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.
(Courtesy of Matthew M. Briones; Princeton University)
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."
I know the man who has dedicated his life to educating us about the voiceless, the powerless and the oppressed. I know the man who speaks truth to power. Cornel and Tavis have rightfully demanded a "black agenda" from the Obama administration, an agenda capacious enough to include black, brown, yellow, red and poor white.
I know the man who is a father, a brother and a loyal son. I know Cornel West, my inspiration, my friend, my brother but, most important, my teacher.
Matthew M. Briones is an assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago.