Speaking Freely: Cornel West Takes Aim and Fires - Higher Education
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Speaking Freely: Cornel West Takes Aim and Fires

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by Jamal Eric Watson

Ask Princeton University’s Dr. Cornel West about his views on Black History Month, and somehow the conversation ends up with a sharp critique of the Obama Administration.

“Carter G. Woodson and others fought the vicious terrorism of Jim and Jane Crow,” says West. “But in the age of Obama, Black History Month has the potential of being a waggish march from slave house to White House. The rich Black prophetic tradition is more and more silenced and the weak and vulnerable are pushed to the margins.”

Come November, West will vote for Obama, but he says that he won’t stump for him at 65 events as he did in 2008.

“Barack Obama is so much better than the Republicans. So, in that sense I want him to win,” says West. “But if he continues to hang out with Tim Geithner and company, I am going to tell the truth about him and remain a serious critic.”

That kind of rhetoric frustrates some of Obama’s most loyal supporters who simply wish that the Princeton University professor would remain quiet.

But that’s not going to happen. It’s not West’s style.

For more than three decades, the 58-year-old philosopher has combined his work in the academy with a grassroots form of activism, which West views as continuing the Black prophetic tradition established by historical forerunners of the modern day civil rights movement. West’s work has taken him into some of the nation’s most elite classrooms and into some of the most impoverished parts of the country advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable.

In between teaching and organizing, he has mentored a legion of younger scholars such as Princeton professors Dr. Imani Perry and Dr. Eddie Glaude; Georgetown University’s Dr. Michael Eric Dyson; and Dr. Matthew Briones, assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago. Briones was West’s teaching assistant at Harvard and Princeton.

“He lays himself out there with no pretense,” says Briones. “He’s a very humble guy.”

So when West announced last year that he was leaving Princeton University and returning to Union Theological Seminary where he began his teaching career in 1977, most of his friends were not surprised. It was just the kind of move that only West would make. But sources at Princeton say that it also became clear early on that many high-level administrators were beginning to grow weary of West’s critiques of Obama, particularly since the first lady, Michelle Obama, is a graduate of the Ivy League school. But they also wanted to be careful not to censor West, who left Harvard University in 2002 after a public spat with then-president Lawrence Summers who questioned West’s scholarship and his visibility on campus. At Union, where students are encouraged to confront society’s social ills, West will be welcomed with open arms.

“Union is a place where Cornel West’s view of the world is in our life blood,” says the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union. “Some call Cornel West this generation’s Reinhold Niebuhr, but I think he’s in a class by himself. Cornel is, quite simply, the leading public theologian of our age.”

In recent years, West says that higher education has become so “commoditized and bureaucratized that almost everyone is up for sale.” West says he worries about the younger generation of intellectuals who focus too much on “raw ambition and careerism.”

At Union, he will teach philosophy courses “connected to a robust Christianity.” And “I can hit all of the Stephen Sondheim musicals and can catch up with George Clinton and Bootsy Collins when they pass through.”

Whether at Princeton or Union, there is no evidence that progressives who buy his books, pack auditoriums to hear him speak or tune into the radio show that he co-hosts with commentator Tavis Smiley have any plans to abandon West despite his critiques of Obama.

While a number of Black people enthusiastically supported Obama’s candidacy in 2008, West suspects that the enthusiasm has waned as many poor Blacks continue to struggle. Today, he says, they are less excited about Obama but remain deeply protective. “I want to protect him too, especially against FOX’s vicious lies,” says West, adding that Obama is “not a socialist. This man believes in capitalism to its core, and I’m going to tell the truth.”

West, who broke onto the national scene with his bestselling book Race Matters, says that he is surprised that others such as civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, who hosts a daily show on MSNBC, have not been fierce critics of the Obama administration. Sharpton and West sparred on the cable network in April about Obama’s policies, with West questioning whether Sharpton had traded in his fiery activism for access to the White House.

“Whoever thought that Brother Al wouldn’t be protesting any administration?” asks West, who served as an adviser to Sharpton’s 2004 presidential campaign. “You watch his show on MSNBC and you want to say, ‘Brother Al, you come out of the Black prophetic tradition like me. Tell the truth about the White House,’ but he won’t say a mumbling word.”

Sharpton disagrees with West’s analysis, saying that he has differed with the Obama administration on a range of issues including Afghanistan, but thinks that West went too far when he called the commander in chief a “Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a Black puppet of corporate plutocrats” in an interview last year with Truthdig.com.

“What has hurt his cause is that he got into name-calling,” says Sharpton, adding that West attacked him, forcing him to respond. “I always had admiration for him, which is why I was surprised he took the position that he did and never talked to me.”

Sharpton says that some of West’s critiques of Obama are blatantly unfair. “Cornel was running around the country and campaigning for Obama in 2008 and had access to him,” says Sharpton. “When did Cornel have this awakening about President Obama? Obama never said he was going to do all this stuff that Cornel wants him to do.”

West says that the attacks by his former colleague, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, in The Nation and on cable news were strictly personal. Harris-Perry left Princeton last year and is now a professor at Tulane University. She also hosts a weekend show on MSNBC. In 2006, West was responsible for bringing her to Princeton from the University of Chicago after the two met at a conference. She held a joint appointment between the Center for African American Studies and the Department of Politics and arrived with tenure.

But West says that, shortly after she arrived, she no longer wanted to teach in the Center for African American Studies and later turned on him and Glaude, the chairman of the department, calling them “hypocritical leftists.”

“I have a love for the sister, but she is a liar, and I hate lying,” says West, adding that Harris-Perry later said on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” that West attacked Obama’s White mother in the interview with Truthdig.com. “I don’t talk about people’s mamas. She’s reinforcing all of the vicious perceptions of me as a racist, and she knows better than that.”

Harris-Perry’s scathing critique, West says, has more to do with the fact that the Center for African American Studies unanimously voted against her when she came up for promotion from associate to full professor, adding that her work was not scholarly enough.

“There’s not a lot of academic stuff with her, just a lot of twittering,” says West, who added that her book Sister Citizen, released last year, was “wild and out of control.”

“She’s become the momentary darling of liberals, but I pray for her because she’s in over her head. She’s a fake and fraud. I was so surprised how treacherous the sister was.”

Harris-Perry declined to be interviewed for the story, but wrote in an e-mail message that she disagrees with West’s assessment of her latest book. “I am very proud of the book, but academic promotion is always about submitting to the assessment of senior colleagues,” says Harris-Perry. “God knows leaving Princeton was the best thing to happen to me in a decade, so my only response is, ‘Thank You.’ ”

Dr. Boyce Watkins, a public intellectual and a scholar in residence in entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University, says that Sharpton and Harris-Perry have become the two major “pit bulls” of the Obama administration and have been busy trying to silence Black criticism directed toward the White House. As a reward for their work, he says they were both given shows on MSNBC, adding that Sharpton, in particular, is “too close than a civil rights leader probably should be” to a United States president.

“If you want to look at the validity of Cornel West’s critiques, let’s look at the data,” says Watkins, who said that, while the Obama administration was taking credit last month for the rise in the employment numbers, the administration disregarded the fact that Black unemployment actually worsened during that same period.

“Nobody cares about Black, Brown and poor people,” says Watkins. “Cornel’s critique has never been more relevant than now. He’s always spoken on this. He’s not a Johnny come lately.”

For now, West shows no signs of slowing down.

He recently completed a new book with Smiley called The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, scheduled to be released in April. He continues to crisscross the country speaking in crowded churches, college auditoriums and at rallies aimed at addressing economic inequality.

“I come out of a Black prophetic tradition that has a commitment to truth and justice,” says West. “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.”

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