Princeton University professor Cornel West has spent much of the past year battling with incensed Obama supporters from Al Sharpton to street demonstrators who resent his criticism of the president.
“He’s ended up being the black mascot of the Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats!” West has insisted in several national forums.
Observations like that have earned him scorn and ad hominem remarks (“spoilsport” and “Uncle Tom” are two of the more polite ones). They’ve also earned him the deep disappointment of many admirers, who are proud of his prominence as one of America’s most important public intellectuals but are aghast that a black man would “attack” the nation’s first black president.
A Feisty History
But West has been a fighter all his life. According to his autobiography, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, A Memoir, he scrapped with schoolyard bullies on behalf of weaker kids when he was a wiry boy growing up in Sacramento, Calif. His elementary school teacher slapped him because he refused to stand and salute the flag. (He said segregation meant the flag only stood for liberty and justice for some.) So he punched her in the arm. And then he got a whipping from his father, who admired the intent but brooked no teacher-bashing.
While he was at Harvard University, West got into a verbal fight with a guest speaker from the Nation of Islam. The argument got so bad his fellow students escorted him back to his dorm, afraid for his physical safety. (He graduated, intact, magna cum laude.)
When he wrote his best-selling treatise on race in America, Race Matters, he got death threats.
And let’s not even get into his famous dust-up with Harvard President Lawrence Summers: He didn’t punch Summers in the arm when he questioned West’s scholarship, but West did tell the press afterward that Summers had tangled with “the wrong Negro.” (West left to become a tenured professor at Princeton, where he remains. He’s on sabbatical this year.)
So the ire now directed at him because he’s touring the country with his colleague Tavis Smiley, saying Barack Obama has been derelict in his duty to the nation’s poor, isn’t keeping West up nights.
Being Misunderstood ‘Goes With The Territory, Sometimes’
“It can be painful when you’re misunderstood,” he admitted before he and Smiley held a town hall on poverty in Los Angeles’ oldest synagogue. “But that’s all right. Sometimes it goes with the territory.”
West has further angered many in the black community for joining with Ralph Nader to encourage third-party candidates to challenge Obama during the Democratic primaries. L.A. community activist Najee Ali was so angry, he organized a protest where demonstrators marched outside Smiley’s studios, chanting that he and West should “stop the hate.”
“We’re very disappointed with Dr. West,” Ali said, holding up an Obama 2012 placard as passing motorists blew their horns in support. “This teaming up with Ralph Nader could take on a life of its own — doesn’t he remember where that got the country when Nader ran against Gore?”
For his part, West fully expects Obama to be re-elected. But he wants there to be some “robust conversation and debate within the Democratic primary” so the president doesn’t “end up with just uncritical adulation, rather than critical interrogation.”
Being Everywhere At Once
West and Smiley have been joining the “occupy” movement all over the place — Wall Street, Boston, Los Angeles and D.C., where he was arrested in front of the Supreme Court for (what else?) demonstrating for the need for the poor to be more visible on the American agenda. And showing solidarity with what they say are the 99 percent of the nation whose financial welfare is controlled by a powerful 1 percent.
Even as he was being led away in handcuffs by D.C. police, West told the crowd, “We have no quarrel with the police. They are working people, part of the 99 percent, too.”
West’s sabbatical year will be over at some point, but even when it ends, his advocacy for the poor — for those he calls “the least among us” — will continue. And he is guaranteed to anger Obama supporters as he continues to call out the president on his poverty policy, or lack thereof. But it’s the only thing West can see himself doing.
“You have to try to be true to yourself, even as you’re open to criticisms,” he says. And the self he is defies categorization: elite academician, intellectual entrepreneur, anti-poverty crusader, lover of Schopenhauer and Stevie Wonder. And unwilling to give any of it up.