Portrait

Champion for racial justice Cornel West struts his stuff. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

An intellectual evening with Dr Cornel West

Dr Cornel West strides into the green room, the white triangles of his shirt collar luminous against his black three-piece suit. The statuesque African-American poet and public intellectual sweeps the closest stranger up in a hearty embrace. Within several minutes, the room’s filled with mostly brown folk. Besides Caribbean-Australian me, there’s Aamer Rahman (the Australian comedian of Bangladeshi descent from the renowned comedy duo Fear of a Brown Planet); Australian-born Punjabi rapper L-Fresh the Lion; Indigenous visionary, leader and academic Uncle Gary Foley; Dr West’s 14-year-old daughter; the event organisers; and an African-American film crew. 

Dr West has worked through half the room and is standing in front of me: silver-streaked afro balanced by salt-and-pepper beard, silver fob chain disappearing into waistcoat pocket, warm eyes shining from behind black-rimmed glasses.“Nice to meet you, Sister Maxine,” he says, enveloping me in a six-foot wraparound that’s a can’t-shake cross between bear hug and mother love. “Now y’all sharing the stage with me this evening, just let your souls flow. That’s all we gotta do.” Dr West speaks to L-Fresh and me with the rhythm of a decades-practised spoken-word poet: one whose collaborations include iconic singer-songwriter Prince, platinum-selling recording artist Jill Scott and hip-hop artist KRS-One. 

West moves on to greet “Brother Foley” . Their seen-so-much-in-this-world-and-then-some-brother hands grasp firmly. The two men move from the room centre – converse quietly in a corner, heads bowed. Uncle Foley leans in to his mahogany-hued walking stick. The air around them hums with history in the making.

We walk down the clean white Besser-Blocked corridors joining the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre dressing rooms to the backstage area, gather in the crowded darkness of the stage-right wings. The opening announcement booms. I put my hand on the stage door. Bold letters stencilled on the back read: Authorised Access Only. I push through the entrance, into the stage light.

When I return to the backstage area, Dr West nods. “That’s some poetry there, Sister. Keep tellin’ the truth.” 

When Uncle Gary Foley takes the stage, West leans forward in his chair, drinking in the speech from the feedback screen.

“We did change things,” says Foley, paying tribute to the “brave warriors of the Aboriginal resistance”. “But then we took our eye off the ball and, when we weren’t looking, the fascist bastards changed things back.” 

Dr West nods. 

I sneak into the audience to see Dr West enter the stage. He takes a seat to host Aamer’s left, pours himself a glass of water. Many in the Melbourne crowd would have seen the former Yale-Harvard-Princeton-University-of-Paris academic speak days earlier as a guest on ABC Television’s Q&A, or followed his race and politics commentary on CNN, The Colbert Report or Real Time with Bill Maher. Without an agitated news anchor or co-panellists to contend with, Dr West’s words rush through like a freedom train, like can’t-stop-now-gotta-get-to-where-we-going-an’-better-make-it-yesterday.

A devout Christian – albeit vocally wary of institutionalised religion and its history of initiating and affirming some of the great unfathomable wrongs of the world – Dr West speaks with the introspection and poise of a Baptist preacher. “There is no Aboriginal problem,” he booms, telling the audience of his time visiting Indigenous elders to speak about the forced closure of remote Indigenous communities. “Rather, a state of catastrophe has been visited on the Aboriginal people.”

Aamer asks Dr West to expound on his theory that the grassroots #blacklivesmatter movement, which grew from discontent over the systematic murder of black citizens at the hands of the US police, marks a symbolic end to the Obama administration. 

“Deep forms of sleepwalking set in amongst the black community once Obama was elected,” Dr West laments, explaining the desire of some in the black community to simply keep America’s first black president safe and leave him alone to his business despite growing despair over the new president’s agenda. “See, that’s low expectations.” Dr West leans down in his chair, places a hand just above the ground. “That’s like going to a concert to see Coltrane,” he raises his hand above his head, “and getting Kenny G.” He drops the hand back down to the floor again, flashes the wide gap between his two front teeth. “Now I love Kenny, but I paid to see Coltrane.”

It’s not just black lives that matter to Dr West. One of the philosopher’s key frustrations is the reluctance of American leaders – particularly black leaders – to risk popularity by tackling issues such as class inequality. He notes his inspiration, Dr Martin Luther King jnr, as a leader who never compromised; points out that Dr King’s popularity was at an all-time low at the time he died; rails against what he calls the posthumous “Santaclausification of Dr King”. The 62-year-old’s unwavering commitment to King’s man-of-the-people legacy has seen him arrested numerous times for trying to get his point across in peaceful protest.

 “Take Oprah. Now I love Miss Oprah, but she’s a booshie sister. She doesn’t want to talk about class. That’s why she’s never had any blues artists on her show. I mean, B. B. King used to cry. The brother used to say: ‘Why I can’t get on Miss Oprah’s show?’ ”

The audience is enchanted – hunched in their seats, virtually unblinking. “My vanilla brothers sometimes say to me: ‘Dr West I’m not a racist, but my grandparents, they got a lotta work to do.’ I say to them: ‘I am a god-loving free black man and I still have to fight the white supremacist inside of me. And if I have to do that, my vanilla brothers and sisters, then surely you have some work to do, too.’ ” Dr West’s white sleeve cuffs weave and dip, meet and part, as if keeping time for a gospel choir.

 “I tell my fellow vanilla Americans they should stand and applaud when they see a Negro going by,” he says. “Because if black folk responded with the level of hatred … if they were intent on visiting upon white folk what’s been done to them … but we lead with love. I mean, look at Nelson. Did the white folk quake when he got out? Did they say, ‘Oh no, Nelson’s out! He’s gon do back to us what we did to him, we better all move to New Zealand or somewhere!?’ ” 

Question time runs a half hour longer than scheduled. A young black woman explains how she’s never heard words such as white supremacy and racism spoken in the same sentence as love. “Not until today. How did you come to … be like this?”

Dr West smiles. “If you could have met my parents,” he says. “You see, I had so many love injections. The love in me is that thick … if you love black music, then y’all know how to love. Cause that’s what it’s all about. If you listen to Aretha, you gon’ love yourself a few vanilla people. And if you listen to Brother Gaye, well, you’re gon’ end up lovin’ everybody.” Dr West chuckles for a moment, then looks out at the audience, imploring them – pleading that they understand where from he’s a-coming.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2015 as "West’s point". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.