Q. You advocate something you call a multicultural curriculum in American education. What does that mean?
A. What I advocate is a more truly diverse notion of excellence. What we've done is exclude the best that's been thought by everybody but this slender sliver of people who happen in the main to be white males.
Now, I wouldn't want to get rid of anything in that tradition. I think the Western tradition has been a marvelous, wonderful tradition. But it's not the only tradition full of great ideas. And I'm not talking about any diminishment of standards. Even by the most conservative notion of what is good and bad, we will find excellence in other cultures, like the great Indian cultures, the great Chinese cultures, the great African cultures.
But this notion of calling a regional Anglo-American culture the world's only great culture was a mechanism of social, economic and political control. We have to expose that, critique it and move on, because it's a new world. We can either be rooted in the 19th century or we can blast off to a whole new millennium.
Q. You describe yourself as a "race man." What is that?
A. In the black tradition it's like being a Talmudic scholar, a person of letters who writes about African-American culture.
Q. Do you advocate an Afrocentric curriculum?
A. How I feel about Afrocentricity depends on what is meant. If you mean, as some people do, that you have to be black to teach black studies, or that no white person could ever be a professor of African-American studies, I think that's ridiculous. It's as ridiculous as if someone said I couldn't appreciate Shakespeare because I'm not Anglo-Saxon. I think that it's vulgar and racist no matter whether it comes out of a black mouth or a white mouth.
Q. Milwaukee announced that it intends to set up two schools that will cater to the needs of black boys, in the hope that it will help them succeed academically.
A. I think that's ridiculous.
Q. Is it the sex segregation or the race segregation that bothers you?
A. Both. I understand the impulse. But I don't think that solves the problem. I think it will reinforce the problem. I don't see why there should be a boys' or a girls' school in the first place. I would never send my daughters to an all-girls school or an all-black school, not if I could help it. This is America. This is not Nigeria. It's made up of all these different cultural strains, and I want them to know about that.
Q. So what's the answer?
A. The image of success is wrong. I read an article recently that said that one of the things that was "acting white" for black high school kids in Washington was going to the Smithsonian. Fewer things have made me more depressed than that about the state of black America. When I drive to my house and go through the black neighborhood that's between two white neighborhoods, I don't see black kids packing books at 5 o'clock. They have a basketball, and they're going down to the courts. We have to change the erroneous assumption that you have a better chance of being Magic Johnson than you do of being a brain surgeon. There are more black lawyers than black professional athletes.
Q. Some music critics say 2 Live Crew is mediocre rap, yet during their obscenity trial, you testified that their lyrics were comparable to Shakespeare's.