The Professor and the Bellhop

Getty Images
Getty Images

Cornel West's recent diatribe against President Obama has invited a storm of derision and mockery. And deservedly so. But another aspect of his rant has gone virtually unnoticed: Appparently the good professor thinks of himself as more deserving of a ticket to Obama's inauguration than a hotel bellhop he'd never met before and about whom he knows nothing.


West is guilty here not of being a fraud or a hypocrite but of a lack of imagination. He's not secretly against bellhops, but it does appear that he's in something of a bubble, an elitist bubble out of which he cannot see or imagine scenarios about which he does not already know.

The great writer Ralph Ellison (1913-1994), whom West has studied, was once, he admitted, exactly this sort of person. Until, that is, life's lessons taught him about the infinite mysteries of society — particularly American society — where you can assume all you want to, but you will never, ever know who's who and who knows what about what. In his extraordinary 1977 essay, "The Little Man at Chehaw Station: The American Artist and His Audience" (pdf), Ellison admonishes the educated to never underestimate the knowledge and connections of the poor or blue-collar individual. But more on this in a moment.

West's bitter, petty tirade against Obama has been dismantled around the Web, most notably by Melissa Harris-Perry, writing in the Nation (a piece that caused an enormous Twitter uproar), but no one was up in arms about his anti-bellhop comment. West was upset that he couldn't get a ticket to the inauguration after having campaigned for Obama. (Harris-Perry notes how West and his friend Tavis Smiley also attempted to undermine Obama.)

"We drive into the hotel and the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the Inauguration," West told Chris Hedges. Jealous of a bellhop? West even dragged poor Mama West into it: "My mom says, 'That's something that this dear brother can get a ticket and you can't get one, honey.' " That's something, all right.

They know nothing about this bellhop — whom he knows, where he comes from, how much of his hard-earned money he may have given to the campaign or to the Democratic Party over the years, what he may have done before he was a bellhop or what he does at night, when he takes his cap off. I, for one, would not be in the business of second-guessing the political connections and resourcefulness of Washington, D.C., bellhops. (Socrates, whom West is so fond of invoking, would find this all quite hilarious.)

This class-based hissy fit is interesting, when you consider what West wrote about his own working-class grandparents in his autobiography Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir. When his father was a baby, West wrote, "Granddad got a job as a bellhop in an upscale hotel while Grandma, the most elegant of women, built up her culinary skills to the point where she was catering to the governor of Oklahoma." It boggles the mind to think that this somehow slipped his mind.


Ellison's incisive and sometimes humorous essay describes how he slowly transformed from a pretentious college student and young writer into someone more attuned to the nuances of knowledge and in whose minds said knowledge resides. He learned not to make assumptions about whom and what people know based upon their job, appearance or place of employment. Ellison's essay tries to reintroduce a bit of wonder and sense of indeterminacy in the world.

The average ancient Greek was taught to show deference to strangers because that stranger might be a god. Socrates liked to think he was dispensing with superstitions, but he always did emphasize one thing: how much he didn't know. An open mind is a terrible thing to be closed off by celebrity status!


Paul Devlin is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.