West grew up in Sacramento, California, the second of four children, in a middle-class family. His mother was a schoolteacher, his father worked as a civilian on the local Air Force base. West was a prodigious reader—the kind of kid who read all the books in the Bookmobile. He was also a track star and a violinist. But the childhood stories that most predict West’s present position in life are those that feature a young Cornel beating up kids whom he perceived as bullies—and one time, smacking a pregnant teacher for insisting that he pledge allegiance to the flag. I asked West whether I might talk to his mother, and he instantly dialed the speakerphone on his desk. Irene West picked up after two rings.
“Mom, how you doing there?”
“Fine, how you doing?”
“Aw, loving you, loving you.”
As a boy, Irene remembered, Cornel “was definitely a handful. He kept his dad busy.”
West cackled at the memory. His mother continued. “I never spanked him. I never spanked him in my life, but I told his dad, and his dad—”
“Dad straightened me out in love. He straightened me out. Lord, lord.”
“The things he was involved in, he meant well. His daddy would tell him, ‘You can’t fight other people’s battles.’ He would take things from somebody who he thought had too much and give it to somebody who didn’t have as much. Such as their lunch money or their whatever. He shouldn’t have been involved in that kind of situation, and that’s the kind of calls we’d get from school. Where he was trying to help one kid by taking from another kid and so forth.”
He may have been a “little gangsta” by his own description, but West was no heathen. One Christmas, when Cornel was 7 and his brother was 10, the two boys decided to accept Jesus. His was a churchgoing family, but in the Baptist tradition, a commitment to Jesus is not something that happens to you by birth or christening. It’s something you decide to undertake when you are old enough—and 7 is a precocious age. “We were choosing the kind of love represented by a Palestinian Jew named Jesus, whose hypersensitivity to sufferings of others felt real and right,” writes West in his memoir. The two boys were dunked under water as their parents beamed from the pews.
West calls himself a “Christian revolutionary,” for the Jesus in whom he believes is no anodyne role model but a social radical who predicted a total reversal of the status quo. West’s Jesus cared most of all for those the Gospel of Matthew calls “the least of these.” He said the poor would gain heaven before the rich, and he especially invited society’s outcasts—the lepers and the prostitutes—into his circle. West’s youthful rage on behalf of the have-nots led him to Black Panther meetings in high school. For his Ph.D. thesis, he wrote about the ultimate social revolutionary—Karl Marx—and his ethical motivations. He joined Democratic Socialists of America in 1982 and has been a member ever since.
This connection between Christianity and social revolution makes West a “liberation theologian,” a person who, as James Cone explained it to me, “attempts to understand the Christian Gospel from the perspective of people who are marginalized and poor and who have been excluded from mainstream society.” Liberation theology does not always have a Marxist or socialist flavor, but in West’s hands, it does. Poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, the self-loathing and passivity of marginalized groups—these are problems rooted in an entrenched, hierarchical capitalist system that perpetuates and thrives on oppression.
“We need,” West told me, “a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to ordinary people, ordinary citizens. I don’t know how it happens. The central political system right now is decrepit, it’s broken. Congress legalized bribery and normalized corruption. Presidential candidates are basically bought off by big money. Both of them. In both parties, oligarchs rule. Mean-spirited Republicans, oligarchs rule. And milquetoast, spineless Democrats—oligarchs rule. Democrats [are] much better than Republicans but still caught within the oligarchy.” The revolution West proposes is “going to be fought less in the political system and in the courts than in the streets.”
West was first arrested for social protest in college and has been arrested about nine times since, most recently last year as part of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. He wouldn’t put it this bluntly, but it is his idea of Christian justice that inspires him to civil disobedience—and to protest, as he did last week, against stop-and-frisk in New York City. When West appears on Fox News and calls the right-wing pundit Sean Hannity his “dear brother,” he is making a show of his Christian faith, for Jesus told his followers to love their enemies.