Brother West: The Life & Rhymes of Cornel West
Im 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, Ive 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 ones
voice and putting forth a vision. All three are intertwined: vocation, voice,
Ibid. p. 87.
On the operating table, I was thinking
once more of all the unbelievable blessings that Id been given throughout my
life. I didnt 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
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, Im well convinced justice would have been served in
honoring this grand intellectual icon who has changed so many lives and saved
many moreincluding this humble writers.
Three years to the date, I still hadnt
quite grasped what my lifes 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 everythingliterally everythingchanged. My life
hasnt 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 whereintellectually, spiritually, sociallyI am today, its also likely
I wouldnt be wherephysicallyI 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 madeand 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. Id 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 Ronnies adolescent hostility
might have been a cheap imitation of his maternal granddad, Big Daddyone bad
brother. Big Daddy was rarea Negro with the courage enough to tell white folks
why intimidation was a sense he couldnt feel, a flavor he couldnt taste. Like
Nina Simones Peaches wholl 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 Ronnies 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
And it did.
Clifton and Irene West didnt have to be
neuropsychologists or psychoanalysts to know the right solution wasnt 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 Christas he should be. But, in the prophetic tradition of Socratic
questioning and inclusion, theological supremacy is a grammar he lacks the
tongue to speak: Im 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 problemsphysical, emotional,
and spiritualoften require enquiries that go beyond the confines of narrow
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 betterWhiterside 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 Hansberrys 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 nastythreats, 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. Wests 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.
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, Wittgensteins Vienna.
Other works of great art would influence
hima 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-Hops
syncopated polyrhythms, kinetic orality, and sensual energy in the three
Hip-Hop/Spoken Word albums hes 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 aint nuthin to f**k with.
unravels the life of this gifted thinker who, even at the younger stages of his
life, wasnt 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 problemonce that final leap to maturity
Still, his many accomplishments didnt
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 nations 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 processeven
if certain folks (like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wondered to him
once during a visit to the White House why blacks dont take advantage of all
these opportunities they have) didnt/dont 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
West also reserves ample space for light-heartedness, wrapped in the
garment of memory and recollection.
So, whether lighting Jazz divine Sarah
Vaughans 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 pastand I can only imagine presentpursuits 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, its 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 Fiascos The Cool). Thats
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
Dr. West, in the finest tradition of
Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Ralph Ellison, Robert Johnson, and Buddy Guy is a
as he would like to be called, has only just begun. You aint 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 havent 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 copyor two,
or threeof this brilliant memoir of a man who is still a mystery to some but a
miracle to otherslike myself.
Olorunda is a cultural critic and a columnist for BlackCommentator.com. He can be reached