavy bass guitar, drum beats and soulful voices, each of West’s spoken word poems is a testament to the triumph of generations of African-Americans over seemingly insurmountable odds.

The album begins with the narrative voice of West, taking the listener on a voyage spanning from the fertile continent of Africa, across the agonizing horror and despair of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, into the unbridled madness of early America.

Sketches of My Culture comes nearly eight years after the release of what many consider West’s most significant work, Race Matters.

And while West believes that race still matters in 2001, the material on Sketches runs largely counter to West’s belief in “black nihilism,” a phrase he coined in Race Matters as “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and lovelessness.”

There is tremendous creativity, energy, and vitality in the music. Still, West said, “there’s also a lot of scars and bruises that are left in the sound, as well as the message.”

“Music is another way of embodying a movement beyond hopelessness and nihilism. It’s about struggle and hope, not giving up, and caving in,” West said. “But it’s also trying to understand nihilism, and the reason why people give in, and end up at the crack house, or looking for meaning in an alcohol container.”

After graduating from Kennedy High School, West attended Harvard University, earning his bachelor’s degree at age 19. He subsequently went on to pursue his graduate studies at Princeton, and completed his doctoral dissertation in 1980, which was later republished as the “Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought” in 1991.

Although West has written several successful books discussing the subject of race, including The Cornel West Reader, Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, and The Future of the Race (which he co-wrote with fellow Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates), 1993’s Race Matters remains his best-known book, compared by critics to W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk for its influence on the culture.

While many of West’s discussions have focused on the trials and oppression of African-Americans throughout history, he is also known for tackling many of American society’s other taboo subjects: sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.

He has addressed such topics with noted social critics such as feminist Bell Hooks (Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Political Life), and Jewish intellectual Michael Lerner (Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin).

He was also one of the first influential black thinkers to offer a critical assessment of Afrocentrism, a philosophy practiced by some African-Americans, which focuses on the greatness of African contributions to civilization, while remaining critical of Eurocentrism.

West is currently focused on two major societal ills: an expansion of police power in poor communities, and expansion of corporate power under the Clinton administration, two issues West says have worsened since Race Matters was released in 1993.

West has separated himself from mainstream black America’s chorus of praise for former President Clinton, and last year actively campaigned first for Democrat presidential candidate Bill Bradley, and then for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. His work on both campaigns stemmed for West’s belief that the country needs fundamental change.

“I think you have to make a decision to break from a decrepit system as a whole, and under Clinton and Gore, you had an extension of police power that was completely off the map and unacceptable,” said West. “Clinton and Gore supported mandatory sentences. Black people consume 12 percent of the drugs in America, yet receive 70 percent of the convictions—that’s sick stuff that nobody talks about.”

Yet as critical as West is of Clinton and Gore, he is even more worried about our new President George W. Bush.

“It’s a very conservative administration, in terms of they tend to promote privilege, hierarchy and inequality,” West said. “Which means working people and poor people are in trouble. We have to be very vigilant and be very courageous in organizing and mobilizing.”

Despite the blitzkrieg of accolades which greet West’s every speech and book release, he has not been without his detractors on both sides of the color line. West’s Marxist diatribes has caused critics to label West a demagogic peddler of black victimhood.

Writer Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic called West “noisy, tedious, slippery … sectarian, humorless and self-endeared.”

Political scientist Adolph Reed, in a piece published in the Village Voice, questioned West’s academic status as a pre-eminent black intellectual, calling him “a thousand miles wide and two inches deep” and adding that West “either conflates the audiences into an unhelpful least common denominator or undertakes a misdirection in combining an insider’s ‘it’s a black thang’ posture with a superficial other-directed analysis explaining or defending the Negro.”

West seems to take both the praise and negative criticisms equally in stride.

“I tend not to listen too carefully to either the praise or the put-downs. You have to listen a bit, but you can’t believe the praise too much, and you can’t be deterred by the put-downs,” West said. “The world could change five to 10 years from now. You could be a pariah, but you’ve still got to be true to yourself. If you’re not true to yourself when you’re up on top, when you go down, you’re not going to be true to yourself either, and you will be of no use to anyone.”

West said he even has differences with his closest contemporaries, such as fellow Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, with whom he co-authored his latest work, The African-American Century.

“A lot of times, it is good to have that kind of creative tension when you are honest and candid with one another,” said West. “He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and I’m a radical democrat. I’m more critical of power and corporate elites—oligarchs, plutocrats, and pigment-o-crats—than he is. He’s a solid Clinton/Gore man, but that’s all right, because I love my brother dearly.”

Even among black intellectuals who don’t share West’s radical worldview, such as anti-affirmative action advocate Shelby Steele, West states there is a basic recognition of humanity, and even admiration, that exists.

“Even Shelby Steele, who I have had many debates with, we always go out and have a drink after and continue to dialogue. There’s a certain communality that you can’t overlook even when you have differences,” said West.

Sketches of My Culture is expected to hit the record stores by the end of this year, according to West and the members of 4 B.M.B. Allen, who has also produced R&B balladeer Tyrese and jazz artist/former Sacramento King Wayman Tisdale, believes that the album will introduce Cornel West to a younger generation of listeners who might not encounter his published works.

“What’s saving this whole thing is lyrically where he’s coming from, and the whole concept in his words, and him blessing the people with his knowledge,” Allen said. “That’s what’s taking this to a whole different level.”

West is also currently in talks with entertainment mogul Quincy Jones to possibly bring him on board the project, according to Clifton West. As for Cornel West’s next endeavor after Sketches of My Culture is released, he said that it all depends on the next struggle that presents itself.

“It’s hard to say, brother,” he said. “There’s always the next crisis in order to deal with the new forms of movements, from Seattle, to Prague, to Harlem, to East L.A., to Appalachia, to Columbia, the Middle East. There’s always something coming up.”