In the spring of 1992, Deborah Chasman, then a 28-year-old editor at Beacon Press in Boston, flew to Princeton University to meet with Cornel West. A professor of religion and political science, West had established himself as perhaps the country's preeminent left-wing thinker, and Chasman hoped to persuade him to put together a collection of essays.
A spirited woman with wavy brown hair, Chasman grew up on Long Island, graduated with a BA in art history from Harvard in 1985 and had worked in an art gallery and a toy factory before Beacon hired her as an editorial assistant in 1986. Within two years, she was negotiating with writers. "We do serious books," she said in her office. Amid the clutter--manuscripts scattered about, dirty coffee cups on a side table, piles of books--was an emblem of her precocious energy: a small globe nestled in a pink Slinky. "I don't often work with agents, so I have to find people who will write the kind of books I want to publish. I go to academic conferences and listen to what smart people are talking about. That's how I get my ideas for projects."
In this case, Chasman knew precisely what she was looking for: a work on racial relations in America from a progressive point of view. "I had seen a lot of books that were being published on race that were conservative. I wanted one that wasn't. But it was important to find someone who was intellectually exciting, who could reach a broad audience."
The first time Chasman had seen Cornel West was at a conference sponsored by the Jewish periodical Tikkun. "New York, 1988 or 1989, I don't remember the date exactly. But I do remember he was giving a lecture on blacks and Jews, and he was spellbinding. I was struck by the fact he moved that audience of 2,000 people--almost completely a Jewish audience--to stand and applaud. I thought then, wouldn't it be wonderful to work with him."
Cornel West is a character worthy of Central Casting for the role of public intellectual. Afro'd, bespectacled, goateed and almost always nattily dressed in a three-piece suit and cuff links, he holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard and is the author of such books as "The American Evasion of Philosophy" and "Prophetic Fragments." Although his scholarly writing can be knotty, he is a mesmerizing speaker, his lectures like sermons. West is fond of long singsong sentences that soar with the intellectual erudition of Marx or Kierkegaard and dive into the pop aphorisms of James Brown or Public Enemy. After they have been stripped of the finery, West's words fall harshly on both conservatives and liberals--black or white--because he believes that those engaged in political debates are more interested in self-promotion than in embracing a vision of a moral society that exploits no one.
"I didn't think he had been well published by the small presses and university presses that had handled his work," Chasman continued. "He had written a great deal, and he was traveling all over the country, talking to all sorts of audiences, but he didn't have a book to go with his speeches. His books were not available in (mass market) bookstores, and he wasn't reaching the broad audience. So that's why I had approached him with a book idea."
Beacon Press, started in 1854, publishes about 50 titles a year, mostly nonfiction. It was not known for generating bestsellers, at least until it released Marian Wright Edelman's inspirational "The Measure of Our Success" in 1992. Founder of the Children's Defense Fund and a longtime friend of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Edelman has a reputation as a deep-thinking activist within the old-line civil rights movement. Still, the project was a gamble for Beacon. Edelman had never written a general-interest book before, and Beacon did not have an extensive track record for reaching black readers.
"She had a heavy speaking schedule, so we decided to use that to our advantage by having her carry copies of the book everywhere she went," said Chasman, who had nothing to do with editing or marketing the Edelman book. However, she paid close attention to the publisher's efforts to target black consumers. "For example, we made a large mailing that promoted the book to African American weekly newspapers. At one point, everyone in the office was calling bookstores around the country, telling the owners to put the book on the front shelves or tables because (Edelman) was going to be on Oprah Winfrey's show."