If there were a weathervane over the head of Cornel West, it would be
pointing in two opposite directions.

West, the self-proclaimed “prophetic Christian freedom fighter,” may be the
most visible black intellectual in the U.S. He teaches religion and
philosophy at Harvard, and shows up on Donahue and Oprah to discuss
affirmative action. He’s on Charlie Rose arguing with cultural critic
Stanley Crouch about the Los Angeles riots. He’s a coveted speaker across
the country, whose characteristic style — with a black preacher’s
inflections and a philosopher’s vocabulary, jumping from Tina Turner to
Emerson to Gramsci in the same sentence — is increasingly unmistakable. And
his 1992 Race Matters has sold upwards of 200,000 copies. This summer he’s
touring the country with Michael Lerner, promoting their book of
dialogues, Jews and Blacks. Three recent articles (in the New Yorker, the
Atlantic Monthly, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine) have celebrated the
ascent of the “black public intellectual” — holding up West as the recent
trend’s shining star.

At the same time, West has been the linchpin in a loud and rude backlash of
ressentiment. In early March, the New Republic published Leon Wieseltier’s
caustic attack on West’s written work, behind an inflammatory and
misleading cover emblazoned with the title “The Decline of the Black
Intellectual.” Wieseltier goes for the jugular: “West’s work is noisy,
tedious, slippery… sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared.”
Black political scientist Adolph Reed followed up with a mean-spirited
piece in the April 11 Village Voice, aimed at progressive black scholars
like West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, and
Robin Kelley — but reserving its toughest words for West.

One is tempted to ask: what’s missing in this picture? Is Cornel West “the
pre-eminent African American intellectual of his generation,” the “black
John Dewey,” as he’s been called, or is he “a thousand miles wide and two
inches deep,” as Reed taunts?

Responses from the left to these kinds of attacks have been inadequate, on
the whole, partly because there has been a failure to see the larger
picture — or the picture behind the picture. The best response to
Wieseltier’s jabs at West has been Ellen Willis’ agonized piece in the
March 21 Village Voice, which amounts to a right-for-the-wrong-reasons
lament. Willis writes: “The left is a small beleaguered world these days,
and Cornel is a friend, both figuratively and, for many, literally.” But,
she adds, “To a dismaying extent, I have to agree with Wieseltier’s
assessment: far too much of West’s oeuvre conveys muddled views in
jargon-riddled prose, a Zelig-like amalgam of mix-and-match personae
(Christian moralist, economic determinist, poststructuralist pop critic),
and worst, perhaps, the picture of a man who has come to believe his
publicity.”

Perhaps. But the left, “beleaguered” as it is, has to come to terms with
the deeper implications of these kinds of attacks. And the lesson is not
just what Ellen Willis proposes: that the left has to be more willing to
do the dirty work of what West himself has called “critical
self-inventory” — speaking out when someone’s work is not up to par,
resisting the urge to deify).

I’m going to resist the urge to enumerate West’s strengths and weaknesses,
as Willis and others have, because I read this vitriol not in isolation,
but as the swirling storm clouds of the current political climate, in
which attacks on black public figures (from Arlene Croce’s anti-review of
Bill T. Jones’ dance Still/Here in the New Yorker, to recent scratching
and clawing over the Surgeon General nomination of Dr. Henry Foster) have
served a number of nefarious purposes. Since the debacle around Lani
Guinier’s nomination to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights
Division, black heads have been hunted as stand-ins for altogether
unrelated pet peeves. As Michael Berube has pointed out, there is a weird
sorcery that allows neo-conservatives to brush off, say, affirmative
action, recent continental philosophy, curricular revision, speech codes,
and “the ’60’s,” all in one breath. Wieseltier gleefully gets his own
shovel-full: “misplaced” Marxism, academics, the notion of intellectuals
as activists, and the “politicization” of culture.

But why is Cornel West ground zero? Reed’s race-baiting is the more
outrageous of the two, especially when he casts West as race traitor,
acting out “the definitive role of the black public intellectual —
interpreting the opaquely black heart of darkness for whites.” Reed likens
West to the obsequious native guide in the old television series, Ramar in
the Jungle, who — when the white explorer asked “What do the drums say?” —
would cower and translate: “Bwana, drums say Simba comes soon, much
danger.” Reed simply splices West into this scene: “What do the drums say,
Cornel?… ‘Drums say nihilism, moral breakdown. Need politics of
conversion, love ethic.'”

Wieseltier’s piece isn’t so blatant — but as one might expect, race can’t
help but be part of the equation, in sly disguise. He mocks West’s more
pedantic forays into black popular culture, especially a passage from
West’s Keeping Faith that calls for black activists to “make black
musicians accountable in some way to the urgent needs and interests of the
black community.” Wieseltier sneers, “Agit-pop!”, as though unaware of a
long history of similar statements about black music by black
intellectuals — and black musicians. Black folk have long known that
culture is no joke.

Behind their mocking grins, Wieseltier and Reed really want to throw up
that old storm wall between high and low, between black popular culture
and academic theory. “Folk” culture is no place for philosophical
analysis, Wieseltier implies; you can’t use Gramsci or Dewey to talk about
Prince or the Temptations! His essay starts to look less fun when you trip
over its highbrow segregationist assumptions.

Reed’s race traitor analysis takes it one step further. For him, a black
intellectual is always trapped between two audiences, black and white. And
an intellectual like West “either conflates the audiences into an
unhelpful least common denominator or undertakes a misdirection in
combining an insider’s ‘it’s a black thang’ posture with a superficial,
other-directed analysis explaining or defending the Negro,” he argues.
“West, Dyson, et. al. use the public intellectual post to claim authority
both as certified, world-class elite academics and as links to an
extra-academic blackness, thus splitting the difference between being
insiders and outsiders.”

There is a serious critique buried in here, around the meaning of the word
“public” in the phrase “black public intellectual.” But Reed’s eye is
elsewhere. His whole critique, like Wieseltier’s, in the end is based on a
two-tone “inside/outside” model, in which blackness, since it’s “extra,”
can’t be an integral part of the “world-class elite academy” — which, it
appears, is race-less. Critic Greg Tate would call this the “jungle fever”
analysis: make recourse to some phantom jungle of black authenticity, and
then proclaim that the cat sold out in a quest for fame and fortune in the
academic zoo.

I’m less confident that blackness is so “extra-academic,” or so “extra-”
in general. If black public intellectuals like West are telling audiences
(white and otherwise) something, it’s just that fact. If cultural politics
isn’t a zero-sum game (our culture or yours), then Wieseltier’s
head-in-the-sand prescription, a hollow inversion of Marx’s eleventh
Thesis on Feuerbach, is a lame conclusion: “Perhaps we have been asking
the wrong question. Where are the private intellectuals? Philosophers have
for too long tried to change the world. The time has come to think about
it.” I’ll take Ralph Ellison instead, here: “Africanism is inextricable
from the definition of Americanness. Whatever else the true American is,
he is also somehow black.” (Ellison’s racial politics are the subject of
another essay. I would caution, however, that this passage does not mean
that Africanism is “only” a subset of Americanness.) Reminds me of an
anecdote that I first heard from legal scholar Derek Bell: William Hastie,
the first black federal judge in the U.S., was once confronted by a
righteous young brother after a speech. “Judge,” youngblood asked
sarcastically, “How does it feel to be part of the System?” Without
missing a beat, Hastie replied: “Young man, I’m not part of the system. I
am the system.”