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.