While West’s self-adulation has raised the eyebrows of some, it has proven infectious for others, inspiring a chorus of prominent imitators. Maya Angelou, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author and sought-after speaker on the academic lecture circuit, tells us, “Cornel West thinks like a sage, acts like a warrior, and writes like a poetical prophet.” Marian Wright Edelman, wife of a Kennedy adviser, friend of Hillary Clinton, and head of the Children’s Defense Fund, agrees: “Cornel West is one of the most authentic, prophetic, and healing voices in America today.” Time and Newsweek laud him as a “brilliant scholar” and “an eloquent prophet,” while Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, stepped forward as West’s defender in his confrontation with Harvard’s president. West is probably the only professor currently on a faculty who has had a school named after him, the oxymoronic Cornel West Academy of Excellence in Raleigh, N.C.
His renown is not limited to his native shores: “What a blessing it was,” West writes in his autobiography, “to deliver the Edward Said Memorial Lecture in Cairo, Egypt, the Nelson Mandela Lecture in Pretoria, South Africa, the UNESCO Lecture in Santiago, Chile, and the Albert Einstein Forum Lecture in Berlin, Germany. . . . I like seeing [my book] Race Matters
translated into Japanese, Italian, and Portuguese. I like seeing [my book] The American Evasion of Philosophy
translated into Chinese, Spanish, and Italian. I like that there are hundreds of thousands of copies of my book Democracy Matters
translated into Spanish. . . . I like the fact
that all nineteen of my books are still in print with the exception of the two that won the American Book Award in 1993. . . . I like the fact that seven insightful books, both scholarly and mainstream, have been published on my life and work.”
West prides himself on the homage he has received from the popular culture as well: “I like the fact that the beautiful ‘Cornel West Wall’ exists on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Trenton, New Jersey. I am grateful for the illustrious talent of artist Luv One [who painted it]. . . . I like that the remarkable young hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco [sic] has honored me by naming his Grammy nominated album The Cool after a lecture I gave in Chicago. . . . I like performing with those bebop jazz giants, the Heath Brothers. . . . I like that on my most recent CD, Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations, I collaborated with outstanding artists like Talib Kweli, KRS-One, Jill Scott, Andre 3000, and Cliff West [his brother]. I was delighted to be named MTV Artist of the Week and gratified when the album hit the Billboard charts: #1 Spoken Word and #37 R&B/Hip Hop. I like the thrill of collaborating with the incomparable musical genius of our time, Prince. . . . I like that these days more people recognize me from my little movie roles than my books. . . . Ironically, I made my film debut in The Matrix Reloaded, the movie that broke all existing box office records.”
Who is this individual who has attained such prominence and high regard in our culture? In a new self-portrait called Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud (and don’t even try to parse that title), West answers the question in an epigraph which he wrote himself:
“I’m a bluesman in the life of the mind, and a jazzman in the world of ideas.” — Cornel West
Like many passages in his work — indeed like the intellectual life of the man himself — these words are an emotional riff, a substitute for thought, and they do not make any sense. “But what does it mean to be a bluesman in the life of the mind?” West asks himself, and answers: “I try to give heart to the intellect by being true to the funk [sic] of living. For me this can only be seen through the lens of the cross and realized in the light of love.” These are the “reasons,” he explains, that “I greet each person struggling through time and space in search of love and meaning before they die as brother or sister no matter what their color.”
Soapy sentiment aside, not everyone “no matter what their color” is the beneficiary of West’s profligate and vaporous love (even my used copy of this book is signed to no one in particular, “Love, Cornel West”). Charity is certainly not extended to those who stand in the way of the progressive bandwagon that West has ridden to his present heights. An entire chapter of his autobiography, for example, is devoted to his conflict with Harvard’s president, whom he portrays as a liar and a racist.