The Supreme Love and Revolutionary Funk of Dr. Cornel West, Philosopher of the Blues
by Jeff Sharlet
Killing the Buddha
(A version of this article first appeared in the May 28, 2009 Rolling Stone.)
Cornel West is a slender man, but he hugs like a sumo wrestler: crouch, grab, wrap and squeeze. “I want to love everybody,” West tells me not long after he greets me at his Princeton University office with a bear hug that is warm and wonderfully conspiratorial. ”Ah, yes, Brother Jeff!” he exclaims, like I’ve arrived just in time for a clandestine mission.
I’d feel special if it weren’t for the fact that there’s hardly a soul on Earth whom West won’t call “Brother” or “Sister.” As we walk around town, West embraces and is fully embraced by a maintenance man, a schoolteacher, a group of street missionaries and a class of fifth-graders visiting from Queens, who recognize him from the cover of his 1993 bestseller, Race Matters, still so popular that it’s sold on the street in some inner-city neighborhoods. West never holds back from anyone who wants a piece of him—whether it’s a blessing or banter, an argument with the great man or simply a hug that lasts too long—but he never gets pinned down, either. He locks eyes and holds hands, asks and answers real questions, and then pirouettes away.
West has been called “perhaps the preeminent black intellectual of our generation” by Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., himself a candidate for that mantle. It might be more accurate to say that West is the preeminent intellectual of our generation, no qualifiers. No other scholar is as widely read, no other philosopher courted by presidential candidates, no other Ivy League professor referenced not just by other academics but by popular filmmakers (The Matrix trilogy, in which West played a bit role, was inspired in part by his work) and musicians (West has collaborated with Prince, Talib Kweli, and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, among others).
What makes West’s fame even more remarkable is the fact that he’s among the most radical figures in American public life. He stumped for Obama last year but only with the caveat that he would be Obama’s number-one critic the day after the inauguration. He started even sooner. In his book Hope on a Tightrope, published weeks before Obama’s election, West declares, “I’m not an optimist at all. Brother Barack Obama says he has the audacity to hope. I say, ‘Well, what price are you willing to pay?’“
There is a sense in which this may be West’s moment as much as it is Obama’s. It’s one thing to speak truth to power when the powers-that-be are as crassly reactionary as George Bush; it’s another when all the power is in the hands of the very man you campaigned for. Now is West’s chance to move beyond Democrats and Republicans to the real work of rebuilding the American left. Race, as always, matters—some liberals expected West to give his allegiance to Obama because they’re both black. In fact, West despised Obama’s widely-praised Philadelphia speech on race—“It was weak, man, weak”—in which the candidate described slavery as America’s original sin. “That’s not true,” West says; American democracy was born out of the dispossession and murder of the continent’s first peoples. To West, that fact doesn’t invalidate democracy, it makes it messy. He thinks it should be messy. At times, he sounds like a conservative: Freedom isn’t free, he says, and anyone who leads you to believe as much is lying. “Innocence itself is a crime in America,” he tells me. He laments what Henry James called our “hotel civilization”—“no darkness, no despair, no dread, no suffering, no grief.” No truth. “Where there is no death, there is no life,” he writes. That’s the Westian turn. He roots himself in what he calls “the night side of American democracy” so he’ll be ready for the dawn. He begins with anger so we can end with love.
“My dear Brother Barack,” he tells me one evening at the basement restaurant across from his office, “he’s gotta inscribe himself in the sentimental narrative.” The American dream, that is, which West sees as a menace to actual American democracy, since it carries within it the idea that we are special, maybe even better than the rest of the world. West hears that narcissistic tone in Obama’s insistence that “in no other country on earth” is his personal story possible, and that his story is proof that America is getting better all the time. “Every generation the union is being perfected,” West paraphrases Obama. “But that’s a lie. There’s retreat, there’s regress, there’s setbacks, there’s moving backwards. The history of race in America is not a history of progress.”
West thinks Obama’s presidency may become one of those setbacks. “Because you end up with a selective appropriation of Obama and people like him. And his cousins on the street, Jamal and Latisha and Shaquille and all of them, they’re not a part of that. Their suffering is rendered invisible as people are preoccupied with Obama and company, who make whites more comfortable. Lessens their fears and anxieties. Allows them to embrace him while still demonizing, marginalizing, Latisha there!”
West has been jailed for half a dozen causes since he was first arrested as a Harvard freshman at a student protest. His second arrest, though, was an almost textbook case of demonization: The police rounded up the three black men on his dormitory floor after a white classmate said she’d been raped by a stranger. “Lined us up three times,” he remembers. “Kept us in for a number of days. Had her come in, shaking, crying, and the police are saying, ‘Now, these three did it.’ She said ‘No.’” West’s voice sounds like Southie as he plays the part of the cop: “‘Now please, don’t be worrying about hurting their feelings. You know they did it.’” The woman said no again. “Three times over two days. That white sister saved our lives! She held on to the truth, man.” Years later, when West was commuting to Williams College in rural Massachusetts to teach a course, a highway patrolman pulled him over and accused him of trafficking cocaine. West said he was a professor on his way to a class. “And I’m the Flying Nun,” the officer answered. “Let’s go, nigger.” When West began teaching at Princeton, cops stopped him three times in his first 10 days. He still has a hard time catching a cab in Manhattan. West speaks of these experiences not as revelations but as simple facts. “Just the way the world is,” he says. Critics who accuse him of racial opportunism ignore his commitment to a class-based economics of redistribution for everyone. He’s a scholar of Marx, hardly a career booster in America, and a professor of religion, a job that doesn’t usually lead you to semi-regular appearances on Real Time With Bill Maher. He comes under frequent fire from his own comrades on the left for his insistence that moral values must be at the heart of any movement worth dying for, which to his mind is the only kind worth fighting for.
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