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Vol. LXII, No. 49
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
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“Justice For Me Is Not an Abstraction:” Cornel West Speaks About New Book

Dilshanie Perera

“You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.” So reads a passage from Princeton University professor and public intellectual Cornel West’s new book, Hope on a Tightrope (SmileyBooks), which was the subject of his recent talk at Prospect House.

Mr. West was introduced by long-time friend and media personality Tavis Smiley, who also published the text. “This is a book I’ve tried to push out of Dr. West for a couple of years now,” he said, adding that he wanted Mr. West to “take his intellect, and make it usable for everyday people.”

“The book started with me passing over to Cheryl [Woodruff, President of Smiley Books] bits of newspaper and napkins” that documented some of Mr. West’s words when they all spent time together. In fact, this story’s opening quotation is something that Mr. West said to Mr. Smiley “at a hotdog stand,” he reported with a laugh.

Hope on a Tightrope is about “things that really matter,” about things “that cut deep not just in your mind, but in your heart and soul, according to Mr. West. Each of the 12 chapters in the book is devoted to a topic ranging from philosophy to identity and race to music.

“I wanted to be a blues man in the life of the mind, a jazz man in the world of ideas,” Mr. West said of the impetus behind his life’s work. “You have to be willing to think out loud, live out loud, love out loud.”

The title of the book is derived from this particular moment in history, as well as President-elect Barack Obama’s theme of hope, explained Mr. West, who sees the future of the country in a precarious position, but at the beginning of something completely new.

“How do we move from symbol to substance? That’s what the book is about. It’s about the work that needs to be done.”

Saying that “we’re coming to the end of the era of Ronald Reagan...the end of the dogma of the markets, the trivializing of poor people’s suffering, and working people’s misery,” Mr. West noted that his focus will continue to be on the interests of the public and the vulnerable.

Recounting a recent conversation with Mr. Obama, Mr. West remembered telling him, “My dear brother, we’re not going to agree on everything. I am a deep democrat. Justice for me is not an abstraction. It’s a fire deep down inside my soul.”

“My calling is prophetic. I will live and die for justice,” Mr. West said while characterizing Mr. Obama’s calling as one of governance.

In addition to musings about various topics, Hope on a Tightrope contains a glossary of “Westian Core Concepts” like “deep democracy,” which is defined as “the courage to lift our voices and have them heard in order to shape our destiny”; a list of books and music that contributed to Mr. West’s outlook on the world; and a CD featuring interviews between Mr. West and Mr. Smiley, as well as Mr. West’s musical collaborations.

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