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Rock On, Brother West

By Sahil K. Mahtani

After the stunning success of his first spoken word album, Cornel West has decided to release a second. God help us all.

I must say at the outset that I am loath to pen my name to yet another piece on the man. Critics understand that our judgments often take on lives of their own—write too much about somebody, and you risk spurring a dozen contrarians to their defense. Or one might draw attention to bad ideas. But I make an exception in the case of Cornel West, where I feel the truth cannot be repeated often enough. Cornel West raps like a 12-year old girl.

Or he doesn’t (sort of) rap, thank you very much. His special purview is spoken word, which is a form of song that emphasizes hypnotic speech, in this case between intermittent (sort of) rap and sparse instrumentation. It’s the perfect vehicle for West, who enjoys speaking. He wishes to use his album, “Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations,” to tell us “to be true to who [we] are.” Ever the believer in hard truths, he (sort of) raps at one point, “we ought to have personal responsibility, political accountability, and corporate culpability.” These are revelations indeed.

Of course, in “this empire,” the phrase he often uses to refer to America, this has proved to be no easy task. Which is where Prof. West’s pioneering pedagogical method comes in. “It’s what I call a danceable education or a singing paidea, the Greek word for deep education,” West said. The professor, then, is fully willing to pursue scholarship—just so long as he can sing and dance to it.

No one said Prof. West wasn’t a man of many talents.

Recently, that skill-set has extended to political punditry. West recently surfaced at a Houston conference organized by journalist Tavis Smiley on the “State of Black America,” where he criticized Barrack Obama’s absence from the conference despite having been invited “a year in advance.”

On that frigidly cold day, Obama was announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, the hometown of Abraham Lincoln. But even more controversial than Obama’s absence to West was his decision to honor Lincoln, which some panelists, West included, viewed as betrayal to the “people,” the phrase he used to refer to the African-American population at large.

Obama, West said, cares less for the African-American community than for “somebody else.” Even more ominously, “Brother Barack” was catering to the “fears and anxieties” of a “large number of white brothers,” and listening to “folk who…warrant our distrust.” Which folks he didn’t say. What fears and what anxieties he did not say.

In any case, he soon steamrolled to a crescendo.

“You know what I mean! You think with all the talent in America we end up with these folks running for president. What is going on! What’s going on is that you need big big money. So another question I want to ask Brother Barack, which is true of all the candidates, we wanna know where your money’s coming from! Is it big white money, black money, red money, Catholic money, Jewish money? Whose running your campaign at the financial level!?”

Like many of our academics today, Cornel West is an exceptionally smart man with surprisingly poor judgment. By last count, the black community is only 12% of the national population. Manifestly, a presidential candidate must cultivate support from the population at large. If Obama is to stand a chance, as I hope he will, he must take all the money he can get: black, red, Catholic, Jewish, and yes, Brother West, even “big white money.”

In any case, where is Brother West’s money coming from anyway? After his stints at Harvard and now Princeton, personally, I’d put my money on the “big white.”

At the heart of these remarks is the assumption that Obama was acting too white for his own good. As a (half) black man, West is saying, Obama should identify more with the black community. In this regard, the choice of Springfield, IL, was “not impressive.” Aside from being an unnecessarily controversial claim, the implication is that somewhere less white would have been better.

What he has done is divide America into black and white, castigate Obama for “acting white,” and hope that we can still move towards a respectful racial pluralism in this country. That Obama has been embraced many millions of every color does not seem to have changed Professor West’s mind. In West’s world, whites and blacks in America are still, even today, fundamentally determined to war. The tragedy, then, of West’s racial determinism is that it contributes to the racial tensions he ostensible wishes to alleviate.

A fitting coda: I was in Washington D.C. over the weekend and was exposed to some new phrases when I visited the Lincoln memorial. As a foreigner, it was the first time I had ever read the Gettsyburg address entire, and I will say that it was a moving experience, unburdened by the cynicism that usually greets any discussion of ideals in politics. For a while, one believes in the promise of this country. It is to Obama’s credit that he manages to bring this out in many people. That West disagrees is only a sign of how large the gap is between elite universities and the societies they are ostensibly meant to lead.

Sahil K. Mahtani ’08, a former Crimson associate editorial chair and columnist, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.

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