Before President Obama took office four years ago, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, Ph.D. were on the battlefield to bring justice to the poor. The duo, which has always supported Obama, has often been criticized for its persistent efforts to hold him accountable. “I think Brother Tavis and I, in a culture of fleeting pleasures, find enduring joy in loving and serving poor and Black people, even when we’re misunderstood,” West told EBONY.com
During a recent visit to the Johnson Publishing Company’s headquarters in Chicago, the pair shared their thoughts about why they’ll turn up the heat even more now that Obama has won a second term.
EBONY: What are your thoughts about Obama’s re-election?
Dr. Cornel West: I just think it’s a beautiful thing that we stopped a right-wing takeover of the White House. That would have been catastrophic for poor people, catastrophic for Black people. We will continue to put pressure on him and remind him of the legacies of not only Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer but also John Johnson, who was concerned about the dignity of Black people and being respected in the name—not of just interest but of fairness. The Black freedom movement has always been about justice…We want justice for Hispanics, gays, women and Jews.
Tavis Smiley: I was glad he won because I believe in second chances and the president deserves one. He deserves a second chance given the obstructionism he faced in the first term. He deserves a second chance given the headwind that he was up against in the first term…I’m happy he won because I now truly want to see Black people mature, become more politically sophisticated and see whether we are ready to engage the first African-American president on what needs to be done for African-Americans. You noticed the day after the election the Latino leadership had a national media conference call. A good cross section of Latino leadership were on this national conference call the day after and they were very clear to the national media that, “We got this president elected. There are three or four states that we saved him in.” The national media, of course, has already acknowledged that, but the Latino vote saved him in three or four critical states…They went on record within 24 hours laying out their agenda.
Now, we’ve heard for so long that the president doesn’t need to have a Black agenda. We don’t need to press the president. I’m hoping now for all those Black people who kept saying, “Let him get a second term,” that we are mature enough and politically sophisticated enough to lovingly and respectfully push him to be a greater president.
EBONY: He’s said many times before, “I’m not the president of Black America. I’m the president of America.” What are your thoughts?
CW: I think that made a little sense when he was thinking about being re-elected. Now, he should be a free Black man. He’s got four years in office and two years to really do something. I think he’s got to recognize that Black people made America great. There is no America of greatness without blues, jazz, Curtis Mayfield. There is no America without Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, A. Philip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Martin King and Malcolm X. The Black freedom movement has made America democratic and more free. So when you say, “I’m president of all America,” then go to the leaven in the democratic loaf of America. What has made the loaf expand? The Black freedom movement. You got to speak to the new Jim Crow. He got to speak to poverty. He got to speak to dilapidated housing and he got to speak to levels of unemployment and underemployment…
TS:…Black people are not asking for help because they’re Black…I’ve said many times, if you’re in a car accident and they rush you to the hospital and you had head trauma, I hope they would not start operating on your feet first. You go to the part of the body where the pain is most acute. Black America is hurting. Here’s your dialectic here: Black people are hurting the most and we’re his most loyal constituency. Somehow, even at those two polar realities, the most loyal and hurting the most, they still, at the moment, have been relegated to the back of the bus. One thing I do want to warn about is that in this second term, this White House, because they are very smart, we’re going to see even more so than the first term, a lot of symbolism from this administration in the second term. A lot of symbolism and Black people are so easily seduced by symbolism. Dr. West and I both believe that symbolism matters. It matters to young Black children to see an African-American president. It matters to Black families to see a Black family that’s still together. It matters to Black people to see