Being Cornel West

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff |  1/20/2002

He's the pre-eminent black intellectual of our time, admirers say, a peripatetic philosopher whose dissident wisdom was refined as much by his time at Harvard as by the angst of growing up a black man in a white-governed America.

To his critics, he's a charlatan in a three-piece suit, an academic poseur who speaks in grandiloquent tones that obfuscate more than illuminate.

Here's how he describes himself at the end of a recent book: "A dark voice that combines the blood-stained way of the cross in the funky Christianity of the spirituals with the tear-soaked tragicomic laughter in the funkier blues in order to enhance the art of wise living and enlarge the scope of democracy."

At 48, Cornel West has spent his life fighting for his ideas in academia and politics. Now the popular Harvard professor is waging a more personal battle - for his life and his reputation.

Over the past several months, West, who will have surgery for prostate cancer at the end of the month, has had his scholarship questioned by everyone from Harvard's new president, Lawrence H. Summers, to a growing chorus of conservative commentators. Some have even argued his distinction as one of only a few "university" professors at Harvard owes more to affirmative action than academic prowess.

The criticism has taken a toll. In recent weeks, the author of more than 20 books, a lecturer who gives more than 150 speeches in a year, and a philosopher so eager to spread his ideas that he recently recorded some riffs on a hip-hop CD, has become reclusive. He has granted only a few interviews and now frequently speaks through friends and colleagues. He declined comment for this story.

"This is the most difficult time in his life," said Charles J. Ogletree, a law professor at Harvard acting as a spokesman for West. "He has reached the pinnacle of his academic career, and it's amazing that he would face challenges at an institution he loves dearly. But he is resilient, and this too shall pass."

In October, West told colleagues that Summers called him to his office in Massachusetts Hall and offended him so much that the professor told colleagues he thought about quitting on the spot. Last month, West announced he was taking his second leave of absence in two years and that he's considering a long-standing offer to return to Princeton University, where he taught before coming to Harvard.

His possible departure, as well the potential exodus of other senior black professors who have rallied around West, has sparked an onslaught of news coverage - some harshly critical of West. The criticism has ranged from vituperative and racist talk-show rants to more thoughtful assaults on his scholarship.

"My question about Cornel is: What's his point?" said Shelby Steele, a noted black conservative author who in the Wall Street Journal recently called West an "academic lightweight."

"If you're at all objective about it, his weakness is obvious. There's no systematic thought, no thread, and a cacophony of ideas that aren't coherent. Cornel's work is not remotely on the same level as Nobel Prize winners, those who usually receive university professorships. The discrepancy is screaming," said Steele.

For a philosopher who says he "lingers on the night side of the human predicament," West insists he doesn't mind criticism of his work. It's the personal attacks he won't stand for.

In a recent interview on National Public Radio, West said Summers unfairly disparaged him in their meeting.

"I do not tolerate disrespect, being dishonored, and being devalued," he said. "I love to be criticized. Sometimes it's a little painful and hurtful. But when it comes to disrespect and being dishonored, it's the only thing one has as a human being, let alone as a black person in America."

West has long bridled at those who don't show him respect. When he was in the third grade growing up in suburban Sacramento, his teacher hit him for refusing to stand up and salute the flag with the rest of his class. The 9-year-old hit back, and the incident got him thrown out of school.

But it also set him on a path to Harvard. His dad, a civilian Air Force administrator, and his mom, an elementary school principal, encouraged West to steep himself in books - and he did. It was from a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard graduate, that he first got the idea to apply to Harvard.

He entered Harvard in 1970 and graduated three years later - magna cum laude. One of his professors, Martin Kilson, recalls the Near Eastern studies major as "the most intellectually aggressive and highly cerebral student I have taught."

With a recommendation from Kilson, West was accepted to study for a doctorate in the renowned philosophy department at Princeton. The bright black student stood out in a sea of white students. He also stood out for the breadth of his reading, said Richard Rorty, a philosophy professor at Princeton at the time.

"He just read a lot more than most students and he was really the only one writing about political subjects," said Rorty, who favorably reviewed West's dissertation, "The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought."

After finishing his doctorate in 1980, West held teaching positions at Columbia and Yale, where he taught courses that touched on philosophy, religion, sociology, and history. In 1988, after publishing several books exploring connections between Christianity, Marxism, and the philosophical schools of existentialism and pragmatism, he returned to Princeton as a religion professor and chairman of the Afro-American studies program.

By the time he was 42, West had published 11 serious academic books and scholars were increasingly citing his work. He also had made a name for himself as a popular teacher whose spellbinding lectures would draw on a dizzying range of sources, from Erasmus and Nietzsche to Toni Morrison and John Coltrane.

In 1993, with the publication of "Race Matters," West made the leap from the academic world and achieved the rare status of a celebrity philosopher. The best-selling book, a collection of essays he wrote after the riots that followed the Rodney King trial, explained the roots and depths of racism in America and made West arguably America's best-known black intellectual.

Shortly after, Harvard snatched West from Princeton and in 1998 he became one of the first black scholars to be named a university professor - Harvard's highest distinction and a title held by only 14 of 2,200 faculty members. At the time, Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of Harvard's Afro-American studies department, called West "one of America's most important public intellectuals, and a formidable scholar by any measure."

Not everyone agreed.

"West's elevation to university professor was certainly controversial," said Glenn C. Loury, a university professor at Boston University and another black scholar who has frequently criticized West's work. "There was a lot of grousing. He had not yet established himself in the scholarly realm to deserve such a distinction at the time. If you were to take an objective look at Cornel's work as a philosopher, he clearly didn't break out and distance himself from the field."

Over the years, West has attracted similar critics, some from the left. In a 1995 cover story, the New Republic's literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, reviewed West's canon and called his work "almost completely worthless" on race issues and "noisy, tedious, slippery . . . humorless, pedantic, and self-endeared."

As more critics in the past weeks have pooh-poohed the professor's work, many colleagues have risen to his defense.

"This has been a very, very difficult time for Cornel," said William Julius Wilson, another university professor in Harvard's Afro-American studies department. "He's been the victim of blistering, ad hominem attacks . . . To call him a lightweight in view of his prodigious scholarship is just really dishonest."

Wilson also points to West's record as a teacher. In the fall, West had so many students enroll in his introductory Afro-American studies course he had to move it to a nearby church.

"He's the best teacher I've ever seen," said Martha Jane Nadell, the head teaching fellow for West's introductory course. "Students come up to me years after his class and say it was the best class they've ever taken at Harvard - and that it inspired them to think critically about race. What more could you want from a professor?"

To show their support, some students have recently hung posters around Harvard Yard telling the professor: "Harvard thanks you . . . We all feel that you have changed the Harvard community for the better."

As much as students beseech him to stay, West has hinted that he has already made his mind to leave Harvard for Princeton.

While his colleagues say he won't make any decision about his future until after the operation, he sounded in the interview on NPR as though he was already growing nostalgic.

"In a deep sense, I weep for Harvard, because Harvard has meant much to me," he said. "It's not simply a sense of turning away from Harvard . . .it's also a turning toward something that is positive, something that is visionary, something that is appreciative."
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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