[I wrote about Prof. Cornel West for the Washington Post in 1993, upon his emergence as a public intellectual, a 40-year-old “prophetic” voice of the left. What follows is drawn from my original article.]
His bony fingers are holding a pencil-thin British cigar. A watch chain glints against his three-piece suit, the kind of suit that tightly wraps his lean body whenever you see him.
Chunky ornaments hold together his wide white shirt cuffs. His Afro belongs in a memory. His beard is Malcolm’s. It all seems part of a proudly cultivated personal style: Cornel West, the Sporty Intellectual.
But this isn’t really seeing him, here in this cramped office on the Princeton University campus. You have to see Prof. West on his feet, working a crowd.
Like inside Vertigo Books in downtown Washington. There he stood on a Sunday afternoon, the place packed with women, men, black, white, all mature and serious-looking, some sitting on folded legs. All looking to the man in the three-piece suit.
He told them someone had complained recently that he was distracting from the “black freedom struggle” by taking up gender issues.
Cornel West put on a puzzled face and pondered aloud: “Well, black women have been as black as black men” – there were scattered chuckles. A second later, he cocked his head and smiled, his voice sharper: “Of course, on a more basic level, he’s talkin’ about my mama!”
West said he’s also been criticized for condemning homophobia in the black community. He was dead serious here, his forehead scrunched, his words finely enunciated. “Can you imagine black culture without a James Baldwin? Unimaginable! At least to me. Without Audre Lorde? My Gawd!”
Then he offered a sly half-smile and a stage whisper: “Without a whole lot of brothers playing the organ in churches?”
They drank him in. West talked about redistributing America’s goodies, talked about how 90 percent of us are scratching and scrambling over 14 percent of the wealth. “Those are huge crumbs, but they’re crumbs!” He bemoaned the “weakness,” the “marginality” of the American left.
But then West started talking about the spirit... about love, about affectionate touching. “We need to write books about the decline of gentleness, kindness,” he said. “When I was growing up in the black community, I got touched all the time. I liked it!”
Invoking within the space of minutes the names of Marcus Garvey and Marvin Gaye, Fannie Lou Hamer and Mahalia Jackson, Toni Morrison and George Clinton, West is a whirling synthesis. Old-school radical and old-school preacher. Ivy League heavyweight and brother from around the way.
Behind his desk at Princeton, Prof. West listens attentively as I relate a picture of modern black collegiate life:
It was a celebration of Malcolm X’s birthday on the campus of Howard University. There was a lot of “revolutionary poetry” and pan-Africanist posturing in traditional garb. Lots of trendy greetings (“Hotep”), self-satisfied ritual, and guys chewing on licorice sticks. It was state-of-the-moment cultural Afrocentrism.
And when one of the hosts, a student leader from the University of the District of Columbia, told a rambling story about a Korean dry cleaner ripping off a black customer, he slid into a rant – “A Korean! A nasty, stinking, slant-eyed, parasitic Korean!” – and nobody objected.
It was a scene custom-made for Cornel West’s critique of Afrocentrism.
“What you saw there was a very narrow, truncated, myopic – and sounds also quite xenophobic – version of black nationalist tradition,” says West, hand on chin. “We’re living in a moment in which groups feel as if they have to close ranks. In which there’s an inward-looking disposition rather than an outward-looking one. So it’s very, very difficult to build bridges.
“And those of us like myself who are intent on building bridges,” he continues, “we have to acknowledge that there are reasons why people are becoming more and more narrow-minded. ...
“We’ve got levels of social misery, we’ve got death, disease and destruction ravaging black America. And most of the white elites... they haven’t really given a damn,” West says.
“As long as there is profound pessimism in the black community about the capacity of white persons to respond humanely, there’s going to be black nationalism around.”
At Princeton, this place of old stone, quiet grass and overwhelming whiteness, the Afrocentric movement has little appeal to students, according to West. In large part that’s because the Afro-American studies program, which he runs, presents “a much broader and cosmopolitan and international view of what it means to be African in the New World.”
He mentions one member of his faculty, the acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison, who – along with Alice Walker and such scholars as bell hooks and Patricia Williams – represents what West calls “a very strong black womanist movement, a crucial alternative for black intellectuals, both men and women.”
And then, “you do have a democratic-left alternative that’s also there,” as exemplified by Cornel West himself. “It’s just not as visible” among black activists nationally.
That’s because Afrocentric scholars, by sheer virtue of their Afrocentrism, are looked upon as warrior-heroes by many young black people. So while the mainstream media may hype him as “the hot black intellectual of the moment,” Prof. West knows he hasn’t won the hearts and minds of African-American students.
“The young folks certainly read me,” he says. “Partly because I’m in direct debate with a number of these [Afrocentric] figures. I’ve debated Leonard Jeffries many times, I’ve debated Molefi Asante many times. So I’m in on the conversation.
“[But] I represent a strand of the black freedom struggle that, these days, is very much cutting against the grain. You talk about an all-embracing moral vision, you talk about an analysis that highlights class and gender as well as race, and sexual orientation and ecology. To try to be synthetic and synoptic in that way is very much cutting against the grain.
“But that’s also true if you’re in the white community,” West says. “To talk about patriarchy and homophobia and to talk about white supremacy – cutting against the grain.
“In fact, most white Americans have probably forgotten about their own anti-racist tradition, going back to John Brown, Elijah Lovejoy. So that shows you how this notion of closing ranks, and not accenting the best of one’s tradition, is at work not just in the black community.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]