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Cornel West, on the road to promote his memoir "Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud," talked mostly about his journey to becoming one of the most public of public intellectuals. But he also had a message for President Obama, nudging "Brother Barack" toward more progressive stands. And West said Obama should be mindful that even Abraham Lincoln needed a Frederick Douglass to push him to greatness.
The Princeton professor, actor, author of "Race Matters" and "Democracy Matters" spoke Friday at the new Knight Theater in Charlotte, N.C., after an evening that included poetry and jazz to complement the self-proclaimed "jazz man." The theater is part of a cultural campus taking shape in the city.
West talked to the crowd, in what was more improvisational tone poem than formal speech, about his supportive family members and their help on his journey . He told how April 4, 1968 – the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated – made him forget his dream of being the next Willie Mays or Marvin Gaye.
West drew the biggest applause from the mostly African-American audience of several hundred when he excoriated the "wealthy people," the ones "pushing the economy to the edge," who "still get welfare" and bailouts, while the welfare mother is told to pull herself up by her own bootstraps.
Why are the ones who dreamed up credit swaps and derivatives celebrating when unemployment is still high? he asked. "We might have been born at night but we weren't born last night."
It was a reminder that while Obama gets pushed from the right, many of his most enthusiastic supporters want the president to move faster to help those who are struggling.
Obama was a necessary antidote to the 1980 to 2009 "age of Reagan," when "indifference to the poor became a way of life," West said.
Young people, who have become "addicted to success," have no idea of what greatness is, West said. And there were lots of young people to hear the message, attesting to West's every-age appeal.
He was critical of the president during his '08 campaign, when he heard his description of America as "a magical place," and responded that Obama was "overlooking the suffering of the people who are dealing with the non-magical parts."
"I love my brother," said West. "I said it because I believed it." But he knew, he said, that a candidate has to be positive -- even when the sentiment is more desire than reality -- because "the White House can't take that kind of truth."
He worked for Obama's election, though he refused to follow the PowerPoint presentations provided by the campaign. As West promised, the morning after the election, he emerged as an administration critic. So while he wants to protect the president from the disrespect that "is being escalated every day," West worries about the commitment of the "recycled Clintonites" on the president's economic team.
"Lincoln was a mediocre politician until Frederick Douglass got to him," West said. He fears Obama administration policies are "leaning too much to the strong." That, in his view, is "the challenge in the age of Obama.''
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