Brother West: The Life & Rhymes of Cornel West

“I’m a bluesman moving through a

blues-soaked America, a blues-soaked world, a planet where catastrophe and

celebration… sit side by side. … Like my fellow musicians, I’ve got to forge a

unique style and voice that expresses my own quest for truth and love. … I must

unapologetically reveal my broken life as a thing of beauty.”

—West, Cornel. Brother

West: Living and Loving Out Loud, A Memoir. New York: Smiley Books,

2009, pp. 4-5.

“A formulation was taking shape in my

mind and heart: that the centrality of vocation is predicated on finding one’s

voice and putting forth a vision. All three are intertwined: vocation, voice,

and vision.”

—Ibid. p. 87.

“On the operating table, I was thinking

once more of all the unbelievable blessings that I’d been given throughout my

life. I didn’t know whether I was going to die or not. I had to wait and see.

But I refused to let death come in like a thief in the night and steal the joy

and love I had already given and received. I was so grateful that God had

allowed me to pursue my spiritual vocation of promoting unarmed truth and

unconditional love.”

—Ibid. p. 225.

He is peerless and matchless. One of a

kind. Once if a lifetime. If I stopped this short into my review of the

incomparable Cornel West, I’m well convinced justice would have been served in

honoring this grand intellectual icon who has changed so many lives and saved

many more—including this humble writer’s.

Three years to the date, I still hadn’t

quite grasped what my life’s purpose was to amount to. I still lacked any

coherent explanation of what shape and direction my movement through space and

time would or should take. I was still engaging in the most frivolous of

activities, burning up the last left of my chance at redemption. That was until

I heard Dr. West speak. And everything—literally everything—changed. My life

hasn’t been the same since; and I stand confident today, unashamed to declare

that if I missed that opportunity, if it somehow passed me by, not only would I

not be where—intellectually, spiritually, socially—I am today, it’s also likely

I wouldn’t be where—physically—I am today.

For this reason and many more, I was

filled with illimitable joy upon hearing, earlier this year, that Dr. Cornel

West, born June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was preparing a memoir which would

go into specific detail about the many adventurous twists and turns his life

journey has made—and continues to make. From Professor, to Philosopher, to

Poet, this man does it all.   

But before emerged on the national scene

a Harvard and Princeton graduate whose remarkable insight won him several visits

to the White House in the ‘90s and an American Book Award, “Little Ronnie,” the

much younger, less amiable Cornel West was threatening to snuff out that

budding genius from breaking out the shell.

Little Ronnie was ruthless; he beat up

bullies badly, refused to stand up to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at age 9,

assaulted teachers, shook-down classmates to share their lunch with the poorer

kids (democratic socialist in training?), smacked-up oversized jocks, got

expelled, and brought his parents much grief and agony.

“Most of my fights had to do with

bullies beating up on younger kids,” Dr. West writes, recounting some of those

experiences. “Maybe I saw myself in some Robin Hood role. I’d notice that poor

kids came to our school without money. Others had money to spare. So I forced

the haves into giving to the have-nots.”

Little Ronnie’s adolescent hostility

might have been a cheap imitation of his maternal granddad, Big Daddy—“one bad

brother.” Big Daddy was rare—a Negro with the courage enough to tell white folks

why intimidation was a sense he couldn’t feel, a flavor he couldn’t taste. Like

Nina Simone’s “Peaches” who’ll “kill the first mutha I see,” Big Daddy, West

warns, “carried a piece and would lovingly crush a motherhucker for unduly

messing with him or his family.” 

Little Ronnie’s antics carried on for

months and years until his loving parents had had enough. The next step was to

find a way through which the rage could be channeled constructively. No, not

boot camps, not military drills, not abandonment, not disownment, not a

thousand lashes of the strap; rather, an avenue that would affirm his dignity

while still making it known violent outbursts were unacceptable:

“Give this child

more books,” they said. “Give him more trained teachers. Give him tougher

lessons. Challenge his little mind. Keep him busy learning new things. Keep him

intellectually stimulated and all that violent business will soon fall by the

wayside.”

And it did.

Clifton and Irene West didn’t have to be

neuropsychologists or psychoanalysts to know the right solution wasn’t a

full-fledged disciplinary crackdown on the young, exuberant, misguided mind.

They simply saw the potential for greatness in their child, realized how

unfortunately he was masking it with unscrupulous ways, and set his soul on

fire with the matchstick of love and the gasoline of patience.

His Christian faith, Brother West tells us, also provided the

amazing grace this wretched soul longed for. West is unabashed about his love

for Jesus Christ—as he should be. But, in the prophetic tradition of Socratic

questioning and inclusion, theological supremacy is a grammar he lacks the

tongue to speak: “I’m the kind of Negro who can worship in a lot of settings

and still feel the presence of God.”

If anyone wonders why this man on the move can often be found in

more prisons than palaces and classrooms than castles, it might be because as a

child a voodoo specialist helped cure an asthmatic ailment that threatened to

stop his beating heart. This experience forever moved him “in a more ecumenical

direction. I began to understand that answers to problems—physical, emotional,

and spiritual—often require enquiries that go beyond the confines of narrow

dogma.”

Narrow dogma has trapped many a Black

man and woman, many a White man and woman, from transcending the slavish

mental, psychological, and racial confines of existence White Supremacy needs

to survive. If anyone deserved to

cultivate narrow dogma early in life, it was Cornel West, who, at 14, moved

with his family to a bigger house on the better—Whiter—side of town. His

neighbors, strangely enough, failed

to share in the joy this forward step the West family was taking brought forth.

As though reenacting a bitter scene from Lorraine Hansberry’s timeless 1959

Broadway breakthrough, A Raisin in the

Sun, some of the white neighbors tried to buy back the house. The offers

were turned down. Then it got nasty—threats, intimidation, coercion, etc. The

power of love and politeness, however, calmed the raging storm. This would be

one of the many “teachable moments” in Dr. West’s young life.   

No one knows exactly when his

intellectual awakening truly began, but it may be safe to credit the late, distinguished

sociology great, St. Clair Drake for inspiring the young Cornel enough to start

thinking critically about “a major or, beyond that, a vocation.” Through word

of mouth, West was told the wonders of Dr. Drake, and, at that moment, that

time-freezing moment, his elation morphed into “miraculous passion.”  

Miraculous

passion

is the kind of intellectual pursuit that makes a 17-year-old Harvard freshman graduate

a year earlier Magna Cum Laude; the kind that could make one miss an Al Green

concert, having stumbled, last minute, upon the classic philosophical tome, Wittgenstein’s Vienna.   

Other works of great art would influence

him—a not-so-unlikely source among them being Hip-Hop (“story telling… spoken

in a metric bark”). Yes, that most savage of our creations! Unlike many others

peers, as early as 1982, Dr. West, pioneer-style, had begun putting some

serious academic examination into this emerging cultural phenomenon. Hip-Hop,

he described that year in Le Monde

Diplomatique as an “[Africanization] of Afro-American popular music” which

“recuperates and revises elements of black rhetorical style.” 

He would go on to explore Hip-Hop’s

“syncopated polyrhythms, kinetic orality, and sensual energy” in the three

Hip-Hop/Spoken Word albums he’s released thus far (Sketches of My Culture, Street

Knowledge, and Never Forget: A

Journey of Revelations)—which, in solidarity

with other reasons, raised the ire of former Harvard President, feminist

warrior, and current Director of the National Economic Council, Lawrence

Summers, who failed to realize, until it was too late, that, much like the

Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. West “ain’t nuthin’ to f**k with.”

Brother

West

unravels the life of this gifted thinker who, even at the younger stages of his

life, wasn’t satisfied with a unilateral existence: “I was looking to challenge

and be challenged, looking to teach and be taught, looking to be a good

student, an honest thinker, and a decent human being. I was trying to balance

the personal with the professional.”

His scholarship, like his “change,” came

early: At twelve, he wrote a 250-page history of Canada, and at thirteen a

180-page history of Mexico City. Perhaps this was around the time it was

becoming increasingly clear to those around him he was destined to be a problem—once that final leap to maturity

took place. 

Still, his many accomplishments didn’t

come without obstacles. Three failed marriages are a grim reminder. An emotional

battle with cancer almost a decade ago also does the job of reasserting the

fragility and vulnerability of human life. But no one, in spite of these travails,

could be more focused than Dr. West.   

In fact, the great doctor has remarkably

found a way to make sense of the world through his personal sufferings and

shortcomings. His cancer-stricken body dovetailed with the introductory years

of the second Bush presidency. Democracy

Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, his powerful text

released in 2004, follow-up to the groundbreaking Race

Matters, grew out of that experience. Much like his cancer, the

neo-liberal cancer was “eating at the body politic.” It was “fueled by greed,

and indifference to the poor and disinherited. As it spread, it would corrode

the nation’s spirit and weaken our economic immune system.” 

The deficient cells of morality conceded

as the tumor of racism spread wide across this body politic. Xenophobia and

Negrophobia were early symptoms. Dr. West knows this. And Race Matters was meant, in many ways, to begin the healing process—even

if certain folks (like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wondered to him

once during a visit to the White House “why blacks don’t take advantage of all

these opportunities they have”) didn’t/don’t get it. So, whether dining with arch-White nationalist Pat Buchanan

or dialoging with supreme racist Rush Limbaugh, Dr. West is comfortable

speaking the “unarmed truth” with enough love to neuter even the most reactionary

of extremists. 

But Brother

West also reserves ample space for light-heartedness, wrapped in the

garment of memory and recollection.

So, whether lighting Jazz divine Sarah

Vaughan’s cigarettes in between sets, or carrying bags for soprano singer

Kathleen Battle (with whom he was, at a time, romantically involved), Dr. West

hid nothing about his past—and I can only imagine present—pursuits of love and

passion. He loved the ladies and the ladies loved him. Bigger brother Clifton

L. West III provides much needed validation.

And though he swears his distinguished

fashion sense is “deep and operates on lots of levels at once,” it’s hard to

read deepness in: “I like the

three-piece black suit and tie because I think it looks cool. It makes me feel

cool and ready to face the world.” In his defense, Dr. West can lay claim to a mural

in New Jersey painted in his honor (The Cornel West Wall), countless

name-checks on Hip-Hop songs, a Hip-Hop Christian band bearing his name (The

Cornel West Theory), and a popular 2007 album titled after one of his lectures

(Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool). That’s

pretty cool.   

All this, though, would mean nothing without

a legacy to continue the work begun and extended through his ministry. That

legacy is almost incomplete without his two kids, whom he advises ardently:

“The first step toward wisdom and maturity are to gain self-respect and

self-confidence.”

Dr. West, in the finest tradition of

Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Ralph Ellison, Robert Johnson, and Buddy Guy is a

bluesman.

Brother

West,

as he would like to be called, has only just begun. You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet! One half-century down; at least one

more to go.

The “shudder” of death has failed to

stop him. The claws of defeat haven’t been successful either.

The “raw blues” of his life is what

saved me, and the least I can do is ask that you go pick yourself up a copy—or two,

or three—of this brilliant memoir of a man who is still a mystery to some but a

miracle to others—like myself.

Get

It: Click Here!

Tolu

Olorunda is a cultural critic and a columnist for BlackCommentator.com. He can be reached

at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

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