By Srishti Prabha | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Dr. Cornel West — an esteemed author, philosopher and advocate — traces back his moral and ethical roots to Shiloh Baptist Church in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood.
“The West family is inseparable from Shiloh Baptist Church,” he says. His educational path, meanwhile, was formed by his mother, Irene West, who was the first Black educator in Elk Grove Unified School District. From his upbringing in Glen Elder to his schooling at John F. Kennedy High School, West is tied to Sacramento.
Currently, West is a professor of theology and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and previously taught at Princeton University and Harvard University.
West has announced his presidential bid as a part of the Green Party.
This exclusive interview has been edited for length, flow and clarity.
Q: You’re a Black man from Sacramento, which has such deep history. How has Sacramento influenced how you’re thinking about the world and politics?
A: The question that you raise is really the most fundamental question in terms of who I am and I don’t think any other newspapers would raise that question. No, the most fundamental influence that accounts for the vessel that I am has to do with the majesty of mom and dad and my brother, Clifton, and my sisters, Cynthia and Cheryl. The West family is at the core of who I am and the West family is inseparable from Shiloh Baptist Church.
When we came to the state in 1958, we went to Glen Elder, and it was a thriving Black community. We connected with Shiloh Baptist Church in Oak Park. So we go every Sunday, sometimes more than once a week [to see] Rev. Willie Cooke, Deacon Hinton and Sarah Ray, my Sunday school teacher. These are persons who I carry inside of me every day.
Now, we had the Black Panther Party that was right down the street in Oak Park, and the Black Panther Party had a tremendous influence on me because I learned from the West Family and Shiloh Baptist Church that greatness is better than success.
Greatness is defined biblically: “He or she who is the greatest among you will be your servant.” You can’t be great if you’re a coward. You can be successful and still be a coward. You can’t be great without courage. You can be highly successful and have very little courage. So from the very beginning, I had that shaping and molding, and I’ve tried to be true to that, tried to be true to mom and dad, and tried to be true to the Shiloh Baptist Church.
The rich Black Baptist tradition goes all the way back to the slave days. Mom and dad took all of us to see Martin Luther King speak at the Memorial Auditorium [in Sacramento]. I was 10 years old in 1963 and [King] only had [about] four years left to live. Never forget that. I didn’t understand anything, but I knew he was real. I knew he was the real thing in terms of spiritual and moral greatness. Then, of course, he gets shot down like a dog in Memphis.
Q: Your mom being an educator and you going through the school system in Sacramento, what was happening to Black students in this community?
A: As much as I loved books and was empowered by education, I was always deeply suspicious of the educational system.
One, too often it produced people who were arrogant and condescending toward other people who did not have a chance to undergo education and get credentials and so forth.
The second thing was that the educational system could so thoroughly miseducate people because the frameworks that are often used in the educational system are so narrow — they don’t really want to tell the full truth.
I was always betwixt and between my mother as both a first-grade teacher and the first Black teacher in the history of Elk Grove.
And then as principal, she had that same attitude that she passed on to me: “Don’t you ever look down on a less educated person. They have the same value as you do. And be very mindful that as you’re being educated, blindness is built into the educational system.”
Q: What is your education platform, and how can we dismantle things that have been set in place to ensure that students of color, specifically, do not succeed?
A: I think it’s impossible to talk about educational systems, be they in hoods, be they in barrios, be they on reservations, be they in poor white communities or immigrant communities — we’ve got to wipe out poverty.
And the same is true with wiping out homelessness. We got significant numbers of students who were in high schools and city colleges who are still living in their cars looking for a place to live.
I was telling my beloved wife that if and when I win, I’m not moving into the White House until everyone has a house. That’s what I learned in Shiloh Baptist. You see that you’re there to serve. When you’re really talking about education, you have to come to terms with the background conditions. These precious children are coming out of communities where they don’t have enough food, they don’t have decent housing, they don’t have quality health care. So, I would begin with those background conditions.
Then, I think it is very important to demilitarize our schools. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to learn when you’re in a highly militarized context. I want to call for the end of mass incarceration, which is part of the militarized experience of so many of our kids.
And, of course, all you need to do is to look at how the well-to-do educate their children. If they go off to prep school, there’s no military presence and no poverty. And then they’re told at least twice a day how smart they are because you have to have self-confidence as a child. These schools for the well-to-do are continually reinforcing the best, reinforcing the self-respect and self-confidence. Whereas, in poor working-class communities, often, it’s the opposite tone. They’re not worthy. They’re not capable either explicitly or implicitly.
Q: You had your qualms with Obama’s presidency and now with Biden’s. What are things that you want to do differently that you have seen them do or have seen them replicate? And how are you going to make it happen?
A: It was fascinating to hear my brother Barack Obama talking about how we’ve got to address generational poverty and need to make it a priority to get racial inequality. And I said, “My God, that’s what I was saying for eight years. And the Obama administration refused to do it.”
They opted for Wall Street rather than homeowners when they were dealing with the Wall Street greed crisis. And the same was true in terms of racial inequality. You have to hit mass incarceration head on. You can’t talk about racial inequality in America without talking about mass incarceration as well as poverty.
This campaign is so deeply rooted in Black music. It really is. Trying to walk the walk, talk to talk, sing a song from the depths of your soul that touches other people’s souls, that they feel more dominated and inspired and instructed as they live their lives.
And in Sacramento, I was growing up with music: Motown, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross and Curtis Mayfield. That’s what kept us going. And that’s what still keeps me going — but is tied to Shiloh Baptist, is tied to the West family, is tied to 10 years in Glen Elder.
At this point, it comes down to this: We have to be true to the best of America.
Musically, we talk about the best of America. And to talk about the best of America is to start with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Mahalia Jackson. And it’s not a question of skin pigmentation. It’s a question of artistic excellence, moral courage and willingness to serve others. And that means anybody can come and do that. But it just so happens that these hated, terrorized, traumatized people, namely Black people in America, produce the highest levels of love in being wounded healers.
You respect the diversity of identities in your band. At the same time, we’re all in the band in order to create a better sound and a better performance. Solidarity is all the various diversities coming together. But focus on something that sustains their coming together such that they’re using their gifts to empower others.
Q: Close it out for us. What is a core memory you had in Sacramento that you’ve taken with you into life and has informed how now you’ll navigate running for presidency?
A: I have so many precious memories. The indescribable joys of growing up in Glen Elder with Black love, in Black community and Black encouragement. It was in music, it was in sports, and it was in our relations with each other. And, of course, in the end, it was in the West family. We were able to meet every catastrophe with compassion.