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.
“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.”
I asked West whether he believed Union would finally give him something like the quiet fulfillment his marital life has so far failed to provide. “Last month I did seventeen lectures,” he conceded. “That’s too much for a brother almost 60 years old. At the same time, if I’m able to touch a whole lot of lives and get them to rethink, organize, mobilize, is that better than sitting in the library and writing a magnum opus twelve years from now? That’s an open question. That’s an open question, it really is.”
West and Cone did a Q&A at a Princeton bookstore last winter, and afterward, they and a handful of friends and colleagues—including the journalist Chris Hedges, who wrote the Truthdig piece; Carl Dix, a local communist organizer; Brother Ali, an albino rapper; and a few professors—went to dinner. There, West was in his element. He had no one to provoke, and it was clear to see why some might compare West to Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B. DuBois, or even Mark Twain. The conversation started with an appreciation of the works of novelist James Baldwin. “At Baldwin’s funeral,” said West, “I sat next to Stokely Carmichael. He’s a hard brother, and he cried like a baby.” West regarded Baldwin in the light of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Amiri Baraka, and his friend Toni Morrison. Then the conversation took a turn, touching briefly on the works of the slavery historians David Brion Davis and Leon Litwack, and the civil-rights historian Howard Zinn, before resting for a time on Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, the definers of twentieth-century Christian theology—both of whom taught at Union. About the literary critic Harold Bloom, West pronounced, “He’s not always right, but he’s always got something to say,” and then he veered straight through Martin Heidegger to praise his lesser-known disciple, Hans-Georg Gadamer.
West was performing that night for an uncritical audience, but even so, it was hard not to appreciate his mind. He famously reads for two or three hours before bed, and he has astonishing recall. Even in casual conversation, he uses “every intellectual resource at hand,” says Obery Hendricks, who is now a visiting Bible scholar at Columbia University. In private-study sessions with West at Princeton, Hendricks remembers, “He was able to seamlessly incorporate black vernacular, black music, with the deepest Western philosophical thinkers. Once we were talking about jazz, and he extemporaneously wanted to talk about the similarities between bebop and a particular moment in the Italian renaissance. I thought, What kind of mind is this? I couldn’t believe it.” West’s protégés describe seeing themselves, under the tutelage of their mentor, not as intellectual piece workers, toiling in small antechambers, but as heirs to a great, broad tradition.
“There’s pre–Cornel West, and there’s post–Cornel West,” says Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion at Princeton. “I can tell you, generations of African-American intellectuals have been trained on the footnotes of Prophesy!”
In 1993, with Race Matters, West established himself beyond the academy. Race Matters was a collection of essays directed at a mainstream audience that chided America for having failed to offer anything like a prospect of success or fulfillment to its citizens of African descent. “We have created rootless, dangling people with little link to the supportive networks—family, friends, and school—that sustain some sense of purpose in life,” he wrote. “Postmodern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities and self-destructive wantonness.” At the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praised the volume for its “ferocious moral vision and astute intellect.” The next year, after a long courtship, Henry Louis Gates Jr. lured West away from Princeton to Harvard, where he was building a first-rate African-American-studies department. The hire was widely seen as a coup for Gates and for Harvard, and West became the forward of what Gates called his “dream team.” West, long a cult figure on campus, was famous.
Fame begat more fame. After Race Matters, West produced about a dozen books, half of them written with someone else. He appeared in two movies in The Matrix series; he made three hip-hop/spoken-word albums; he gained a reputation as “C-span Man”; and he worked on the political campaigns of Al Sharpton, Bill Bradley, and Ralph Nader. In 2004, he published Democracy Matters, which hit No. 11 on the Times’ best-seller list. As his popularity grew, so too did the number of critics calling West shallow and self-serving. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a sermon written in a hurry and delivered to the choir.”
In 2006, West fired his speaker’s bureau and put Smiley in charge. Smiley says his involvement in West’s career is for West’s own good, because West is too prone to donate his talents for free. “As his friend, I have to protect him and his earning potential,” says Smiley. “I am considerably younger than Dr. West, and at some point, someone’s got to take care of Zeytun, his daughter. I help him with his finances, my accountants are his accountants, my lawyers are his lawyers.” When West speaks in public, he now earns as much as $25,000, and his travel schedule is bruising. He’s on the road four days out of seven and boasts that in ten years at Princeton, he’s never spent a weekend at home. His last three books have been published by Smiley’s publishing house, and he got an assist on his 2009 memoir from Smiley’s ghost writer David Ritz.
West’s media exposure, together with his brutal attacks on the president and others, “has cumulatively led to the perception that he’s squandered his gift and his birthright,” says Dyson. “West has sadly exchanged the unsexy tedium of sustained scholarship to the siren call of public gestures.”
West shrugs off the criticism that he’s failed to live up to his intellectual promise. “As much as I love the life of the mind, I do not give primary status to intellect,” he told me. “I give much more to the centrality of love, and much more to where that love comes from—and that is family, faith, friends, and music. That is fundamentally who I am. Smartness is not some kind of value that I put a whole lot of weight on. There are smart Nazis and smart xenophobes and smart patriarchs and so forth.”
One of West’s most defining characteristics is a near-total lack of interest in his own psychological archaeology. “I’ve never taken the time to focus on the inner dynamics of the dark precincts of my soul. Like St. Augustine once said, I’m a mystery to myself,” West wrote in his autobiography, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Even when pressed, he refuses to engage in self-analysis, protesting that 21st-century confessional narcissism isn’t his thing. The result is a distance, sometimes very wide, between what West says and what he does, without any anxiety from West himself that such inconsistency might diminish his credibility. He preaches humility, but Brother West reads like a catalogue of encounters with the famous and fabulous, among them Sean Combs, Kathleen Battle (whom West dated), Jerome Groopman, Carly Simon, Johnnie Cochran, Luther Vandross, and Sarah Vaughan. “How well does he know himself in the shadow places?” muses his friend Reverend James Forbes, who after eighteen years as senior minister of Riverside Church is also returning to Union this year. “The intellectual gifts become a kind of armor to self-disclosure.”
As a leftist activist, West opposes sexism and patriarchy. As a student of American culture, he has been an advocate of marriage and, especially, of two-parent families. “Liberals are … destroying the parental role,” he wrote in The War Against Parents, co-authored in 1998 with Sylvia Ann Hewlett. “Many on the left fail to understand that we need to rein in untrammeled individualism if we are to re-create the values that nurture family life.” Yet Cornel West is no traditional family man. The protagonist of Brother West seems a puppyish and self-important nerd who chases women until he wears them down and conquers them. (“Marry me,” he begged the woman who became his last wife, “and become the First Lady of Black America.”) Then, when the realities of mundane domesticity set in, he leaves. His third marriage fell apart around the time Zeytun was born, and in the memoir West complains, with very little empathy toward the injured parties, about the legal and financial squeeze he felt from both his ex-wife and Zeytun’s mother. “How blue,” he wrote, “can a brother get?”
“I’m not sure I fall out of love,” he explained in his office. “I discover that I’m unable to stay. But it’s not as if I don’t still love them. I think in the end they recognize they were probably better off without me. Look, this brother’s doing tons of lectures every year. He’s forever on the run, like a bluesman or a jazzman. How in the world can he be a husband anyway?”
West says he abhors racism and nationalism, yet in a public spat that made headlines in 1999, he refused to concur with Michael Lerner that Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic views made him “a racist dog,” preferring instead to call him “a xenophobic spokesperson when it comes to dealing with Jewish humanity.” West hates what he would call corporate oligarchs, yet Tavis Smiley’s talk show is underwritten by Wal-Mart, infamous for allegations of discriminatory and unfair labor practices, and West has never raised an objection. I asked him about this, and he offered a boilerplate response: “We have to stand on principle and make sure institutions are accountable.”
Melissa Harris-Perry, a former Princeton colleague of West’s who is now a political scientist at Tulane University, has become one of his most outspoken opponents. She observed in The Nation last year that even West’s critique of Obama is hypocritical. In the Truthdig interview, West implied that the president, having been raised by whites, is uneasy in his black skin, and he accused Obama of being “most comfortable with upper-middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart.” Harris-Perry pointed out that the same might be said of West, who has spent the largest portion of his career “comfortably ensconced” at Harvard and Princeton. These are “not places,” she adds, “that have a particularly liberating history for black men.”
West grew up in Sacramento, California, the second of four children, in a middle-class family. His mother was a schoolteacher, his father worked as a civilian on the local Air Force base. West was a prodigious reader—the kind of kid who read all the books in the Bookmobile. He was also a track star and a violinist. But the childhood stories that most predict West’s present position in life are those that feature a young Cornel beating up kids whom he perceived as bullies—and one time, smacking a pregnant teacher for insisting that he pledge allegiance to the flag. I asked West whether I might talk to his mother, and he instantly dialed the speakerphone on his desk. Irene West picked up after two rings.
“Mom, how you doing there?”
“Fine, how you doing?”
“Aw, loving you, loving you.”
As a boy, Irene remembered, Cornel “was definitely a handful. He kept his dad busy.”
West cackled at the memory. His mother continued. “I never spanked him. I never spanked him in my life, but I told his dad, and his dad—”
“Dad straightened me out in love. He straightened me out. Lord, lord.”
“The things he was involved in, he meant well. His daddy would tell him, ‘You can’t fight other people’s battles.’ He would take things from somebody who he thought had too much and give it to somebody who didn’t have as much. Such as their lunch money or their whatever. He shouldn’t have been involved in that kind of situation, and that’s the kind of calls we’d get from school. Where he was trying to help one kid by taking from another kid and so forth.”
He may have been a “little gangsta” by his own description, but West was no heathen. One Christmas, when Cornel was 7 and his brother was 10, the two boys decided to accept Jesus. His was a churchgoing family, but in the Baptist tradition, a commitment to Jesus is not something that happens to you by birth or christening. It’s something you decide to undertake when you are old enough—and 7 is a precocious age. “We were choosing the kind of love represented by a Palestinian Jew named Jesus, whose hypersensitivity to sufferings of others felt real and right,” writes West in his memoir. The two boys were dunked under water as their parents beamed from the pews.
West calls himself a “Christian revolutionary,” for the Jesus in whom he believes is no anodyne role model but a social radical who predicted a total reversal of the status quo. West’s Jesus cared most of all for those the Gospel of Matthew calls “the least of these.” He said the poor would gain heaven before the rich, and he especially invited society’s outcasts—the lepers and the prostitutes—into his circle. West’s youthful rage on behalf of the have-nots led him to Black Panther meetings in high school. For his Ph.D. thesis, he wrote about the ultimate social revolutionary—Karl Marx—and his ethical motivations. He joined Democratic Socialists of America in 1982 and has been a member ever since.
This connection between Christianity and social revolution makes West a “liberation theologian,” a person who, as James Cone explained it to me, “attempts to understand the Christian Gospel from the perspective of people who are marginalized and poor and who have been excluded from mainstream society.” Liberation theology does not always have a Marxist or socialist flavor, but in West’s hands, it does. Poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, the self-loathing and passivity of marginalized groups—these are problems rooted in an entrenched, hierarchical capitalist system that perpetuates and thrives on oppression.
“We need,” West told me, “a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to ordinary people, ordinary citizens. I don’t know how it happens. The central political system right now is decrepit, it’s broken. Congress legalized bribery and normalized corruption. Presidential candidates are basically bought off by big money. Both of them. In both parties, oligarchs rule. Mean-spirited Republicans, oligarchs rule. And milquetoast, spineless Democrats—oligarchs rule. Democrats [are] much better than Republicans but still caught within the oligarchy.” The revolution West proposes is “going to be fought less in the political system and in the courts than in the streets.”
West was first arrested for social protest in college and has been arrested about nine times since, most recently last year as part of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. He wouldn’t put it this bluntly, but it is his idea of Christian justice that inspires him to civil disobedience—and to protest, as he did last week, against stop-and-frisk in New York City. When West appears on Fox News and calls the right-wing pundit Sean Hannity his “dear brother,” he is making a show of his Christian faith, for Jesus told his followers to love their enemies.
West’s look—indeed his whole affect—is curated to refer to America’s black Christian past. The dark suit, reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr. and the itinerant preachers and blues performers of previous centuries, is “cemetery clothing,” West told me, a reminder of the inevitability of death. A cynical person might regard these sartorial and rhetorical affectations as further evidence of grandstanding. But as I walked down the street with him, as I did in Princeton one evening, West’s pose grew intimate. He is recognizable, of course. Everyone wants to say hello. And he lingers with each as if he has all the time in the world: the colleague, the groundskeeper, the maître d’, the professor’s wife, the graduate student, the cook, the waitress. “He touches people because he knows it matters. He hugs everyone. He lifts everyone up,” says Hendricks. Whenever you see Cornel West, he asks this question: “Hanging on? Staying strong?”
Barack Obama and Cornel West first crossed paths in 2004, after Obama, then a senator from Illinois, spoke at the Democratic National Convention. In that speech, Obama called the United States of America “a magical place, a beacon of freedom and opportunity,” and West went on television to debate the point. Americans have fought hard to earn and protect their freedoms, he said; magic has nothing to do with it. The senator phoned West, and the two men talked for four hours, especially about their mutual commitment to the dreams of Dr. King—“It was a wonderful conversation,” West says. During the 2008 primaries, West stumped for Obama, making 65 appearances in half a dozen states, and he was in the room as Obama prepped to debate his Democratic rivals at Howard University. West had the candidate’s personal cell-phone number, and he left messages on it frequently. “I was calling him, not every day, but I did call him often, just prayed for him, prayed for his safety and that he’d do well in the debates and so on.”
But after Election Day, the man whose character and judgment West had so enthusiastically lauded at the Apollo never called to express his gratitude, and West found himself unable to procure tickets to the inauguration—something he desperately wanted to do for his mother. West was infuriated. Even now, when he talks about the break in their relations, West uses the language of a jilted lover. “One of the reasons I was personally upset is that I did not get a phone call, ever, after 65 events. It just struck me that it was not decent,” West says to me. “I don’t roll like that. People would say, ‘Oh, West, you’ve got the biggest ego in the world. He ain’t got time to say nothing to you.’ I say, ‘Weeell, I’m not like that. I’m not like that. If somebody does something for you, you take time to say thank you.’ ”
West speculates that something scared the president-elect off. Perhaps, he says, it was his long friendship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s problematical former pastor. “Jeremiah Wright is my brother,” says West, who was in the audience at the National Press Club, when Wright combusted in May 2008, refusing to repudiate the sermon in which he said “God damn America.” Or it might have been that Obama needed to distance himself from the “socialist” label that was dogging him. West himself suspects he was “too leftist.” He believes someone in Obama’s circle said, “We don’t want to get too close to this brother.” (A senior official from the 2008 campaign insists that no one had any intention of shutting West out of the proceedings. “If something dropped there, that’s unfortunate. But whatever happened, that isn’t President Obama’s fault.”)
Despite his lack of access, West arrived in Washington with his mother and brother on Inauguration Day, wanting to participate in the historic event. As they were checking into their hotel, the Wests were astonished to find that their bellhop was luckier than they. “We drive into the hotel, and the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration,” he told Truthdig. “We had to watch the thing in the hotel.” Later that day, West’s ruffled feathers were smoothed when he ran into Arianna Huffington and she invited the West brothers to join her at the Huffington Post party. Of all the celebrations that night, “that turned out to be the best one,” says West. Arianna let him pick a few people from the rope line, he says: friend of Obama’s John Rogers, and Michelle Obama’s brother Craig Robinson. Inside, West ran into his nemesis, Larry Summers. “I shook his hand. He looked like a skeleton. I said, ‘Congratulations, my brother.’ ”
West continues to insist that it’s the president’s policies, and not what he perceives as ingratitude, that motivates his critique. He believes that when Obama chose Tim Geithner and especially Summers to design his economic-reform plan, he revealed that his election-year allegiances to the legacy of King were false. “He said, ‘I’m with these two. I’m not with you.’ He’s making it very clear. The working people are not a major priority, they are an afterthought. Now, during campaigns, it’s very different. Here comes the populist rhetoric again, here comes the concern about workers. The middle class is a major issue. Income inequality is now a fundamental issue. Please.”
West appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music one winter evening, in an upstairs room that was packed to bursting—evidence that in certain spheres West’s cult status is healthy and well. The occasion was a repartee between West and the New School philosopher Simon Critchley, and West gave a vintage performance, careering through George Santayana, Mark Twain, Nathanael West, and William James, before he glanced briefly off Christopher Hitchens, to consider Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu, and came to rest, finally, on the subject of Hamlet and his ability to love. When West talks about love, he often invokes the Hebrew word chesed, which in the Jewish tradition means “loving-kindness.” “Hamlet suffers from the incapacity to love,” West said at bam. “There’s not a lot of chesed there. He’s not connected to that at all.”
With this remark, West came dangerously close to self-perception, for love is at the very crux of his current confusion. “You say ‘Love, love,’ ” observes Dyson, “but you practice ‘venom, venom.’ ” Love, for West, is an ideal, found in Scripture and in art, and it’s in the classroom that he most clearly strives for it. At Union, he has agreed to teach a full load of courses at half his Princeton salary. He is the kind of teacher, students say, who doesn’t miss a class, who takes a personal interest in hometowns and musical tastes, who asks after ailing family members and will extend office hours until every last query is answered.
At Princeton, West regularly taught an undergraduate philosophy course with Robert George, a prominent conservative and an architect of the pro-life movement. “West’s reputation is as a firebrand, as an activist, and as a rhetorician,” says George, a professor of jurisprudence. “But what you see in the classroom is not that. What you see is a person who loves learning for its own sake. Who believes in the project of what he himself always calls paedeia [“education” in Greek]. Not to get a better career, social mobility, to get ahead. But in the inherent enrichment of the human being by engaging with Shakespeare or the music of Mozart. Or the music of the Carter Family. What’s so beautiful to see, and Cornel draws it out of the students, is turning them on to non-instrumentalized education. You’re pursuing knowledge for the sake of truth itself.”
In the classroom, George adds, West is no showman. He listens. He considers all sides of an argument. “Never once did I see him propagandize, or demonize a point of view, or engage in demagoguery,” says George. “The world would be a much better world if everyone had the heart of Cornel West.”
Union is a deeply liberal place, and George worries that West’s wide-ranging intellect will suffer from lack of exposure to thinkers (like himself) who can oppose and challenge him. Smiley, though, has another concern: West’s diminished salary. “I know that Union is up against the wall,” says Smiley. “It is as good a deal as Serene Jones could get.” But “I wish the deal had been better, because over the next few years, he’s going to have to take care of his bills.”
Indeed, West is a worry to all those who love him—those who fear he does too much and those concerned that he’s compromising his legacy. West is aware of the anxiety, but he doesn’t seem to care. “A lot of people are worried that I’m going to drop dead because I can’t sustain the intensity of this pace for a long time,” he says. “I think they have a good point. All the things I’ve been blessed to do—they do not lend themselves to a long life, and that’s fine with me.”
And so the frenzy continues. West just finished his book tour for The Rich and the Rest of Us, making fifteen stops in as many days and paying calls not just on Hannity but on Stephen Colbert and Tina Brown as well. Nor have the tongue lashings abated. Last month, in an interview with Diverse magazine, West attacked Harris-Perry for her critique of him. “She’s become the momentary darling of liberals, but I pray for her because she’s in over her head,” he said. “She’s a fake and a fraud. I was surprised how treacherous the sister was.” Harris-Perry declined to comment on West’s remarks. “I am definitely not interested in weighing in on Professor West,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Only he can know what motivates his opinions about me.”
West may aspire to be like Jesus, but he talks like a man who won’t be disrespected in public and feels compelled to proclaim his own humility. “One thing is, I never fall in love with myself,” he says. “No, no. Not at all.”