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“I Want to Be Like Jesus.”

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Cornel West hugging then-Senator Obama at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally in 2008.  

“Oh, it’s time to go home,” said West, explaining his move. “It’s about that time in your life where you begin to assess, what do you want the last stage to be in terms of your work and your witness. I have lived the most blessed of lives in the academy. Eight years at Union, three years when I first tenured at Yale, six years at Princeton, eight years at Harvard, back to Princeton ten years. It’s time to end that last stage where I started. Union is the institutional expression of my own prophetic Christian identity, and that identity is deeper than any identity I have.”

What West doesn’t say is that for the past decade, he has been wandering in an emotional and spiritual wilderness. At 58 years old, he has let old wounds fester. He nurses a personal beef with Obama, and he still smarts from the bruises inflicted upon his ego in a 2001 fracas with Larry Summers, in which the then-president of Harvard University queried West’s scholarly bona fides in public and West departed Cambridge in a red-hot rage for his second stint at Princeton. (“[Summers] needed to be the president of Harvard the way I need to be the president of the NHL,” he told me.) West is also a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed and treated for late-stage prostate disease just as the Summers debacle was unfolding. He is thrice-divorced and still pays alimony to his last ex-wife.

In addition, West supports a young daughter named Zeytun, who lives in Germany. Zeytun was born in 2000, the result of a “love relationship,” as he calls it, with a Kurdish journalist who was at ­Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship. West visits Zeytun every six weeks, he says. He calls her every day, and keeps a lock of her hair, tied with a faded ribbon, in his wallet. (West also has a son from his first marriage and a 16-year-old grandson.)

West talks a lot about love, but he doesn’t have many close friends. Rabbi Michael ­Lerner, the founder of Tikkun magazine, worked with West on a book in 1995. “Cornel is a very lonely person,” he told Rolling Stone magazine several years ago. “For a long time, I thought I was his best friend … But he had probably about 1,000 best friends. He was best friends with everybody. That made him more isolated.” West’s inner circle consists of three people: his mother, Irene, who is 80 (his father is deceased); his older brother, Clifton; and the media entrepreneur Tavis Smiley, who is also his business manager and de facto publicist. Smiley talks to West almost every day; he publishes his books; he keeps in close touch with West’s mother. When West wore out his shoes on a trip to New Orleans, Smiley bought him a new pair of Cole Haans. “He is the older brother I never had, and I am the younger brother he never had,” says Smiley. “There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting at his feet, listening, and laughing on him because I love him so deeply.”

The friendship with Smiley has exponentially increased West’s visibility. West has always done more than 100 lectures a year and has long been a regular on cable news and Bill Maher’s show. Now he co-hosts a weekly public-radio show with Smiley, and over the past month the two men have been touring the country promoting their new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us, which they call a “poverty manifesto.” With Smiley’s help, West is flogging the book through his 350,000 Twitter followers. West, a technophobe, “doesn’t punch the button,” Smiley told me. “He quotes his tweets” to a graduate student Smiley knows at the University of Southern California, who posts them on the live feed. “But Doc says push the send button more than I do.”

People who have known West for decades believe the alliance with Smiley plays to West’s greatest flaw: his hunger for adulation. (In interviews, more than one person compared West to a precocious child, clamoring to be seen. “Look at me! Look at me!”) These friends hope the move to Union will help him get back to the purity of purpose that marked earlier phases of his career. West “needs to be part of a community, not part of a couple,” says one. “You can’t separate [Smiley and West]. There’s no public separation where one begins and one ends.”

An unofficial welcoming committee is already assembled at Union, waiting to embrace West when he returns home. His new boss, Union president ­Serene Jones, is a 52-year-old feminist theologian who was once West’s teaching assistant at Yale. James Cone, the eminent conceptualizer of black-liberation theology, was part of West’s original brotherhood and remains on the faculty there. “I love Cornel West. He is a major, major intellectual of our time,” he says. Cone hopes Union will have a rehabilitative effect. “Cornel tries to do too much,” he told me one morning in his sunny apartment in Morningside Heights. But as he expresses his wish, he sees how unlikely it is to come true. “He loves talking to people. He does love to be loved. I love it, too, but I have enough inner strength to be able to resist because I know God loves me.”


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