Q&A: Cornel West GS '80 admits he misses Princeton, muses on presidential debates
Last May, African American Studies professor and political activist Cornel West GS ’80 retired from Princeton to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The Daily Princetonian spoke with him about his latest academic research, public service projects and hip-hop collaborations, in addition to his thoughts on the 2012 presidential debates and University President Shirley Tilghman's legacy.
The Daily Princetonian: How are you faring at Union Theological Seminary? Have you been able to approach your research and classes in a different way?
Cornel West: Oh, I'm having a great time. I'm writing a book on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the relation of poetry to philosophy and piety. The students are wonderful, and New York City is magnificent.
DP: Have you missed anything about the University or the town of Princeton since retiring last spring?
CW: I miss the younger students. I miss the high quality of faculty, who were friends I was in conversation with. I did return for the Book of Job Conference [earlier this month]. At Union we have great faculty, but the students are a little older and a little bit more tied to their religious vocation.
DP: What are your thoughts on President Tilghman's announced retirement?
CW: Well, I just say that I have a very deep love and respect for my dear sister Shirley Tilghman. I think she is one of the great leaders in higher education, and I assume she figured it was time to go. She has done what she wanted to do and done it well. And she finished that particular course, so I salute her.
DP: Do you have any comments on the legacy she has built with the Center for African American Studies?
CW: I think she has many legacies, but that is certainly one of the grand legacies: bringing together such a high-quality group of scholars, especially a younger generation. We could put it this way: She didn't play the "Dream Game" like Harvard; she played the trans-generational card, which was a great move. So you ended up with younger generations, middle and older, all first-rate. And I think the magnificent African American Studies center is one of her many, many grand legacies.
DP: You have been a strong advocate of lifting up those in poverty and continuing the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How do you think your Poverty Tour 2.0 [with radio show co-host Tavis Smiley] went this year?
CW: Well, it did not have the public impact that we would like. You can see that we still couldn't get the candidates to talk about poverty too much, but most importantly, we were part of the fight-back. And you can see poor people organizing, mobilizing, all around the country. And that has yet to fully surface or become manifest, but I think it is going to happen, and it's a beautiful thing. All colors, all cultures — poor people coming together, or persons like myself, who love poor people though I don't happen to be suffering from material poverty.
DP: Could you describe the most poignant thing you saw while on the tour or anything that particularly moved you?
CW: It was probably to see people who were making $125,000 now living in their cars. That hits you hard. That hits you very hard.
DP: You mentioned that the candidates really haven't brought up the issue of poverty. However, in the debates, both Romney and Obama have stressed the need to ease burdens of tax, debt and unemployment on the middle class. Are the candidates focusing on the wrong issue, or does strengthening the middle class precede improving the lot of the poor?
CW: I think so much of the debate still takes place on conservative terrain. It assumes austerity, it assumes deficits, it assumes what you are going to cut as opposed to what you are going to invest in. I think they need to listen to our dear brother Paul Krugman. This is a matter of a lack of demand, and you generate demand by massive investment, public and private, and drive up the living wage so the middle class actually has money to spend. So you get a right-wing candidate and then you get a center candidate and nobody is representing the left.
DP: What did you think of the presidential debate [on Oct. 3] or the first set of debates? Many political pundits claimed that Obama lost [the Oct. 3 debate]?
CW: I think he certainly lost. I said a prayer for him, and the prayer did not kick in. I said a prayer for him the second time, and it did kick in. Of course, I wanted both of them to do the best that they could do, but I was hoping he would be stronger, and he was stronger.
DP: If Obama is reelected, how do you think he should approach his second term?
CW: He's going to need a tremendous amount of vision, courage, willingness to be bold and fight. I hope that he makes a massive investment in infrastructure, roads, bridges, sewer systems; that he makes the eradication of poverty a major priority, and actually puts workers at the center of what he thinks and does. The first term was still too much a Wall Street-friendly government for me in policy. It's just with Tim Geithner and the others; he is too friendly to Wall Street — he doesn't put enough pressure on them.
DP: You wrote a book recently called "The Rich and the Rest of Us." Could you talk a little bit about that?
CW: It was a product of the poverty tour with Brother Tavis Smiley. And it was our attempt to keep alive the legacy of Michael Herrington, who wrote "The Other America" and ensured that the issue of poverty remains at least part of the public conversation. And as you know, it hit the New York Times' bestseller Number 7 paperback, so we had some people following us around. I can't complain about that now — as difficult as that is nowadays.
DP: Have you listened to any good music lately?
CW: Oh! Brother Ali, "Mourning in America [and] Dreaming in Color." He and I have the first song on that album together and it is dynamite. And of course that's true for Lupe Fiasco too. I saw you all had a piece in the Princetonian on Lupe Fiasco like he was putting me down; no, it was a compliment. Someone misread that on the staff. Absolutely, no, Lupe's verse about me was a tremendous compliment, and I receive it as a compliment, absolutely.
DP: Is there anything else you would like to say to the general Princeton community?
CW: Well, just tell them I love them. I miss 'em, and when you come to New York, come by my office and I'll give you a hug!