Why I Would Take a Bullet for Cornel West

Following news that West will leave Princeton for a seminary, a protégé defends his controversy-prone mentor.

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Matthew M. Briones; Cornel West
(Courtesy of Matthew M. Briones; Princeton University)

In July 2012, Cornel West will make his much anticipated return to Union Theological Seminary -- the site of his first academic job and one of the sacred grounds he calls home -- from his current position at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. In light of this news and in the context of the recent spate of unfair ad hominem attacks on Cornel within the media and academia, I thought it would be helpful to give readers a glimpse of a student and his teacher.

I know professor West. I know the man who took me under his wing nearly 13 years ago to introduce me to the work of Niebuhr, Du Bois, Baker and Hamer. I know the man who was smeared by then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who claimed that Cornel had missed classes the previous year because he was campaigning for Bill Bradley (Summers was a Gore man).

The accusations were patently false, and if one wanted any more proof of Cornel's dedication to teaching, one only needed to arrive at Harvard's Lowell Hall on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, to know that he had driven all night through barricades in New York City on the hazy evening of 9/11 to make it to his first class of the semester and his 700 anxious students. I know the man who refused Summers' inappropriate and profane request to take down Cornel's ideological sparring partner, Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield, someone Cornel considered his friend and respected as his former teacher.

I know Cornel West. I know the man who would call me religiously in the few weeks leading up to my mother's torturous loss in her battle with pancreatic cancer in June 2008. He would leave me voice mails to cheer me up (as much as one could) and offer prayer for a son who could no longer believe in a god that had taken away his mother so painfully.

I know the man who writes countless recommendation letters, makes calls on behalf of former students and reads book manuscripts, undergraduate theses and dissertations with generous but painstaking critique until 4 a.m. I know the man who extends office hours for four more hours after his original two-hour window has ended to accommodate a deluge of student appointments. I know the man who stood up for Ph.D. students -- now tenured professors -- who might not otherwise have made it through graduate school, persuading his colleagues that these were students worth investing in.

I know the man who teaches in prisons, who works in Africa to improve AIDS education and who has gone to battle (and jail) alongside the 99 percent in New York and Washington.

In recent months he has come under furious and unrelenting attacks, from both left and right, from both friends and enemies alike. Critics in the academy and the media have wasted so much energy on the distractions surrounding Cornel: the tone of his exchanges with Al Sharpton on cable and radio, the spurious accusation that Cornel and Tavis Smiley's recent anti-poverty tour was a deliberate attempt to shame the president or the provocative metaphor that Cornel used to describe Herman Cain's risible claim that racism no longer exists.

The critics' sound and fury -- over Cornel's methods or his appeals within public forums -- ultimately signifies nothing. It only reinforces the fact that critics, grandstanders and naysayers have all chosen intellectual laziness, leering at the spectacle and avoiding the hard truths that Cornel speaks. To actually engage with his substantive critique of our lack of political and moral courage to serve "the least of these" is too upsetting to most, too disruptive of our exceptionalist American narrative and too inconvenient when Obama is our leader.

But Cornel -- as a teacher first and foremost -- has always encouraged his students to remember James Baldwin's credo: "I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." And part of this bluesman's perpetual truth telling includes unveiling our collective neglect of the poor (of every color) in this country, pointing out the truly dangerous wealth inequality that Americans face (as the Atlantic notes, 65 percent of all income growth between 2002 and 2007 went to the top 1 percent of the U.S. population, and this was before the economic meltdown) and questioning the injustice of our prison-industrial complex (what Michelle Alexander has rightfully termed "the New Jim Crow").  

I know Cornel. I know the man who -- after another draining cancer treatment in a New York City hospital -- was confronted by a man on York Avenue, calling him every racial epithet in the book, and who simply turned to the disturbed man and generously offered, "I will pray for you, brother."