Michael Eric Dyson’s blistering takedown of Cornel West in The Ghost of Cornel West for The New Republic not only closed the door on a decades-long friendship that arguably led the way in black American thought at the end of the 20th century, but also displayed how the roles of black leaders have evolved during Barack Obama’s rise to prominence.
Dyson starts off by describing West’s animus toward the president as a love that has turned into a hatred so severe that it would make the heavens shudder. He mentions the times when West called Obama a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface,” on Democracy Now! and a “brown-faced Clinton” in Salon magazine. He discusses a moment when West told him, Dyson, that he does not “respect the brother at all,” referring to Obama. All this in the first two paragraphs.
As the piece winds its way to the conclusion that solidifies the end of their personal and professional relationship, a narrative of West emerges as a man of supreme intellect who thought that he had reached the pinnacle of African-American thought. West had even gone so far as to start referring to himself as a prophet. He believed that he was the voice that the black community would run to when in need of clarity. Dyson was one of those voices early on, so West’s fall from grace in his eyes is all the more striking. He was a self-anointed prophet, who has publicly lost one of his most significant disciples and a friend.
Apparently, it was the release of Race Matters in the mid-’90s that placed West at the pinnacle, and he intended on staying there for life. He did not need to publish new, thought-provoking works. His lack of output was disappointing, and so were his verbal attacks toward others in the black community, especially at MSNBC contributor and professor Melissa Harris-Perry.
Still, he potentially could have recovered from both of these errors. Yet he decided to rest on his laurels from here to eternity, and as he did so, time, unbeknownst to him, began passing him by. When Obama showed up, and politely challenged West’s idyllic place at the summit, West responded venomously to challenge this young, brash usurper.
West was not the only person to challenge Obama’s place within the black community—Jesse Jackson had very choice words for Obama, too—but he is one of the few whose perspective has not evolved with the passage of time, and nothing could be more damning for an intellectual. Yet the key thing to remember is that Obama did not take West’s position at the summit; he instead built a taller mountain and sat atop it.
This recent evolution of black leadership in American society always makes me think about a conversation I had with my grandfather on the eve of the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
During the conversation, he explained to me that he intended on voting for Hillary Clinton for president because he did not believe that white people would allow Obama to become president of the United States. My grandfather was an educated man, a minister, and a veteran of the Korean War, but mentally it was absolutely impossible for him to believe that Obama could become the next president.
I did not agree with his perspective, but I knew where it came from, and it made me wonder more and more about how one’s environment and experiences can drastically shape what you can believe is possible in the world.
Most times when I tell this story, I need to follow it up with a simplifying analogy to explain how this perspective could have come into being. In this analogy, I condense America to a k-through-12 school.
At the beginning of America, blacks were unpaid laborers at the school. Then we became paid laborers, and then we were able to have our own classes, and through this structure, influential black teachers were able to emerge. These teachers made progress within the school and created lasting changes, but the goal was always to become one of these beloved teachers and to make change through this medium. Many of the most influential black leaders in America were teachers or educated through the church. W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were both teachers. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X taught from the pulpit. Dyson and West used both media, the classroom and the pulpit.
Obama, on the other hand, specialized in neither, even though he taught at the University of Chicago. Instead he took the administrative route. He wanted to be the principal of the school, and that meant he could not teach full time, and this is where the conflict has largely emerged.
People like my grandfather did not believe that it would be possible to have a black principal. Many within the African-American community wanted to know if Obama would be able to teach class full time, because in their minds teaching was what black Americans had always done; and when he said that he could not, they questioned his motives and integrity.
When Obama won the presidency the opportunities for black thought and leadership expanded. My grandfather was beside himself with joy that night because he had lived to witness the previously thought impossible. What he thought was possible in the world had now expanded. Innumerable black Americans felt the same. A new level of attainment in public life was now possible.
Yet despite this progress, the need remained for great black teachers, and now a new question emerged: How would the teachers themselves handle no longer being arguably the most influential voice in the Obama era?
Dyson and other black leaders have taken a healthy position of comfortably and even vehemently disagreeing with Obama on policy issues, but respecting the man for the position he has earned and what it has done for the black community.
West clearly did not take this change well and instead opted to sternly rebuff this paradigm shift that undermined his influence.
Dyson details West’s anger when Obama did not give him tickets to the inauguration, and he mentions how West “lambasted” Obama when the then-junior senator from Illinois decided to announce his candidacy for the presidency in Illinois instead of at Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union meeting in Virginia.
West wanted Obama to visit his class, and he became incredulous when the candidate chose to speak in front of the people who elected him instead of those within the black community. West either did not see the shift or chose to ignore it.
When West did not receive inauguration tickets his fury was that of someone who did not understand that the party could go on without him.
He wanted everyone to love him for his brilliance, and forgot to use his intellect for the benefit of others. He stopped being a teacher, refused to be a student, and wanted to be a prophet.
The leadership roles that black Americans can obtain has changed in the last decade and this has required an evolution of thought amongst black intellectuals and leaders, and a re-examining of roles within the black community.
West was once both an intellectual and a leader, but as the times changed, he did not. And now progress, thought, and leadership have moved forward without him.