In November 2007, Cornel West got onstage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and before a hollering crowd of more than a thousand people, with much arm-waving and wrist-flapping, along with a certain amount of ass-wagging, introduced his candidate for president of the United States—“my brother, my companion, and my comrade”—Barack Obama. “He’s an eloquent brother,” preached West. “He’s a good brother, he’s a decent brother.” Obama returned the sloppy kiss and pronounced West “an oracle.”
That compliment could not have been more apt, for West regards himself as a prophet more than a professor. He believes that he is called to teach God’s justice to a heedless nation. “There is a price to pay for speaking the truth,” reads the signature on e-mails coming from West’s office. “There is a bigger price for living a lie.” So when his view of the commander-in-chief changed from adoration to disappointment, West was moved to proclaim it out loud. He had already been lobbing rhetorical grenades in the direction of the Oval Office, calling the president “spineless” for his failure to make poor and working people a policy priority and “milquetoast” for kowtowing to corporate interests during the economic crisis. But in an interview with Truthdig, published last May, West went nuclear. He called Obama “the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.” And then he said he wanted to “slap him,” as the article put it, “on the side of his head.”
In the white world of mainstream media, the interview made a few headlines. But in precincts of the left, and among certain African-American scholars, it unleashed a tide of anguish. West has been an intellectual celebrity for three decades, protected and cherished by his like-minded comrades, but the nasty tone of his Truthdig comments caused many of his closest colleagues to question their devotion, to suspect his motives, and to wonder whether West’s prominence had finally exceeded his merit. Their concerns were in part pragmatic: As the 2012 election approached, some thought West might make his case better if he weren’t quite so mean.
“When you say you want to slap the president upside the head, black people don’t cotton too easily to that,” says Michael Eric Dyson, who is a sociologist at Georgetown University and considers West a mentor (they studied together at Princeton). “Black people hear echoes of the assault on the body. Lynching. Castration.” The word slap, he says, “that’s violence.” Dyson says he has privately tried—and failed—to urge West toward a more moderate discourse.
The first time I traveled to Princeton University to meet with West, I heard him before I saw him; his familiar, gravelly, elongated vowels—“Definite-leeee”—reached me as I waited by his office door. Once inside, I offered the argument I’d heard: that his assault on the president hurts poor and working people more than it helps them. By seeding the left with dissatisfaction, West risks suppressing that vote and jeopardizing the outcome of November’s election. Whatever his failings, this reasoning goes, Obama is bound to represent poor people better than Mitt Romney would.
West considered the objection for the smallest fraction of a second before casting it, witheringly, aside. What, he asked me, leaning across his desk and jabbing his long fingers downward, if the Jews had asked Amos to tone it down a notch? “ ‘Well, Amos,’ ” West imagines the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, circa 750 B.C., saying in a sort of whiny white-person voice, “Don’t talk about justice within the Jewish context, because that’s going to make Jewish people look bad.’
“Amos [would] say, ‘What?’ ” West thundered. “ ‘Kiss my Jewish behind. My calling is to say, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ ”
He leaned back, satisfied.
West has said that his Christian beliefs form the most fundamental part of who he is. Earlier, I asked him which of Jesus’ disciples he most emulates. “Disciples?” he responded in a soft voice. “None of them, really. Nah. ’Cause I want to be like Jesus, I don’t want to be like those disciples.”
This summer, West will leave Princeton, where he’s happily worked for a decade, to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. By conventional standards, this is a nutty career move. Princeton, with an endowment of $17 billion, trains the future’s titans in the rigors of rational thought. Union, whose financial health is not nearly so robust, trains future ministers to apply the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a broken world. But in 1977, West, who was then working on his philosophy Ph.D. at Princeton, started teaching at Union, and it was there that he first found himself, at 24, surrounded and supported by a cohort of black, Christian intellectuals who hoped, as he did, to change the world. West produced his most important work—Prophesy Deliverance!—at Union. It was a battle cry, an argument for including the literature and art, the joy and the suffering, of American blacks in the Western canon alongside Plato and Dante and Chekhov.