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A new port in the storm

Harvard professor Cornel West heads for Princeton after a year of turmoil.

By LYNNE DUKE, Washington Post
August 18, 2002


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Cornel West hunches over the table and flips through his tiny datebook, describing the progression of his recent troubles. He's in a corner booth of Henrietta's Table, his regular haunt inside the Charles Hotel just off Harvard Square. Every once in a while, a waiter or manager wanders over to say hello to the famous scholar-activist and to wish him well. West greets them graciously.

"How you doin', brother?" he says to each one, no matter who they are, and he offers a handshake. He seems to thrive on the human contact, to genuinely appreciate the small gestures. He has just come through a strange phase of life -- "a test of one's spiritual strength," he calls it -- when things seemed literally to fall apart.

In October, Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, shattered the bubble of exclusivity surrounding the school's most rarefied breed, the University Professor, when he chastised West for his extracurricular activities. Then in November, the bad news West received came from his doctor: An aggressive cancer had been found in his prostate. In December, it was the news media: When word of his contretemps with Summers leaked to the press, it ignited a firestorm in the media about race, respect and whether West deserved what he'd achieved. West suddenly became a symbol of the ugly racial debates that still lurk beneath the surface of a seemingly civil society. And there were the marital problems, the divorce proceedings and, in January, the prostate surgery.

When he emerged in April from his physical and emotional recuperation, he stunned Harvard by announcing his resignation and his intention to bolt for Princeton, which had courted him for more than a year and where he will begin teaching later this month.

And then, as is West's way, he hit the road with those infamous extracurricular activities about which Summers had complained. He popped up at Paisley Park in Minneapolis with Prince for his "Xenophobia" conference and concert to which the musician had invited him. He wound up in Washington for a protest on the Middle East and got himself arrested for the TV cameras (and quickly released).

He even surfaced in Sydney for the filming of Matrix 2 and Matrix 3, where he morphed into a character called Counselor West. He got a part in the movies, you see, at the invitation of Larry and Andy Wachowski, the movies' writer-director team, who had read West's early philosophical writings and wanted to incorporate him into the script.

This tickles West. It's a delicious little turn of events. There at Henrietta's, he's not bragging about it, just raising it as another example of where his ideas are taking him, how they are helping him range more widely than ever through the culture.

From winter to spring and into summer, West's detractors rained a monsoon of vitriol on him. An army of columnists and commentators called him arrogant, eclectic to the point of irrelevance, a race-baiter, an intellectual fraud, too preoccupied with politics and a high public profile.

West's admirers -- at Harvard, Princeton and elsewhere -- say he is a stellar scholar who has been hit by an ideology-driven attack fueled by resentment at his stature. These defenders point to the 16 books that bear his name, both scholarly and popular. And the fact that Harvard had elevated him to its highest professorial distinction, shared by only 16 others on the faculty of 7,000.

West is accustomed to being criticized. As a high-achieving black man in a racially brittle country, it goes with the territory. "That's just America," he says.

* * *

West, 48, does not do e-mail. He doesn't have a cell phone. He doesn't own a computer. What he writes, he writes longhand. He's eccentric that way or, as he puts it, "old school." That, too, is why he wears those dark, formal three-piece suits with the vest chain dangling: They conjure the dignity, confidence and humility of the black preachers of his youth. It is also a stroke of style, he says, in memory of the great jazzmen of the 1950s and their sharp-as-a-tack coolness. Think Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, in their early years.

The look, says West, is a "personal existential choice that has political dimensions." The Afro falls in that category, too, "and I don't have time to get a haircut. That's another side of it," he says, laughing.

He may be old school in style, but not in his politics (radical) or in his image (telegenic public intellectual) or his personal life (three marriages and involved again). He is influenced by a range of social spheres, from the conservatism of the church to the radicalism of the Black Panthers and the paradigms of European philosophy.

Not to mention Irene and Clifton. That's his mother and late father. And it's all right to use the first names, as he does when he defends himself by joking, "Clifton and Irene didn't raise no fool." The Wests of Sacramento -- she a teacher, he a civil servant -- ran a household focused on progress and religion and love. That's what West sees as the root of his character -- and the fire behind his activism.

"It's very simple, but it cuts very deep. If you love black folk, you hate white supremacy. If you love human beings, you love justice. If you love the life of the mind, then you hate all forms of dogmatism and parochialism."

After his early celebrated scholarly work, including The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, it was West's best-selling 1993 book, Race Matters, that transformed him into a public intellectual. Explaining the twisted dynamics of race in society, he became a ubiquitous presence on the lecture circuit, his speaking style evoking jazz improv and the riffs of the Baptist pulpit. West's Afro-American studies class was among the most popular on Harvard's campus, with 700 (mostly white) students last fall.

But West is not comfortable merely studying and writing about esoteric things. He eschews the age-old tensions between the academy and the rest of us, and sees his lifework as an intellectual dialogue in the everyday language of regular folk.

And so Cornel West has played two roles: Until recently, he was part of Harvard's "dream team" of high-powered scholars of Afro-American studies (and, in his case, philosophy) assembled by department chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr. And he's been an intellectual provocateur within the culture at large, on the streets, in lecture halls, on television, in protest rallies.

"If you have high visibility, then you can actually say some things that people are more likely to give attention to than if you didn't have that visibility. And that's exactly what I plan to do," West says. "I've always wanted to use whatever celebrity status I have for the struggle for freedom, the struggle for goodness. So if all of a sudden I'm very controversial and newspaper reporters want to hear what I have to say, then watch me get arrested, watch me give this speech, watch me write this text . . . no, I don't shy from it, because you can use it as a force for good."

Or you can squander it. That is the risk of putting one's credibility on the line. And West has heard his share of tut-tutting over his nonacademic activities.

* * *

Lawrence Summers, a Harvard-trained economist and Clinton administration treasury secretary, is himself hailed as a brilliant scholar who brought a fresh strategic vision to Harvard when he became its president last year. He has made the rounds on campus, probing or nudging where appropriate; asking faculty to justify what they do; stepping on some toes, according to faculty sources and media accounts. He is known for a cut-and-thrust style that engages some but hurts others. At a faculty gathering shortly after his appointment, he told a female law professor that a question she posed was "stupid," the Boston Globe reported.

West had not met Summers before they sat down together last October, a meeting that Summers declined to discuss for this article. But speaking at length about what happened that day, West says he was taken aback by Summers' approach.

Immediately, Summers accused West of skipping three weeks of classes because of his political activities. It wasn't true, says West. He prided himself in not giving his students short shrift.

Stuck in New York on Sept. 11 when all bridges and tunnels were closed, he set out early the next morning by car to make it in time for his Sept. 12 class.

The idea that he would cut corners on his students suggested to West that his integrity was under assault.

"So already, I knew you had what I call an a priori approach to 'the Negro.' You don't need any evidence. You just accuse."

(In West's phraseology, "the Negro" is someone devoid of merit and worthy of rebuke, i.e., someone you don't have to respect.)

The meeting went downhill from there, to questions about his politics, his CD, his alleged generosity with A grades, and Summers' belief that West hadn't produced enough recent scholarship.

"If indeed Larry thought these things about Cornel, it was clearly a case of mistaken identity," Gates says in West's defense.

Summers urged West to produce a major academic work and come in every few months so Summers could monitor his progress. West felt insulted. He considers his 1998 book, The War Against Parents, written with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, a scholarly work, albeit not in his discipline. But Summers, says West, seemed unfamiliar with any of the books that bear West's name, including the scholarly works of the mid-1990s. That is what angered the professor most: He felt Summers confronted him without full knowledge.

There it would have stayed -- a difficult conversation between two men -- except that two months later the Boston Globe reported details of the meeting. Once the story of the dispute got out, the media storm began -- mostly with the story line that West, a black man, was "mau-mauing" Summers, a white man, for an act of disrespect. West calls the episode an example of "ignorance in action," "envy unleashed" and "malice run amok."

The controversy over West became entangled with a related one simmering among the black faculty. There was a sense among some that Summers was ambivalent about the value of affirmative action programs. Summers faced pressure to apologize to West and to reassure the faculty on affirmative action.

Early in January, West and Summers met again. Summers apologized for any offense at their October meeting, West says.

The two men actually bonded, briefly. Both had faced cancer, though West's was current and Summers' Hodgkin's disease went into remission years ago.

"It was a very humanizing discussion, the second time, because he's a cancer survivor," West says. "We shared stories about it. We encouraged one another. We left with mutual respect. It was violated rather quickly by him, but we left with mutual respect and everything was cool. I shook his hand."

The violation came, he says, when Summers later said to others that he did not apologize to West.

* * *

The whole affair exposed a virulent strain of resentment toward West among some pundits and intellectuals. In addition, it opened the door for those who still question the credibility of African-American studies as an academic discipline, who even question the intellectual competence of African-American scholars.

Writing for the conservative journal, the National Review Online, columnist John Derbyshire had this to say: "Like most non-blacks, I guess, I have, anyway, always thought that 'Afro-American studies' is a pseudo-discipline invented by guilty white liberals as a way of keeping black intellectuals out of trouble and giving them a shot at holding professorships at elite institutions without having to prove themselves in anything really difficult, like math."

In the heated debate sparked by the West affair, some commentators even called into question the foundations of race relations as a whole.

That Summers would apparently backpedal for upsetting West really annoyed Shelby Steele, for instance. Though it was unclear whether Summers felt guilty or fearful, his behavior was all about white guilt and white fear of being viewed as racist, wrote Steele, a black conservative scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Steele, who has published far less than West, questioned West's scholarly credibility and called him an example of "black mediocrity" allowed to pass as achievement.

The question is, wrote the New Republic, owned by Martin Peretz, a leading neoconservative: "Will West continue to do nothing at Harvard? Or head south to do nothing at Princeton?"

It is true that strikingly few African-American scholars rushed to West's defense when he was under attack.

Few African-American studies departments have reached the level of acceptance, acclaim and endowment as Harvard's, which means many professors of black studies toil on campuses where there is ambivalence or outright hostility toward their field. Thus, the celebrity affixed to Harvard's department has been viewed with some envy and bitterness by others in the field.

West is well aware of how the star system serves him and constrains him. He is theoretically opposed to it, even as he benefits from it.

"People try to use me and my work, but each time I speak on television or radio I always acknowledge voices that are being hidden and concealed," meaning scholars who don't necessarily receive the broad attention that he receives. "But my own image is constructed in such a way that, you're right, it reinforces the star system."

* * *

Returning to the school where he received his master's and doctorate degrees and taught for six years, West will take up a position later this month as a university professor of religion at Princeton. There is irony in his return. Princeton's program in African-American studies is not degreed, like Harvard's program. And it is chaired, not by West, as it once was, but by someone else. West says he is eager to work with chair Valerie Smith.

Contrary to the questions raised about West at Harvard, Princeton has no such qualms.

"In addition to being a first-rate scholar whose work is valued by his colleagues, Cornel West is an extremely dedicated, thought-provoking teacher who is devoted to his students," says university spokeswoman Marilyn Marks.

But, of course, his departure is a huge blow to Gates' "dream team." Two of the original members now are gone: West and K. Anthony Appiah, a fellow Harvard philosopher and friend of West's who also has left for Princeton. The big question on both campuses is: Will Gates defect from Harvard, too? Gates would say little. He, too, has been courted by Princeton. And he, too, is weighing his future.

"It is important that we have multiple centers of excellence in African-American studies," Gates says. "It's important that Princeton be as strong as Harvard and Yale."

West says he regrets that he had to leave. He felt loyalty and pride in the Afro-Am project at Harvard. Had the troubles with Summers not occurred, he would have stayed, he says.

Then again, Princeton is his philosophical home, where he studied under Richard Rorty and came to know many other philosophers who still are there. And he'll be able to work once again with Toni Morrison, a member of the Princeton faculty and one of the writers and thinkers West admires most.

But West is realistic about his critics. He knows they are out there. After this year's strange events, he's been schooled anew in the intensity of the venom that awaits him. But he's not deterred, he says.

"It's like Ephesians 6:11. My armor is in place. So even though I'm a cracked vessel, I cannot be crushed by these folks. I might be bruised, but I'm not the kind of brother who's crushed. And therefore if they wanted to get someone they could crush, they got the wrong Negro."

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