There are only 17 University Professors among the 2,000-plus faculty members at Harvard, the greatest and richest university in the most powerful nation the world has ever known. They are the elite of the elites, and were awarded the extremely rare University Professor distinction in recognition of their talent and influence.
It’s easy to see why these scholars rate. Economist Robert C. Merton won the Nobel Prize. Literary critic Helen Vendler and Chinese-literature scholar Stephen Owen established themselves as among the leading experts in their highly demanding fields. Political scientist Samuel Huntington has written, among other volumes, The Clash of Civilizations and the New World Order
, a book given new life after September 11. This is what you expect from America’s most brilliant intellects.
You do not expect what Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., University Professor Cornel West did last fall. West, acclaimed by many as America’s leading black intellectual — and who once complained that “academicist forms of expression have a monopoly on intellectual life” — in November released “Sketches of My Culture” (Artemis), a rap CD.
The disc got West in trouble with the new Harvard president, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who made the mistake of asking the professor what the hell he was thinking when he agreed to that project, among others (heading racist demagogue Al Sharpton’s presidential-advisory committee, for instance). In high dudgeon, West threatened to leave for Princeton and take the leading lights of the Afro-American Studies Department with him. Jesse Jackson swooped in to mediate, with Sharpton close on his heels.
It seems to have worked. On Friday, the New York Times reported that the rift had been smoothed over. Few details were given, but Summers appears to have assuaged the black professors without having to issue a public apology to West. After listening to “Sketches of My Culture,” however, you might wonder how Summers can keep a disgraceful boob like Cornel West on his faculty without apologizing to all the parents who pay Harvard’s $34,500 tuition.
From the disc’s opening lines, you know you’re in the presence of something unusually bad, but it takes a minute or two for the full scope of its Shatnerian shlockiness to make itself known. If you’re like me, then by track four, sticky gobbets of schadenfreude will be coming out your nose and dribbling down your chin. And you’re only halfway done!
In case you had any doubts that “Sketches of My Culture” was a vanity project, the first sentence on the disc’s promotional website clarifies matters: “In all modesty, this project constitutes a watershed moment in musical history.” We are subsequently informed that West and his musical collaborator, Derek “D.O.A.” Allen, are “geniuses.”
Lyrically, the disc is a plonkingly simple mish-mash of black nationalism, moral posturing, victimization politics, and sentimental uplift. As such, it’s a useful guide to West’s philosophy — shorn of the impenetrable postmodernist cant that permeates his writing. West deploys his vocabulary much as a 13-year-old girl deploys Kleenex in her training bra: to obscure the embarrassing fact that there’s not much there.
The first cut, “The Journey,” serves as a thematic overture. “Let the word go forth here and now that the struggle for freedom is still alive and the story of that struggle is still being told,” the preacherly West bellows, like Moses from the mountaintop. “We begin with guttural cries and wrenching moans and visceral groans and weary lament and silent ears.”
With that line, West might have been foretelling the state of his listeners by the end of the disc, but he’s really talking about slavery. It should be noted that as mockable as West’s orations are, the things he attempts to discuss are not. It’s just that West’s sensibility is so thoroughly kitschy (and West himself so thoroughly unaware of the fact) that he trivializes everything he touches. What kind of music do we hear in the background when he alludes to Mother Africa? A “Hakuna Matata” knockoff from The Lion King.
West tells us that black music “soo-thez our bruises,” but the second cut, “Stolen King,” wallows in black victimization. In the annihilating 1995 review essay in which he declared West’s books “worthless,” Leon Wielseltier called the professor “a hero in a culture of morbidity, in which wounds are jewels.” Perhaps West is merely in love with the sound of his own voice, but there’s something bizarrely masochistic about the relish with which he recites lines like: “From the heights of rich African humanity, to the depth of sick American barbarity, in the whirlwinds of white supremacy, black people preserved their sanity and dignity.” And: “No other people in the modern world have had such unprecedented levels of unregulated violence against them.” This — after Auschwitz, after Cambodia, after Rwanda.
Imagine these sentiments set to music that might have been used to promote the ghetto libation “Thunderbird,” and you grasp how cringe-worthy this album is.
The dull, karaoke-machine groove continues on “Elevate Your View,” in which a guest rapper named Waynee Wayne joins “Brother West” in preaching reform to a gang-banger. Don’t despair, counsels Brother West, stay on the “caravan of struggle,” the “train of justice,” the “ship of freedom.” Carrying on aboard this rickshaw of malarkey, we roll “3Ms,” a pro-forma tribute to Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., to whom he refers as a “grand titan of love, drum major for justice.” Block those metaphors! Says West, to the three dead worthies: “They and us will never forget you.” No, I’m sure us won’t.
It’s hard to find the bottom in this pit of pathos. It might be West’s description of the 1970s as a decade of “deep sharing and caring and loving and hugging.” Or you might say it’s his final benediction to listeners, in which he exhorts them to carry on the grand march through history, and “Never let us forget Earth, Wind, and Fire encouraging us to keep our heads to the sky.”
Though personally, I reached it in “N-Word,” West’s protest against blacks using the word “nigger.” The song is presented as a radio call-in show, in which West telephones to show two previous callers the error of their ways. One of them, a sexy-voiced woman, phones to say, “I love the word ‘nigger,’ but I only use it in my lovemaking. When I call my man ‘nigger,’ he works hard.”
It is to this cri de coeur that the Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., University Professor, Cornel West, hearkens his intellect. Harvard must be so proud.
Officially, they have to be. Its president having caved, Harvard is stuck with this clownish minstrel — and his whopping six-figure salary — and now has to work harder to pretend that a department with such a buffoon as its star is something to be taken seriously. Now the Latino Studies Department, having seen Cornel West, Jesse Jackson, and their gang turn the famously ferocious Larry Summers into the Ivy League equivalent of a prison bride, has begun agitating for special treatment. The only discernible good news for people who despair over the trashing of academic standards in the face of minority mau-mauing is that Tom Wolfe, who is working on a novel about academia, suddenly has a wealth of fresh material.