In Defense of Cornel West

Shouldn’t scholars also be teachers?

Cornel West photo by a katz via Shutterstock

This week Michael Eric Dyson published a very public dismissal of Cornel West—ostensibly, for West’s ongoing critique of Barack Obama and the president’s left-liberal supporters. At times, West’s caustic criticisms seem to impugn the character of both the president and West’s colleagues among the black intelligentsia. Dyson compared West to Mike Tyson biting the ears of his opponents and portrayed him as a scholarly powerhouse past his prime. The Internet has been quick to respond to the story. In The Nation, Dave Zirin called out Dyson for his somewhat selective reading of West’s recent political stands against the Obama administration.

According to Zirin:

The word “Palestine” or “Palestinian” does not once make its way into Dyson’s piece. Neither does “Wall Street” or “immigration.” The word “drones” only comes up in a quote attributed to West.

Dyson avoids these important words that, for West, represent presidential policies that constitute a betrayal. Yet there’s another word that doesn’t make its way into Dyson’s takedown, a word that is key to appreciating West’s scholarly legacy: Teacher.

Unlike many high-profile professors, West is a model academic citizen. Despite a breakneck speaking schedule, West shows up, pops in, and sticks around—to dissertation committees he was not on, just to listen in; to conferences where his comments help frame the conversation; and to late-into-the-night conversations with colleagues and students. Tirelessly, West seems unable to say no to any students’ requests, from “acting” in class projects, to being interviewed for fly-by-night magazines. West’s office hours routinely run five to six hours at a time. I know of several occasions when West gave money to students with cash flow problems—I heard it from the students themselves. Dyson paints a picture of a man obsessed with cultivating the public persona of a “prophet,” but the West I know has always kept his most virtuous deeds private. I have known him to help struggling political causes raise funds and to speak merrily at conferences, in residential halls, to groups of visitors over coffee, and grad students over beers (always picking up the tab). Dyson shames West for his scholarly output, but fails to mention the extent to which he is a presence in campus life, attending lectures, plays, concerts, and even breakdancing shows. West’s presence uplifts the room and makes an already vibrant university more exciting.

West is a tremendous listener, interlocutor, and yes, teacher. I have seen him laser-direct his presence to all comers. I have marveled at his ability to—on the turn of a dime—code-switch, engaging working-class black church ladies, inquiring about a janitor’s family, exchanging book recommendations with an architecture professor, and then go back to discussing his reading group with Jewish thinker Hans Jonas. West makes you feel like you are in the presence of a mighty constellation of writers, texts, and ideas. His virtues are not just private—they extend to his public talks. I have watched him treat the most stuttering questioner with unwavering respect and, like magic, weave the most inarticulate, eye-rolling question into golden insight, elevating all of those who would otherwise snicker.

If West has spoken intemperately of his fellow public intellectuals, it is in part a symptom of curdled disappointment over Obama’s missed opportunities. If the Icarus wings of proximity to power have wobbled some of his judgments, so be it. Naysayers belittle West’s scholarly output, but he has—in speaking to thousands, each month—touched the lives of ordinary folks in loving ways more often than than any public intellectual in recent history.

I admire Michael Eric Dyson, but Dyson is human, all too human and has his own shortcomings. In my circles, we could have cobbled an equally ugly piece about Dyson, yet I would not wish that on him. Certainly, we need to hold each other accountable, but Dyson’s piece was poor form, only serving to give West’s feral critics more fodder for dismissing him as a charlatan. Do white conservative intellectuals disagree so disagreeably in public? West deserves better.

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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