tavis smiley & cornel west

Tavis Smiley & Dr. Cornel West

*Today Dr. Cornel West and broadcaster Tavis Smiley will embark on what they’re calling Poverty Tour 2.0.

The dynamic duo is slated to hit Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia, major battleground states in the upcoming election, from September 12th through the 15th.

The first city on the tour will be Cleveland, followed by Alexandria, Virginia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and winding up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on the 15th.  Here, we continue off from part one of our conversation with Dr. Cornel West. Publisher Lee Bailey asked West why, in the modern age, does he continue his mission to bring attention to the problems of race and poverty in America.

“That is my tradition, my brother. That is my tradition,” answered West. “I am a cracked vessel of Miles Horton and brother Martin and Curtis Mayfield and I so swore to tell the truth and will deal with any costs that comes with it.”

During our conversation West admitted getting the establishment to recognize the problems of race and class in a democracy is a daunting task, but he sticks steadfastly to hope.

“Each social moment has its limits. A lie can only be put forward for so long,” West explained. “We don’t know when it will reach that tipping point. But there’s no doubt about it. It becomes exhaustive, you get tired of being tired, courage steps in and you have to have people who are on the love train. That’s what I’m worried about. When the limit explodes the dominant orientation is hatred, revenge and scapegoating. You have to have love, justice and compassion in place along with the truth telling. Truth telling is so hurtful and so painful that people don’t want to accept it until the limits are exploded. You have to have something in place when you want to tell people ‘I want to appeal to the better angles of your nature’.”

When West, an avid historian on African American musical culture, mentioned ‘love train’ we didn’t quite know which train he was referring to. Is it the Isley Brothers’ version or what? Here the good doctor tells us what’s he’s getting at.

“I wanna go back to the ‘Love Train’ that Curtis Mayfield talked about. I want to talk about justice connected to the love that Martin was talking about,” he explained. “That’s what’s so sad. The black prophetic tradition, and that tradition had been the leaven in the American loaf. America would be a facist society without Frederick Douglas, without Ida B. Wells, without A. Phillip Randolph, without brother Martin. American democracy owes its expansion to these courageous black people who didn’t talk solely in relation to black people but rather freedom and justice for everybody. That’s a tradition that we have to keep alive. But it’s a tradition that, in the age of Obama, is not only misunderstood but it’s a threat because of the refusal to really come to terms with the social miseries.”

“There’s a report on the poverty level coming out on Wednesday, right?” he asked. “And of course those are just statistics. We’re not even talking about the brothers and sisters of all colors living in or near poverty at a time when the 1 percent are living like the kings and queens of Europe in the 15th century.”

Even though West mentioned the ‘love train’ and all, getting a society to change its mind is a difficult task indeed. No one should know that more than the Professor, but he says there is hope.

“I’m not going to say nothing on the tour that’s optimistic. I’m going to say something on the tour that’s profoundly hopeful. As long as we bare witness to trying to help each other there is hope. Curtis Mayfield said if there’s hell below we’re all gonna go. It’s not optimistic because if he can say it it will wake people up them he can help educate people.”

Though West did expect a great deal of resistance from people on the inside of the Beltway, he tells EURweb.com that he can do without the full on smear campaign that has been levied against him and his ally, Tavis Smiley.

“(B)eing misunderstood and lied about, and not being seen as part of a larger tradition,” said the doctor in a clearly frustrated tone. “People want to isolate brother Tavis and I, as if we need to be isolated as individuals attacking the president based on personal so and so. As opposed to keeping alive a tradition that goes back to Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. In the face of these lies and opposed to these structures of domination that have been put in place in American society, it can be slavery or Jim Crow, in this day and age it’s Jim Crow Jr, mainstream media views us as just black folks upset about other black folks. Now, I unapologetically love of black people. But it doesn’t stop there. The love spills over to the vanilla suburbs and red reservations and so on and so forth. It’s not just black folks concerned about other black folks. It’s black folks concerned about justice. “

When asked about whether or not he would do anything specifically for African Americans, president Obama famously answered ‘I am not the president of black America.’ Initially I, as well as many other black Americans, understood exactly where the POTUS was coming from. However, Dr. West does make a good point to the contrary.

“Once you get into mainstream politics you can’t even mention race unless you’re very subtle and nuanced about it. ‘My son would look like Trayvon,’ isn’t that what brother Barack said? That’s was very beautiful,” said Cornel.

That simple gesture toward the plight and family of slain teenager Trayvon Martin by President Obama was the most that anyone had ever heard him say regarding a controversial racial issue, and he caught hell for just that brief statement. Imagine if he went further, or did this sort of thing more often? The wolves would begin circling for certain.

“But he’s going to catch some hell anyway,” West countered. “He’s got to be able to hit it head on. He can’t be afraid to catch hell. He’s got to explain to the people ‘Look y’all, I am the president of all America’. Which means he’s got to be able to go to the Catholics and talk about their problems explicitly, or to the Jews and talk about Jewish problems explicitly but when it comes to Negros (he) can’t talk about them because y’all are gonna trash (him)? No, I’m going to talk about everybody’s situation. It’s not going to be some nuanced, indirect reference. The brother got shot. You’re gonna talk about military Moms as if (you’re) the president of military Moms. No, I’m president of everybody. The stuff about the military moms? They deserve it, but don’t you think black people do too? That’s what presidents do, they speak to the specificity of every group, especially the group that gives you 97 percent of their vote. Could you imagine FDR going before workers and saying “I’m not the president of labor, I’m president of all the United States” and they gave him 80 percent of the labor vote? He better come with it.”

But, as many of our readership knows, most of the flack that has been fired at Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley has not come from the White House, but that doesn’t mean they’re not somehow connected to the muckrakers.

“How does one get them to do it if they can successfully demonize the folks whose calling it is to do it?” responded West when asked of one of his biggest obstacles. “In 2008, I thought with a black president it would unleash progressive possibilities. Because more working class people could move to the center. We know what the Republicans had done, and were doing. With the advent of brother Barack, then the demonizing and marginalizing of the black prophetic reaching the point where now to be a black prophetic advocate is to be a race trader. That doesn’t just come from popular black radio folks, but they are connected directly to the Obama machine. They’re going in and out of the White House every month. Obama and company know what’s going on.”

“Wait a minute now! You tell the public that the black prophetic tradition is responsible for getting you into power yet the very people who want to preserve the tradition that made you successful you demonize. With the second term he would be even more successful demonizing the critics and the people putting pressure on him.”

Is Dr. Cornel West insinuating that the White House has unleashed its media assasins, in the guise of Tom Joyner et. al., with the sole purpose of a smear campaign?

“There’s no doubt about that brother. There’s no doubt about that. How’re you going to have people go into the White House, bi-monthly, and these same folks come out and say ‘these people are haters, these people are race traders, these people are Uncle Toms’ nobody in the Obama camp says a mumbling word about it? Then they’re sitting drinking beer with him every month or so. You don’t think there’s any connection? I’m not saying (Obama) is pushing them to do it, I’m not saying he’s paying them to do it.  But they (the Obama administration) know it’s taking place.”

Wow, as journalists we’re just as game for a good conspiracy theory as the next nut with a keyboard, Internet access and a camera, but this one is a little hard to swallow. Here West continues.

“How do you think it’s happening, and these are the same folks that are breaking bread with him and running lies about us? We’re dealing with a white supremacist power structure that’s overarching all of us and that’s true for Barack too. Now, I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy but what I am saying is that the knowledge is in place to make them aware of what people are doing and there’s no effort to put a stop to it. If it were on Fox News and they were spreading these lies everybody would be up in arms, but when it comes to black folks the Obama people don’t say a word.”

Well now exactly who is being nuanced now doctor? Your description of the circumstances are, by definition, a conspiracy. But we certainly understand how he doesn’t want to fan any flames that sound too personal or paranoid. But, as my Grandfather used to say, it’s not paranoia when they’re really after you. In closing, West leaves us with this nugget of hope.

“There has been a major shift in the last three years and I think that has a lot to do with the suffering and the social misery. I also think that (the American public) can see through the lies more and more given that we have persevered the way that we have. The best that we can do is keep going and try to keep the focus off of us and put it back on the subject matter. Then we start to put pressure on the politicians because both of these parties are dominated by big money interests. Most people do see that more and more now.”

As stated in the body of this piece, Dr. Cornel West’s Poverty Tour 2.0 starts today and runs through Saturday the 15th. You can log on to www.smileyandwest.com for more details. Tavis Smiley and Dr. West can also be heard on Public Radio International every week on their radio show, Smiley & West.