Writing About Race - Cornel West

Funky Farewell

by Sean Paul Ashley

Have you ever seen someone preach? I have.

What was it like?

Damn.

It was like knocking back a hot, strong cup of Hallelujah, feeling it percolate into your pulse and punch a licorice lick of black-is-beautiful with a haunting snatch of Charlie Parker bip-bop-bopping into your soul.

I exaggerate, but it’s a deep-down good feeling I get when I hear Cornel West tell it like it is.

West, with his rhetorical, oratorical, sartorial je ne sais quoi style, is a rogue in vogue. If I’m on a plane, train or in the carpool lane, you might find me nose-deep in his book, Race Matters. With West’s recent decision to leave Princeton, it is high time I propose a toast to a man who has become synonymous with black intellectualism.

This isn’t the dead-white-man, hear-ye-hear-ye hoary old toast of yore. No, this is a toast. For those out there unfamiliar with black American lyrical lingo, toasting is the African ancestor of hip-hop. Words and music mix a witch’s brew of good, bad, and downright mad.

It’s fitting tribute to West, who’s been bubbling bubbling toiling and troubling his way through life.

With Afro, head, and fist held high, Brother West cuts a funky figure from Princeton’s manicured lawns to the rough and tumble of Occupy Wall Street. His credentials are as sharp as the cut of his suit. Graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, with a PhD from Princeton, and boasting tenure, West is a top-tier, black belt, suit, and tie, intellectual heavyweight. His book, Race Matters is the black man’s bible to living and loving out loud.

And that’s a point of pride for me. For Princeton professorship is thick with barely-living white men, who are experts on dead white men. West has put a little color into our academic cheeks. This isn’t to say that the entirety of African-American academia isn’t brilliant but some stars burn brighter than others. And if you’ve heard or read him, you know Cornel West might burn all America down.

White America," West writes, "has been historically weak-willed in ensuring racial justice and has continued to resist fully accepting the humanity of blacks."

Amen.

“We must do better – but only if we muster the vision, courage and will to do so.

Hallelujah!

“Barack Obama is a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats”.

Praise the Lo-WHAT?

And therein, as the Bard tells us, lies the rub.

West is a black public intellectual, and at times, he’s as public as he is black. West has styled himself as the Ivy League iconoclast. With his a rap album and Occupy Wall Street antics, his public gestures straddle the line between showmanship and civil disobedience.

West, to some, with all his sound-and-fury rhetoric, signifies little. Tulane Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, called West “a turncoat” for his comments of Obama. Lawrence Summers, ex-Harvard head, claimed West’s rap album “embarrassed the institution”.

Long and short of it is, some find Brother West to be a false prophet. A jack-legged-preacher. A charlatan.

Oh ye of little faith!

Sure, occasionally West’s meaning is lost in translation. And yes, sometimes the magic eclipses the message.

But there is no doubt that, beneath that head that scoffs at barbers, is a brain almost as big as his heart. West’s academic and moral fiber speaks for itself. West has gone to jail for his beliefs. He has scaled down ivory towers and spoken truth to power. This “turncoat”, this “embarrassment”, has set himself to the thankless task of criticizing institutions of all colors that tread on the weak, the poor, and the powerless.

One has more than good reason to doubt the commitment of the United States, its President, and the schools that staff the corridors of power, to the downtrodden. Barack Obama, though the benefactor of a fiercely loyal black fan club bordering on cult-of-personality, has hardly been the yes-we-can savior he professed to be. And yet many of us have been silent. To criticize an icon is a daunting task.

And it is one to which West is equal. He has stood up to Obama, black Muslims, white conservatives, and white liberals with his own searing message of love and equality.

West is not a turncoat. He is not an embarrassment. Morally and intellectually he hews to one creed: Truth is no respecter of persons.

And Cornel West is here to make it plain.