On July 12, Donda West would have been 60. The former chairwoman of Chicago State University’s English department, who was also the mother of rapper Kanye West, is remembered for many of her humanitarian acts to increase literacy and improve education. She spearheaded the Kanye West Foundation’s philanthropic efforts and inspired single mothers everywhere with her autobiographical bestseller Raising Kanye.
West died in November 2007 after complications with cosmetic surgery. At the time of her death, West and her publicist, Patricia Green, were planning a national speaking tour about the causes that were important to her.
Green, who met West when they were both in their late teens, remembers West’s ability to bring out the best in anyone she met. She recently spoke with Austin Weekly News about the life, passion and legacy of Donda West.
What was it like to work with Dr. West, helping her realize her vision? What set her apart?
Dr. West and I had known each other since college. It’s not surprising that she turned out to be successful both in her career and as a mother because she exemplified those qualities when we were young at Virginia Union. She was very involved in social issues, was a part of the University Players, a theater group, and was actually at VUU on a music scholarship.
So, when I worked with her, it was not like working with her as a client. I was working with someone that I had known since I was 17 years old, and who epitomized the qualities then that would make her become the kind of adult that she was and the kind of mother that she was to Kanye. I witnessed the ease in which she spoke to and inspired cross sections of audiences. That she was a Ph.D. didn’t impede her ability to deliver the common touch, a trait of hers that I will long remember.
How did you deal with Dr. West’s death? What was that situation like for you?
It was overwhelmingly sad. Someone had called me from L.A. very early in the morning to tell me. I was in disbelief, because I had just heard from her a couple of days earlier by e-mail. We were going to be … working on another book tour for 2008. This was on the heels of the successful U.K. tour and domestic signings, including the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Weekend Authors Pavilion, the Baltimore Book Festival and a special signing and talk at Virginia Union University. That this was Dr. West’s first return to the campus since her 1971 graduation made her presence all the more memorable.
It was these test market opportunities that showed Dr. West her book was the selling point for mothers, educators and anyone who wanted to know how to raise their child to be a successful human being. And what I will never forget is her last e-mail to me, where she said that she wanted to establish her own brand in her own right. In many ways, what she left is a reminder that she had begun to do that. It is for us who loved and still love her to continue her work.
Since Dr. West passed, the tabloids and blogosphere have been filled with controversy over the cause of her death. As a media professional, what’s your opinion on the apparent mishandling of such matters? When do we say, as a society, that we have gone too far when we scrutinize so harshly such an unfortunate event?
As you know, the media, particularly tabloid press, sensationalizes, and definitely in the case of public figures. I would rather remember Dr. West for who she was, not for how she died. When we give energy to anything else, we keep the toxicity alive.
I would say that she definitely left behind a legacy. What would you say that legacy is?
When we were in the U.K., the best part of her experience was a talk she gave at an organization for single mothers. We thought the girls would ask about Kanye, but they started asking her how she did it as a single mother struggling. She told them the challenges other single mothers face were the same for her: struggling to balance finances that were not always available and ensuring her child’s welfare.
I believe that was the best part of who she was: a model for mothers all over the world as to what is possible when you believe in yourself. There is nothing that can’t be overcome when you have a will to survive and provide and when you always, always, put your children first.
Celebrity philanthropy is now a significant addition to my agency’s practice, and I owe this direction to Dr. West. There are countless African-American celebrities who are doing their part to make a difference for our communities. Yet, many times, their goodwill stories do not appear in mainstream media. If we do not tell our stories, who will? I am fortified to be that messenger because of Dr. West, and in remembrance of her.