A few months ago, I was at a Bernie Sanders rally in Birmingham, Ala., surrounded by white people excited to see their democratic socialist Santa Claus. After a mixtape filled with tunes by James Taylor, the Beatles and Bob Marley, a performance by a gospel choir and a short speech by the dynamic Nina Turner, the crowd erupted when a tall, brown, wooly-haired man walked onstage.
Because of the fervor, I couldn’t quite see and assumed that Sanders was about to be endorsed by Jesus, but a white couple asked, “Is that Don King?” My friend turned to them and told them it was Dr. Cornel West, and suddenly I got a little giddy. And by “a little” I mean “almost peed in my pants.”
I love Cornel West.
For a long time, he was the only black academic in the public zeitgeist. He eloquently spoke to us and for us. For eggheads like me, West was the prototype that made us believe it was possible to be cool and smart while being uncompromisingly black. (I’m still working on the cool part. And the smart part). He was wooly-haired Jesus.
A few days ago, in an interview with the New York Times, West brought up—seemingly without prompting—Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, We Were Eight Years in Power.
“Fitting in, in a neoliberal world, is to be well-adjusted to injustice,” West explained. “I’ll give you an example: Dear brother Ta-Nehisi Coates has just come out with a new book.”
Audie Cornish, the interviewer, said: “Yes. We Were Eight Years in Power.” West responded:
Who’s the “we”? When’s the last time he’s been through the ghetto, in the hoods, to the schools and indecent housing and mass unemployment? We were in power for eight years? My God. Maybe he and some of his friends might have been in power, but not poor working people.
Cornish replied: “There are a lot of black intellectuals dissecting these issues. Coates is just one them.”
“That’s true,” said West. “But I mention him because he is currently the darling of the white and black neoliberal establishment.” When Cornish pointed out that people may have said the same thing about him, West rejected the premise.
“Oh, they tried to make me the darling of the liberal establishment,” said the professor. “I refused it.”
Coates simply responded by pointing out the shallowness of West’s remark:
Something happened to Cornel West. Whenever a black academic starts getting love from the public, West shows up to knock them down. He did it with Melissa Harris-Perry. He did it with Michael Eric Dyson. Now he’s doing it with Ta-Nehisi Coates. West has become a serial shade thrower engaged in an existential game of academic whack-a-mole, and no one can figure out why he keeps swinging his carnival mallet.
Maybe it began with his criticism of President Barack Obama that offended many people. Unlike others, I thought much of his criticism of Obama was fair. Obama was disappointing in the way he tepidly advocated for black people. He indiscriminately fired drones at brown people around the world. He tossed the Rev. Jeremiah White aside like a pair of underwear whose waistband had lost its elasticity. He didn’t put a full stop to the insidiously racist war on drugs. Unfairly or not, a lot of black folks thought Obama was going to be our big “come up,” and were upset when he did not cape for us like we caped for him.
To be fair, Obama is a politician. Obama was running for president of the United States. He would probably have lost if he had taken the radical stances that West and others wanted. Perhaps we were at fault for foisting 500 years of hopes onto the shoulders of someone who showed no inclination to be a black savior during his short career as an all-too-reasonable moderate.
West’s criticisms were valid, but it would be disingenuous of me and others to say that they weren’t sprinkled with a little too much seasoned salt (we only acknowledge Lawry’s). West might have been sincere and even correct, but he was salty, too. He was part of a small group that included Tavis Smiley who seemingly took every opportunity to poke and jab at Obama.
Like Smiley, West was not wrong in much of his negative assessments, but their constant faultfinding seemed cemented in the egocentrism of the fact that Obama hadn’t shown them the proper respect they thought they deserved. It was as if Barack and Michelle had hosted a cookout and didn’t invite them. West and Smiley took the Cardi B approach to Obama’s entire presidency: They were quick to cut a nigga off. They saw him and didn’t speak. They didn’t fuck with him.
West has done this before. In 2015 he called out fellow smart-ass black man Michael Eric Dyson:
“I love Brother Mike Dyson,” West said. “But we’re living in a society where everybody is up for sale. Everything is up for sale. And he and Brother Sharpton and Sister Melissa and others, they have sold their souls for a mess of Obama pottage. And we invite them back to the black prophetic tradition after Obama leaves. But at the moment, they want insider access, and they want to tell those kinds of lies. They want to turn their back to poor and working people. And it’s a sad thing to see them as apologists for the Obama administration in that way, given the kind of critical background that all of them have had at some point.”
West later called Al Sharpton the “bona fide house Negro of the Obama plantation,” supported by “the Michael Dysons and others who’ve really prostituted themselves intellectually in a very, very ugly and vicious way.” He later castigated Dyson, Harris-Perry and Sharpton as the “cheerleaders and bootlickers for the president, and I think it’s a disgrace when it comes to the black prophetic tradition of Malcolm and Martin.”
When Dyson penned a clapback to West in 2015, I thought it was in bad taste and a little vitriolic. Dyson called West a “ghost” who “inveighs, stampedes and kvetches” instead of publishing academic work. Like West’s criticisms of Obama, Dyson and Harris-Perry, many of Dyson’s points were valid, but I have always believed that you shouldn’t put your family’s business in the streets. More important, Dyson’s article in the New Republic placed the argument squarely in the streets of white people. It was turning into the Real Housewives of Academia. And not a regular episode ... a reunion show.
West obviously objected to the Dyson takedown, which makes it puzzling why he would take an unsolicited potshot at Coates in the kingmaker and home castle for neoliberal darlings, the New York Times. He is the quintessential pot calling the kettle “not black enough.”
The title We Were Eight Years in Power is lifted from a quote by black Reconstruction-era Rep. Thomas Miller:
We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided education for the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it on the road to prosperity.
—Rep. Thomas Miller (R-S.C.), 1895
In the context of the book, the quote highlights the premise of what Coates called “good Negro governance”—the idea that whites have always feared that black leaders would be effective, thereby destroying the idea of white supremacy. West prefaced his criticism of Coates by explaining, “When it comes to black leaders, if the model is to be successful but not publicly attack white supremacy—well, then that’s really about success to fit in.”
In West’s public derision of Coates’ work, he managed to invoke the one point that dismantled his whole criticism of Coates. In context, the title of the book and the quote from which it hails is about attacking white supremacy.
There is no logic to West’s slap at Coates. Either West hadn’t bothered to read the collection of writings or he simply wanted to slap at Coates the same as he has done to Dyson, Harris-Perry and Obama. I wish there were a more apt description of West’s predilection for poking a sharp stick at every rising balloon emerging in the black intelligentsia, but it was just petty.
Unlike others, however, we should not dismiss West as irrelevant or reduce him to simply being a “hater.” I never doubted the sincerity of his advocacy for black people for a nanosecond. He is still relevant and necessary. He is brilliant and bitter. He is an unapologetic fighter for black and poor people, and he is also a polysyllabic shade thrower willing to sucker punch anyone in the throat who dare casts a shadow over his moment onstage. He wants the spotlight.
The tragedy in all of this is that West paved the way for the thinkers he now so easily denigrates. He is the kung fu master who taught his students how to fight but lives in constant fear that they will someday eclipse him.
No one wants to fight West. He is not the enemy. But the desperate longing for the light that haunts him ...
... it is undefeated.