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From history to hip-hop

West defies classification to reach beyond the academy

By Patricia Allen

Cornel West

Cornel West

Princeton NJ -- Cornel West believes he can't be true to his calling as a teacher and a scholar if his career is limited to classrooms, publishing houses or the traditional academic lecture circuit.

''People want to put you in boxes,'' West said. ''But I don't like to be classified in that narrow way. My calling, in the end, is much deeper than any link to any institution. There is no way that I can confine myself simply to the academy.''

West, the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion, is one of the nation's most widely known and quoted public intellectuals on the topics of American society, race, politics and class issues. His 1993 bestseller, ''Race Matters,'' was regarded as a groundbreaking book that examined the impact of racism on America.

West earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton in 1980 and was a member of the University's faculty from 1988 through 1994, serving as professor of religion and director of the Program in African-American Studies. In 1996, he was awarded the James Madison Medal, the highest honor Princeton bestows on graduate alumni. He taught at Harvard from 1994 until 2002, when he returned to Princeton.

Personal responsibility

As an academic and a public intellectual, West said he feels a personal responsibility to reach out to many audiences and contribute to the important topics of the day. ''I have a passion to communicate in a critical and self-critical manner about some of the crucial issues facing us,'' he said. ''That is why I move from the classroom to the synagogue to the mosque to prisons and to the streets. That's just my life.''

This semester, West is teaching ''Introduction to the Study of African-American Cultural Practices'' and a freshman seminar, ''The Tragic, the Comic and the Political.'' When not on campus, he can be found lecturing in a church in Atlanta, attending a board meeting for the Jewish publication Tikkun in Berkeley, Calif., talking to children in a community center in Harlem and meeting with members of the rock group Pearl Jam in Seattle.

''Cornel's greatest gift as a public intellectual is his effectiveness in speaking to and connecting with a wide spectrum of people,'' said his colleague, Albert J. Raboteau, the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion. ''He believes very strongly in the idea of open dialogue. He can challenge ideas and the status quo, but he is not a divisive person. He is very civil and charitable, characteristics that are greatly lacking in much of today's political dialogue.''

''For me, it's the Emersonian tradition,'' West said, calling Ralph Waldo Emerson and Socrates, among others, intellectual inspirations. ''Emerson is the first public intellectual of America who hungered most of all to communicate to broad publics.

''That tradition is so very important, because it also cuts across disciplines and genres,'' said West, who also counts authors and artists such as Herman Melville, Toni Morrison and Sarah Vaughan as inspirations. ''Scholarly pursuit can be supplemented with intellectual intervention in other parts of the world including art and activism.''

While West gives a lot of credit to the role of artists and activists in his own life, he says their influence has shaped the United States as well. It is a significant theme in his latest book, ''Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism,'' released in September.

''Artists and activists have played a disproportionate role in keeping alive the democratic tradition. We have seen it in the 1860s during the Civil War, in the 1940s during our struggle against fascism and during the 1960s when American apartheid was sucking the life out of so much of American democracy.''

West said he wrote ''Democracy Matters'' not only because he believes ''the American democratic experiment is in deep trouble. But the low quality of public dialogue about some of the most important issues facing us is quite frightening.''

''We have so many fellow citizens who have simply given up being heard,'' he said. The current political dialogue of ''liberals versus conservatives is so narrow and truncated. There is a deep need for truth telling. We really need to examine closely some of the basic assumptions and presuppositions. And I am not just talking about political positions, but the very framework in which dialogue takes place.''

West is most critical of the mainstream news media for its failure to provide a platform for diverse voices and its inability to provide in-depth analysis and meaningful discussion on political issues. ''We have pundits yelling at each other,'' West said, adding that today's news organizations are driven by ratings and profits and not truth telling.

In addition to addressing current concerns in ''Democracy Matters,'' West takes on the issues of the day in a newly released two-disc hip-hop CD called ''Street Knowledge.'' It is a collection of teachings set to R&B and hip-hop rhythms.

''I have a commitment to reach young people, to bridge the generation gap,'' West said about employing hip-hop as a vehicle for conveying his scholarship. ''I take very seriously the world of young people and you can't do that without taking their idioms seriously. Certainly hip-hop culture and rap music are dominant idioms.''

Bridging the gap

Three freshmen in West's African-American cultural practices class, Kelechi Ezie, Misan Ikomi and Lindsay Booker, agreed that their professor seemed more accessible because of his affinity and understanding of their generation's ideals and youth culture. ''It's nice that he draws connections between our modern ideas and relates them to the historical ones we are reading about,'' Booker said.

André Benjamin, known as André 3000, a member of the rap duo OutKast, agreed that West is effective in bonding with young people. During the summer break, West participated in a Norman Lear-produced HBO documentary with Benjamin about voting and civic duty. The two were filmed strolling on campus as West counseled Benjamin on the importance of youth becoming politically and socially aware.

''When meeting with Dr. West, he clearly helped me understand how every generation is connected and responsible for the next,'' Benjamin said. ''He's a perfect example of a well rounded man in a time when strong male role models are rare. I left the meeting feeling if more young minds respected history we would enter our futures with better understanding.''

''It's a beautiful thing to be able to have a dialogue with André of OutKast,'' West said. ''Here is someone who has so much to say and so much influence over the younger generation. Just to be able to have that kind of dialogue -- to gain both his concern and respect and for him to see mine -- are exemplary of trying to deal with that generation gap. He ends up reading more social and cultural criticism as an artist. In the same way, I end up being able to listen to both his art and the art of his generation. I think that type of dialogue is Socratic to the core.''

Delving into the entertainment world is just another way of reaching people, West said, acknowledging the criticism he has encountered, in particular for his forays into the hip-hop culture, which led to his decision to return to the University in 2002.

Since coming back to Princeton, he said he has felt free to pursue all of his divergent interests. ''[President] Shirley Tilghman embraces the vision of Princeton relating to the world and that's been very important to me,'' West said. ''It allows me to do my work in the academy, and take seriously its standards of excellence and relate what I'm doing to the larger world.''

Although criticized for his ubiquitous style of public intellectualism, West said he gets tremendous encouragement not just from his peers in the academy -- he is the recipient of 20 honorary degrees including one this year from the University of Paris -- but from people he meets in public.

''It's the ordinary people, the brother in the barber shop or a sister in a store, when they come up and say, 'You are teaching and enlightening me.' That's the highest compliment.''