Casual observers of pop culture might recognize scholar and intellectual Cornel West from his role as Councillor West in "The Matrix" sequels. The part wasn't a stretch for the Princeton professor, who advised presidential hopeful Bill Bradley and now offers advice to some guy from Chicago named Barack.
But the professor may have more in common with the character of Oracle, the precognitive elder who guides the characters in the films, because his thoughtful answers often lead his audiences to search for further knowledge -- and sometimes, a dictionary.
West's words can also be critical and harsh. In his book "Race Matters," he called the United States a "racist patriarchal" nation dominated by white supremacy. He's been an outspoken critic of the Iraq War and the Bush administration. His views don't differ widely from those of Barack Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright (who has become controversial for his fiery sermons about injustice and America's foreign policy), and they shouldn't. For six years, West taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York with James Cone, who profoundly influenced Wright. The professor says the uproar over Wright's remarks exposed the divisions that still exist in American society.
"It shows the deep gap between the black world and the white world in America," West says. "Jeremiah preaching about God, calling into question America, ought not to be surprising."
Wright recently canceled some of his public appearances because of safety concerns. Such unwelcome attention isn't new to West. "I have had death threats for so long, brother. ... It just goes with the territory," he says. "I don't think about it that much."
It's easy to believe that the public intellectual has other things on his mind. He has a new book of his collected speeches, "Hope on a Tightrope," scheduled for an October release. Then there's the matter of what he might talk about at the banquet for the Sister for Sister Conference at the Greater Richmond Convention Center this week.
"I don't know exactly," he says. "I don't know what I'm going to focus on." Then he asks about the theme of the event. After a few moments, he's made up his mind: "The present-day struggle of freedom and how it relates to race, class, empire and especially gender."
Sounds like it might be good. West tends to illustrate his points with long sentences at a rapid pace, an effect that commands attention and plays well on political talk shows. The grandson of a preacher, he shrugs off his ability to consistently speak in complete thoughts. "I'm absent-minded," he says. "I'm lucky to make it from one sentence to the next."
Self-deprecating humor aside, West is known for his compelling political commentary, supported with historical facts, evidence and hard data. How, then, does he reconcile his academic efforts and his political philosophy with his strong Christian beliefs, which are grounded in a faith of the unseen?
"You can never confine yourself to just the evidence and the data," he says. "All the evidence is undetermined. So it's subject to multiple interpretations."
West says his religion doesn't blind him to the violence and brutality in the world, though. "The question is, what do we make of it?"
The reality of life's fragility and uncertainty soon weigh heavy on West's mind. When asked about the recent, unexpected death of R&B singer Sean Levert, the gospel rhythms of West's speech halt and the record starts skipping. He stutters the name of Levert's brother, Gerald, who died in 2006 and appeared on one of West's CDs, "Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations," perhaps in hope that there has been some mistake.
"Wow," he says after a news article is read to him about the singer's imprisonment and death in a Cleveland hospital. "I did not know that."
West quietly reflects on the tragedy that the Levert family has suffered and recalls seeing Eddie Levert, the father of Sean and Gerald and the voice of The O'Jays, at a book-signing recently.
"You just don't know, man," West says, the hushed tone of his voice indicating that he's no longer interested in talking about himself.
"You got enough, brother?" he asks, and the conversation ends. S
The 14th annual Sister for Sister Conference returns to the Greater Richmond Convention Center April 11-13. In addition to Cornel West, featured speakers include writer Nathan McCall and actress Victoria Rowell. Registration is $65-$150. Tickets to the banquet with West April 12 at 7 p.m. are $75. Visit www.sisterforsister.com.