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Cornel West and Tavis Smiley on poverty in America ... presidential politics ... and life in the media spotlight



Tavis Smiley and Cornel West are in Cleveland this week on their Poverty Tour 2.0, which they hope will bring issues of economic injustice to the forefront of the presidential campaign. The hosts of the syndicated public radio program Smiley & West are also promoting their book The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, which offers a radical redefinition of poverty in America and how to eradicate it. We caught with up with them on the phone last week.

Let's start with your book title. Do you consider yourselves among the rich or the rest?

Smiley: Dr. West and I have certainly been blessed beyond measure, and to speak for myself, I am very fortunate to be in a profession that pays — well, to be frank about it, a profession that overpays. But while I am not poor in the classic definition, that's how I grew up. I come from a family of 10 kids, and with my parents and paternal grandmother, there were 13 of us in a three-bedroom trailer. I believe that once you make some progress, you've got to turn around and help somebody else.

West: My journey is very similar to Tavis' in terms of coming out of a family and the church. I'm much older than he is, so I was able to spend time in the movements of the late '60s early '70s. But the important thing to keep in mind is that we are two brothers trying to tell the truth about the subject of poor people.

You get along on a personal level, but do you disagree on how some things should be done?

West: I guess we've had a few disagreements, but we don't spend a whole lot of time on them. We've gotten so grounded as Christians at the foot of the cross that we're on a love train. And when you get on that train, you just want to stay together as brothers, as comrades, as spiritual companions, as warriors. We joined together to take on a war, and that's what we'll do until we die.

How did the Poverty Tour come about?

Smiley: When we started our show a few years ago, we didn't want to be just your run-of-the-mill radio program. We wanted to be a little more active in terms of getting out of the studio to promote the things we believe in. We came up with the Poverty Tour collectively – Doc and I, and his mother, Irene West, and brother, Clifton West. We had a meeting in the West family room. The first tour [in August 2011] covered 18 cities in nine states, and we filmed that tour, which became the basis for a weeklong special on PBS. After the special we were asked to write a book, and then do another tour in about 25 cities. So this is like the third leg of the tour, which we're doing because, between Labor Day and Election Day, we want to put the issue of poverty front and center. Four years ago, McCain and Obama never talked about poverty one time during the debates, and we can't have that in this campaign. Poverty is the new American norm, and it needs to be discussed. So what started in the West living room is now pushing through the battleground states.

Do you feel pressured to support President Obama because you are African-Americans?

West: We are free black men, so we stand on principle. We supported [former Los Angeles] Mayor Tom Bradley, not because he was black, but because of his principles. We have actually supported white candidates over black candidates because of principles. It kind of backlashes against us sometimes — that's true, that's very real. But in the end, that's not what we're preoccupied with. We have higher criteria for ourselves and our work.

Dr. West, you have degrees from both Harvard and Princeton. Which school would you say is the best academically?

West: Oh, that's a tough one. That's like asking if you like Sarah Vaughan more than Billie Holiday. I like both of them, I really do.

You've been on The Colbert Report a couple times. What's your favorite thing about appearing on a show like that?

West: He's unpredictable, uncontrollable. He's a great comic — talented, but not a comic genius.

What's the craziest question he ever asked you?

West: I can't even remember the questions, they came so fast.

As a professor, how do you feel your teaching methods work?

West: I don't have any. I just spit it out and hope it sticks. I try to be artistic about it, but I don't know. I try to touch the students, get them to think critically.

Mr. Smiley, you also have a talk show on PBS. Who is your favorite person that you've interviewed?

Smiley: So many favorites. I had a great time with Fidel Castro years ago in Cuba, Bill Clinton a couple times, and Maya Angelou, one of my favorite poets.

You made Time magazine's "America's 50 Most Promising Leaders" list in 1994, and its "100 Most Influential People in the World" list in 2009. Which was the bigger honor?

Smiley: I was actually honored by both. When I was picked as a future leader the first time, that was gratifying. I like to think they were right, because when they picked me, nobody knew me. And now these years later, I get to do a lot of high-quality work. What was different the second time was that it was not just in America, but the world. I say this with humility, but for me that second one was validation. Lists like those, you always want to be on. I don't know anyone who turns down being on a list like that.

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