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Seven Thoughts On The Ghost Of Cornel West

1. It’s not terribly uncommon for the type of people who’d even be interested in reading Michael Eric Dyson’s thoughts about Cornel West to rib on Dyson for his often torrential and occasionally obnoxious loquaciousness. He is a man very in love with both the words escaping his pen and coming out of his mouth, and the conspicuousness of this love often makes him easy to caricature.

Some even take that ribbing further, suggesting that Dyson is, at best, an empty-worded academic lightweight or, at worst, a disingenuous, empty-worded, academic lightweight. Basically, a fraud.

It reminds me of some of the criticism James Harden receives. He’s an MVP candidate, one of the NBA’s dozen or so best players, but there are some fans who consider him to be gimmicky. A fraud. Basically, he’s only successful because of how he baits players into fouling him and baits the referees into calling those fouls.

And then Harden will go and drop 50, 10, and 8, effectively exposing those charges as fruitless.

Dyson has similar moments in “The Ghost of Cornel West.” There are some passages in this piece that are, well, amazing. Like this one, where he compares West to Mike Tyson.

If black American scholars are like prizefighters, then West is not the greatest ever; that title belongs to W.E.B. Du Bois. Not the most powerful ever; that’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. Not the most influential; that would include Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, Black History Week founder Carter G. Woodson, historian John Hope Franklin, feminist bell hooks, Afrocentricity pioneer Molefi Kete Asante—and undoubtedly William Julius Wilson, whose sociological research has profoundly shaped racial debate and the public policies of at least two presidents. West may be a heavyweight champ of controversy, but he has competition as the pound-for-pound greatest: sociologists Oliver Cox, E. Franklin Frazier, and Lawrence D. Bobo; historians Robin D.G. Kelley, Nell Irvin Painter, and David Levering Lewis; political scientists Cedric Robinson and Manning Marable; art historian Richard J. Powell; legal theorists Kimberlé Crenshaw and Randall Kennedy; cultural critic Tricia Rose; and the literary scholars Hortense Spillers and Farah Jasmine Griffin—all are worthy contenders.

Yet West is, in my estimation, the most exciting black American scholar ever. At his peak, each new idea topped the last with greater vitality. His fluency in a remarkable range of disciplines spilled effortlessly from his pen, and the public performance of his massive erudition inspired many of his students to try to follow suit, from religious studies scholars Obery Hendricks and Eddie Glaude Jr. to cultural critics Imani Perry and Dwight McBride. West may not be Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Johnson, Jersey Joe Walcott, or Sugar Ray Robinson. He’s more Mike Tyson, a prodigiously gifted champion who rose to the throne early and tore through opponents with startling menace and ferocity. His reign was brutal, his punch devastating, his impact staggering.

I’m not well-versed enough in Black academia to know if this analogy holds water. But the construction of the analogy itself — and the breadth of knowledge necessary to craft it — is one of the many reminders in this piece that Dyson can drop 50, 8, and 8 too.

2. The irony of Dyson including a long and relatively insignificant passage about his own background in a piece calling West out for being vain did not escape me. This was not the pot calling the kettle black. This is the metal pot being mad at the metal kettle for being metal.

This is not a personal attack on Dyson as much as it’s just a recognition of the fact that anyone who writes several books or accepts panel or TV invitations to speak or decides that lecturing college students is their best career path or does what I’m doing right now is, by definition, vain. You can not be one of the People Who Write And Say Things Other People Listen To without first believing that what you say and what you write is important enough to be heard. And this belief requires the type of vanity that would make you include a long and relatively insignificant passage about your own upbringing in a piece calling someone else out for being vain.

3. The fall out between Dyson and West — and West and several other former friends, apparently — apparently stems from West’s feelings about President Obama. In a nutshell, West feels deeply disrespected by the President, and has seemed to distance himself from anyone who still supports him. Although there are several reasons for West feeling this way about Obama, the most prominent seems to stem from his inauguration. Despite being very supportive of Obama up to that point — and apparently very outspoken with this support — West did not receive a ticket, and was very hurt by this slight.

Dyson defends Obama, writing that the president actually shared with him that “…West left several voice messages, including prayers, from a blocked number with no instructions of where to return the call.” Implied: Obama wanted West to be there, but wasn’t able to reach him.

This is bullshit. Of course, Obama was and still is a very busy man, but if he really wanted to reach Cornel West, he could have reached Cornel West. Although West’s antipathy seems one-sided, there doesn’t seem to be any love lost on Obama’s end either.

4. This particular antipathy — a mix of personal feelings and policy/politics-related distrust — is not unique to West. There are quite a few very smart and very progressive people of color who have similar feelings about Obama. The dislike and distrust is so palpable that it does feel personal. And not personal in the “this random person wronged me” sense but the “this person I loved wronged me” sense. I’ve always considered — and still do consider — those people to be delusional. People disappointed that Obama is who is he instead of who they wrongly expected/wanted him to be. Jilted lovers, basically.

But perhaps there is something more there. I don’t believe there is, but I acknowledge the possibility of my own feelings about Obama shielding me from some truths about his character.

5. Along with West’s vanity, Dyson’s main criticism of West is that he’s been a substandard academic for the last, well, 20 years.

It is not only that West’s preoccupations with Obama’s perceived failures distracted him, though that is true; more accurate would be to say that the last several years revealed West’s paucity of serious and fresh intellectual work, a trend far longer in the making. West is still a Man of Ideas, but those ideas today are a vain and unimaginative repackaging of his earlier hits. He hasn’t published without aid of a co-writer a single scholarly book since Keeping Faith, which appeared in 1993, the same year as Race Matters. West has repeatedly tried to recapture the glory of that slim classic by imitating the 1960s-era rhythm and blues singers he loves so much: Make another song that sounds just like the one that topped the charts. In 2004, West published Democracy Matters, an obvious recycling of both the title and themes of his work a decade earlier.

If true, this pattern is both the most predictable part in the piece and the most damning. It’s predictable because it’s human nature for people to take their foot off the pedal once they reach the pinnacle of their profession. You see in every other industry — ambitious people start to lose some of that ambition once it leads to success — so West should be no different.

It’s damning, however, because it suggests that the top for him wasn’t Race Matters, it was the recognition he received for writing Race Matters. Fame, not achievement, is what made him soft, and I can’t think of a worse thing to say about an academic — especially an academic who very publicly criticizes the academic bon-fides of other academics.

6. You will not find a better deconstruction of the difference between speaking and writing than what Dyson does here:

The ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more. Writing is an often-painful task that can feel like the death of one’s past. Equally discomfiting is seeing one’s present commitments to truths crumble once one begins to tap away at the keyboard or scar the page with ink. Writing demands a different sort of apprenticeship to ideas than does speaking. It beckons one to revisit over an extended, or at least delayed, period the same material and to revise what one thinks. Revision is reading again and again what one writes so that one can think again and again about what one wants to say and in turn determine if better and deeper things can be said.

7. Why wasn’t this published in EBONY? Or The Root?¹ Or any of the several renowned publications featuring Black EICs, Black associate editors, Black managing editors, Black copy editors, Black writers, and (mostly) Black readers? Why, when one of our most prominent academics decides to write a racially and politically tinged 15,000 word long piece about another one of our most prominent academics, isn’t a traditionally Black publication the landing point for it? Why won’t one of them receive the hundreds of thousands of clicks — and accompanying ad revenue/attention/prestige — that the New Republic will today?

I don’t expect anyone to answer these questions today. But at least we should be asking them.

¹Danielle Belton did interview Dyson at The Root. The point remains, though.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Dimka Mati Braswell

    I had to re-read Dyson’s piece twice because I swore he was in my head about West’s current state. I believe he was spot on.

  • I guess my comment got ethered.

    • MzNinaSoul

      mine did too

    • KMN

      mine as well..

    • Damon Young

      its something going on on our end. server issue. if you can, you should just repost the comment

      • I guess the Soul Patrol is coming after everyone today.

        • AlwaysCC

          or the illuminati

          • The #Loomingnaughty isn’t real. If they are real then Jay Electronica is and we know better than that.

            • AlwaysCC

              it’s real. it’s just not respected since they started letting in the #inwards

  • Nicholas Peters

    Thought 1: the article was looooonng
    Thought 2: Whatever MED feels about Cornel West…he hustles just like Cornel west
    Thought 3: Black people love talking about things that almost solve nothing
    Thought 4: Instead of whining about West be better than him

    • Question

      Yes, yes, yes and yes.

      I’m also wondering when we decided that analyzing and critiquing the world around us and the world in which we operate, which in so many ways affect both how we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves as a people, was passe in favor of instead analyzing and critiquing each other.

      I’m not suggesting that we have to unquestionably and undoubtedly support each other, but when did it become ok to take our critiques of each other outside?? You would think the Academics would set a better example…

    • uniquebeauty79

      #4–All of the yes’s in the northern hemisphere!

      • pls

        he’s not? I forgot why I don’t like c. west, but i don’t.

    • Asiyah

      Love thoughts 2 and 4!

  • I’m actually quite surprised it took this long for him or others from the MSNBC crew to really go at West; he’s been criticized, but this is the first time, someone threw the kitchen sink at him and said eff it.

    Three things about West and Dyson that stick out to me though:

    A. Academics fight far dirtier than most people when it comes to the realm of ideas and words. Dyson like West knows where to attack to achieve the best results. West knew it when he referred to the black leaders working at MSNBC as living on the “Obama Plantation”, and Dyson knew it when he attacked Cornel’s scholarship, which is actually an age old attack. The arguments are meant to burn to the soul…most of us just want someone to shut up…these kind of people want to produce rage, and then hide under the protection of words.

    B. West and Dyson are actually quite similar. Both have tried to be in academia and be in hip-hop/jazz depending on who you are talking to. Though both have published a significant amount of scholarship, they are mostly known and paid due to their oratorical skills. They both have a background in the church, and both incorporate it in their scholarship and most importantly, they both wish to be MLK. It’s ironic that people who are similar with each other, tend to be the most likely to go for the jugular.

    C. In defense of Cornel, his boy Tavis Smiley, before the presidency of Barack Obama was probably one of the most powerful and connected black leaders in the country. He was able to get the juggernauts in every year, and host the Black State of the Union, having all these big names coming together to discuss a black agenda. When your boy, in less than a decade goes from this:

    https://thegrio.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/tavis-smiley-ending-state-of-black-union-conference.jpg?w=1200
    To this:
    http://i.perezhilton.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dwts-tavis-week1.gif

    Yeh…eff Obama!

    • drdap

      Tavis Smiley was on Dancing with the Stars?????????

      • Epsilonicus

        Sure was

        • drdap

          can’t compute.

          • tgtaggie

            WTF does that ninja has on? It looks like a cross between a suit and a leisure suit. lol

            • AlwaysCC

              looks like a steve harvey creation

      • Ms TLC

        OK!!!!??!?!

      • miss t-lee

        Unfortunately.

    • Ms TLC

      Huh?!?!? When??? I’m so confused…WTF?!?!

    • Amber

      Yeah I actually like Tavis I think his critique of Obama seemed less personal than West’s issues with the president. Unfortunately, his connection with West made much of his criticism of the President seem petty but for those who paid attention to the substance he just raised a lot of concern for some of the issues that many have with Obama now. Once Tavis had his falling out with Tom Joyner over Obama he just was on a free fall. I’d love for some one to do some sort of doc or revealing story about so called black thought leaders during the age of Obama.

      • I think for a lot of black leaders, the Age of Obama has been difficult.

        Most of the current age of black leaders made their way in politics through the Clinton administration. The Clinton family and the Kennedy family were pretty much the two powerhouses in the democratic party during the Obama election. Thus why many of them were hesitant to side with him, and were bringing up questions of how black he actually was. The death of Ted Kennedy has greatly increased the power of the Clinton family, and Bill kind of showed how powerful they were in the 2012 DNC Convention, with a speech that pretty much played a big role in Obama winning the election.

        The Clintons actually saved a list of all the people who were previously allies who went on Obama’s side, and it’s pretty clear that from a lot of books and people in Washington that the Obama’s are trying to step into the vacuum abandoned by Ted Kennedy – post administration. The black thought leaders, which are perhaps more accurately the black political leaders have been in kind of a crap shoot: most of them were forced into severing ties with the Clinton’s due to black people’s love for Obama, and those who were hesitant or tried to play both sides like Tavis and Bob Johnson, have still not recovered publicly…that’s why Tavis can be seen on FoxNews now.

        Under Obama, it is true, that those who have sworn loyalty or have displayed a strong sense of it, have benefited, whether it’s on MSNBC or other avenues (Obama came out of Chicago, and as was known during the 2008 election and has been displayed ever since: he’s a hardcore politician, that’s something a lot of the black leaders didn’t get and have suffered the consequences for not adjusting to it – he’s not an activist or civil rights guy.) Those who haven’t can only be seen on youtube delivering speeches, but have no access to the political life, kind of like Jesse Jackson.

        The ironic thing though, is that people like Cornel and Tavis swore loyalty to the Clinton’s which is something that people like Michael Eric Dyson knows but doesn’t want to say flat out, because that goes against what is politically correct to say. If Hilary Clinton wins the presidency, it’s very likely that these guys will come back to national prominence, however, they might be unable to makeup for the distance they’ve created between the vast majority of black people.

        • Amber

          I’m not too sure Hillary will win I think she like many of the black leaders have a lot of ground to make up with black voters to actually get them to come out and vote. She doesn’t need President Obama to support her she needs First Lady Obama support to get the win. I agree Obama is very much a politician I think many black leaders who initially supported his run for the presidency thought he was more of an activist and community minded person. His blackness in politics has always been questioned even back in Chicago when he ran for state senate.
          Many of the leaders sided with Hilary or Obama based more on a bet on who they thought would actually win and less on loyalty to the Clintons plus they know how vindictive the Clintons are, they’ve always kept lists of their enemies since his impeachment days.

          • Cocoa Chanel

            Both of your comments have been incredibly insightful. Thanks!

  • Epsilonicus

    1. I wasn’t surprised by this because Dyson has been making these arguments over the last 5 years in public, and in front of West

    2. I’m not surprised that Obama shaded West. My former boss is close friends with Michelle Obama and has been for about 20 years. He said Obama ia the guy who looks like he has a wide social circle but in reality is only cool with a small group of people.

    3. Dyson shaded West hard when discussing West’s poetry album. That was some seqouia tree size shade

    4. Dissing someone academic bona fides will get you merked in academia. That will have someone try to put the paws on you, sometimes literally. I got stories.

    5. I also wonder why TNR was his choice of publication.

    • IsitFridayyet?

      In response to your #3 and #5
      The worst shade Dyson threw was a West’s school-girl reaction to meeting Anita Baker. That had nothing to do with nothing and was messy as heck.

      I wonder if Black publications would be accepting of an article of one Black Academic attacking another.

      • Lisa Harris

        That was very messy. I remember reading that sentence and thinking….”you ain’t sit for that, Dyson.”

      • dadumdee

        LOL, he said he put on them old track shoes and physically went 0 to 100 real quick!!! That passage was a great moment passive aggressive bitchasstivity.

    • I’m not surprised at #2. Obama comes off very cool personally and introverted. That’s not a bad thing in terms of character. However, a lot of people seemed to have assumed that Honolulu Slim was this bold, outgoing guy when that’s never was his swag. I’m surprised that there aren’t more people on #whohurtyou status with the dude.

      • Epsilonicus

        Which is ironic because Michelle Obama was the one people called not personable, however ny former supervisor said she is very warm and physically affectionate with people.

      • mssporadic

        I always figured Obama was will reserved unless you were in his inner circle. He’s probably really outgoing with them. I know a few people like that. Also, you can kind of see it when he goes off the cuff, such as, when he said the pies were so good they had crack in them. Michelle always came off as the more extroverted of the two.

    • Amber

      That has the democratic party’s main issue with Obama-his aloof nature. All those soaring speeches they thought they were getting Bill Clinton 2.0 as it relates to the way Clinton dealt with people and his general affable nature but no…

      • Epsilonicus

        He is an introvert, which is probably rare among presidents in the modern era

        • mssporadic

          I don’t think he’s introverted; just reserved. I love Clinton, but he was a little more used car salesman. Obama is just a different guy, but I don’t read him as introverted/shy/anxious.

          • Epsilonicus

            Introvert doesn’t mean shy. You can be an introvert and actually be very functional in social situations. However, introverts find it draining having tons of people in their circle. So they keep it small. And based on the info I have, Obama is definitely more on the introverted side.

            • Amber

              Right as a true introvert I totally get Obama. Dealing with people can be taxing but we can turn it on and off and most just choose their friends and associates wisely so as not to expend unnecessary energy on folks they really don’t care for. Is has nothing to do with being shy or even reserved.

            • AlwaysCC

              i teeter on the line of extrovert/introvert, and that is EXACTLY how i live. i would’ve actually assumed (i’ve never given it much thought) that most of the presidents were introverted…

  • IsitFridayyet?

    Michael Eric Dyson’s attack lost some of its steam in the last segment when he mentioned his reasoning behind his critique of Cornel West. That he began to question West after West publicly derided him several times in the media. Something that West has done to others numerous times over the years. It casted a “he hurt my feelings and embarrassed me” shadow over the ether article.

    • N Harris

      “It casted a “he hurt my feelings and embarrassed me” shadow over the ether article.”
      EXACTLY! As one of the so-called academic elite it was tasteless. There are so many other things he could have focused on. They are both delusional if you ask me but Dyson made himself look like a whiny child.

    • Epsilonicus

      I don’t have a problem with the criticism. I have a problem with some of the details used to make the point. Its ok to criticize his ego, but then bringing in romantic relationships went too far.

      • Ms. Bridget

        Yeah, that was just petty.

  • Furious Styles

    It’s fun to read responses from people who don’t place Dyson or West on pedestals.
    I didn’t read all of Dyson’s diatribe, but his public “reading” of West does sound like a conversation that should have happened man-to-man…and didn’t. In short, it’s the NWA/Ice-Cube split…with big words.

  • King David

    To me this piece is just preparing the black community to isolate and marginalize any politician or pundit who is to the left of Hilary Clinton. It looks like Dyson wants to be to Hilary what Sharpton was to Obama.

    • Epsilonicus

      Explain more please. I’m not understanding where you are going

      • King David

        Any one who has been paying attention for the last five years knows that Dr. West has been ardent critic of the Obama administration. Given the absolutely curious timing of this piece, it seems perfectly timed to coincide with Hilary’s campaign for the White House. I cannot glean any other reason for Dyson writing such a sophomoric and ad hominem attack on Dr. West other than this being an audition to be the lapdog of what may be the next Hilary Clinton administration.

        • Umm…revenge, maybe?

          • King David

            A ten thousand word polemic in the New Republic and you limit it to revenge. Come on, let’s not be naive.

    • Question

      Interesting.

    • ReadyRoc

      They are going getting ready to exile West and make Hillary the savior of black folk. Trust me Mr. West is getting put off the set.

      • King David

        Exactly, I don’t know why people can’t see that this is nothing but political theater and Dyson is playing the fool.

  • Lisa Harris

    Beef without the payoff of at least one great hip hop verse or a fight with the championship on the line, is, well, uninspired. I’m sick of these two.

    I have to say, Dyson comes off as a whiny wannabe. I think Dyson knows that on his best day he will never, ever write or say anything as lucid and perfect as the chapter on Black nihilism in the book, Race Matters. Why he needs to make so much noise about how and why he thinks West ain’t shit I will never understand.

    And why aren’t black news outlets getting all the clicks involved in this mess? Probably because they don’t want to be involved in it. It’s unseemly. I think West is a bit too passionate in his dislike of President Obama’s policies, but his criticisms are valid. It’s just that West’s criticisms make him sound like he is completely unaware of how a President functions in this Republic. But that is a topic for another day. West’s current criticism is no cause to act like he makes no valid contributions to public discourse.

    This public dressing down of someone that paved the way for him is not Dyson’s finest hour.

    • Guest

      cancel

  • anotherredhead

    Point 6 is a Gem.

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