Q. The title of your book is Brother West. Why do you greet each person as “brother” or “sister” no matter their color?
A. I try to give heart to intellect by being true to the funk of living. For me, this can only be seen through the lens of the cross and realized in the light of love. This is the reason that I greet each person struggling through time and space in search of love and meaning before they die as brother or sister no matter what their color. I affirm them as brother or sister to acknowledge their human struggle and suffering. It’s not simply a greeting that Christians reserve for other Christians, or even an acknowledgement reserved for and between black people. Both are too narrow.
Q. At Harvard you received your “calling.” Can you describe that moment?
A. It was during the Christmas break of my freshman year at Harvard. I’d returned to Sacramento and hooked up with Glenn Jordan, a close friend of mine from high school, who’d gone to Stanford. Glenn and I compared notes on our first semester at school. He spoke of a professor—the brilliant St. Clair Drake—whom he’d felt had changed everything for him. Glenn had decided he, too, wanted to be a professor. Something clicked. In a moment that I can only call transformational, I was feeling the miraculous passion that professor St. Clair Drake had passed on to Glenn. It was that winter day in 1970 that I committed myself to the life-long vocation of teaching and have never veered from that commitment.
Q. In the book, you talk about Paideia. What is that?
A. Paideia is an ancient Greek word that literally means “education.” When we use it today, it means a deep education that connects you to profound issues in serious ways. It instructs us to turn our attention from the superficial to the substantial, from the frivolous to the serious. Paideia concerns the cultivation of self, the ways you engage your own history, your own memories, your own mortality, your own sense of what it means to be alive as a critical, loving, aware human being.
Q. You express in the book how much you enjoy teaching college freshmen the most. Why?
A. Reaching and teaching is my greatest joy…especially lighting a fire in the minds of young people. Every year at Princeton I insist on teaching freshmen. I want to be part of their academic lives, knowing that connecting with them at an early juncture might move their stories in a positive direction…My lens as a bluesman is to begin with the catastrophic, the horrendous, the calamitous and monstrous in life…Initially, students are quite shaken with this stress on the fragility of their lives and the inevitability of their own death. Yet as they examine these great texts and see the centrality of death and rebirth, of learning how to die, to learn how to live, they are initiated into paideia. I consider this a life-long initiation in deep education, a priceless contribution to their lives and to my life as a teacher. In fact, my enthusiastic teaching itself at my beloved Princeton is a living testimony to the sheer transformative power of paideia.
Q. You allude in the book to “teachable moments” outside the classroom. Please explain.
A. Teachable moments do not just happen in the classroom. They are shot through everyday life and take place in a variety of contexts. To be teachable is to muster the courage to listen generously, think critically, and be open to the ambiguity and mystery of life. For example, I began as a fierce critic of black leaders Reverend Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Bishop T.D. Jakes, and Barack Obama. But after breaking bread with all four and spending countless hours in rich dialogue, I realized how short-sighted I had been. All four men had much to teach me, and I certainly had a deep love for each of them. We vowed to continue the conversation for the rest of our lives. Of course, it mattered that we disagreed deeply on many subjects. But what mattered more was the mutual love and respect that came out of those meetings.
Q. You’ve been involved in a few political campaigns, including Barack Obama’s campaign. How do you feel about political campaigns?
A. Political campaigns are one of the moments in American culture where my fellow citizens are most open to democratic awakening. So my involvement has not only been to support a candidate but also to lay bare a vision and analysis as a form of democratic paideia (education) as my part in the campaign.
Q. You’ve been wrongfully arrested, detained, and threatened. How do you handle these injustices?
A. When arrested, threatened, or persecuted, I give myself permission to be full of righteous indignation and moral outrage but I try to never allow righteous indignation to degenerate into bitter revenge, or let moral outrage become hateful anger. My blues sensibility or tragic-comic disposition leads me to juxtapose the sheer absurdity of the situation with the utmost seriousness of the injustice. So I retain a painful smile on my face even as I respond to the undeniable hurt with intense ethical energy.
Q. You worked on President Obama’s campaign. Please talk about some of the challenges he faces in the years ahead.
When Obama burst on the scene in Boston at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 proclaiming that America is a magical place, I turned to my dear brother Tavis Smiley and said, “This brother is going to have a Christopher Columbus experience. He’s going to discover America!” The greatness of the American democratic experiment has nothing to do with magic but rather the blood, sweat, and tears of ordinary people endeavoring to create a fragile yet noble democracy…I have a deep appreciation of Obama’s brilliance, charisma, and his sense of a fresh start for the nation. In my times with him as a presidential candidate, he struck me as a decent person filled with a sense of destiny. Brother Obama’s amiable personality often wants to put a smile on everyone’s face and thereby give the impression that he agrees with everyone. My constant worry is that he can be easily mesmerized by fasttalking establishment figures whose braininess lacks wisdom, vision and commitment…The deep tension in Obama’s vision and expression of democratic rhetoric and technocratic policies reflects his own divided mind about the crucial role of mobilizing everyday people while satisfying the elite establishment…As he [Obama] aspires to be the black Lincoln, I intend to be a blacker Frederick Douglass.
October 5, 2009
Smith Opera House
Geneva, N.Y. 14456
Program begins at 7:30 p.m.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Free and open to the public