Princeton University professor Cornel West has spent much of the past year battling with incensed Obama supporters from Al Sharpton to street demonstrators who resent his criticism of the president.
"He's ended up being the black mascot of the Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats!" West has insisted in several national forums.
Observations like that have earned him scorn and ad hominem remarks ("spoilsport" and "Uncle Tom" are two of the more polite ones). They've also earned him the deep disappointment of many admirers, who are proud of his prominence as one of America's most important public intellectuals but are aghast that a black man would "attack" the nation's first black president.
A Feisty History
But West has been a fighter all his life. According to his autobiography, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, A Memoir, he scrapped with schoolyard bullies on behalf of weaker kids when he was a wiry boy growing up in Sacramento, Calif. His elementary school teacher slapped him because he refused to stand and salute the flag. (He said segregation meant the flag only stood for liberty and justice for some.) So he punched her in the arm. And then he got a whipping from his father, who admired the intent but brooked no teacher-bashing.
While he was at Harvard University, West got into a verbal fight with a guest speaker from the Nation of Islam. The argument got so bad his fellow students escorted him back to his dorm, afraid for his physical safety. (He graduated, intact, magna cum laude.)
When he wrote his best-selling treatise on race in America, Race Matters, he got death threats.
And let's not even get into his famous dust-up with Harvard President Lawrence Summers: He didn't punch Summers in the arm when he questioned West's scholarship, but West did tell the press afterward that Summers had tangled with "the wrong Negro." (West left to become a tenured professor at Princeton, where he remains. He's on sabbatical this year.)
So the ire now directed at him because he's touring the country with his colleague Tavis Smiley, saying Barack Obama has been derelict in his duty to the nation's poor, isn't keeping West up nights.
Being Misunderstood 'Goes With The Territory, Sometimes'
"It can be painful when you're misunderstood," he admitted before he and Smiley held a town hall on poverty in Los Angeles' oldest synagogue. "But that's all right. Sometimes it goes with the territory."
West has further angered many in the black community for joining with Ralph Nader to encourage third-party candidates to challenge Obama during the Democratic primaries. L.A. community activist Najee Ali was so angry, he organized a protest where demonstrators marched outside Smiley's studios, chanting that he and West should "stop the hate."
"We're very disappointed with Dr. West," Ali said, holding up an Obama 2012 placard as passing motorists blew their horns in support. "This teaming up with Ralph Nader could take on a life of its own — doesn't he remember where that got the country when Nader ran against Gore?"
For his part, West fully expects Obama to be re-elected. But he wants there to be some "robust conversation and debate within the Democratic primary" so the president doesn't "end up with just uncritical adulation, rather than critical interrogation."
Being Everywhere At Once
West and Smiley have been joining the "occupy" movement all over the place — Wall Street, Boston, Los Angeles and D.C., where he was arrested in front of the Supreme Court for (what else?) demonstrating for the need for the poor to be more visible on the American agenda. And showing solidarity with what they say are the 99 percent of the nation whose financial welfare is controlled by a powerful 1 percent.
Even as he was being led away in handcuffs by D.C. police, West told the crowd, "We have no quarrel with the police. They are working people, part of the 99 percent, too."
West's sabbatical year will be over at some point, but even when it ends, his advocacy for the poor — for those he calls "the least among us" — will continue. And he is guaranteed to anger Obama supporters as he continues to call out the president on his poverty policy, or lack thereof. But it's the only thing West can see himself doing.
"You have to try to be true to yourself, even as you're open to criticisms," he says. And the self he is defies categorization: elite academician, intellectual entrepreneur, anti-poverty crusader, lover of Schopenhauer and Stevie Wonder. And unwilling to give any of it up.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
And I'm Michele Norris. Princeton professor and activist Cornel West is busy these days. He's been a regular at Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, L.A., and here in Washington.
CORNEL WEST: We want to bear witness today that we know the relation between corporate greed and what goes on too often in the Supreme Court decisions.
NORRIS: Cornel West is also a regular presence on the radio and on TV. Here, he and Reverend Al Sharpton mix it up on MSNBC.
WEST: But you end up being the public face. And if Barack Obama ends up...
AL SHARPTON: Which is exactly why...
WEST: ...just being another black mascot of these Wall Street demigods...
SHARPTON: Which is exactly why, as you just saw on that film...
WEST: ...we will be in a world of trouble.
NORRIS: Calling the president the black mascot of Wall Street has earned West a lot of criticism, especially in the black community. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports that West welcomes the attention, and he relishes his role as a public intellectual.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: It was standing room only on a recent Sunday night, in the main sanctuary of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in midtown Los Angeles. As applause floats up to the temple's cavernous, Byzantine dome, Cornel West, dressed in his traditional black three-piece suit, white shirt and gold cufflinks, gets passionate about the plight of America's poor and the chasm between them and the wealthy.
WEST: And it's not because the well-to-do are so smart and clever. It's because the system is designed in such a way that the benefits float to the top.
BATES: Old Testament prophets look down from gilded murals on the temple's walls as West gives the audience a taste of how it's done in his home church, Shallow Baptist in Sacramento, California.
WEST: Forty-two percent of our children of all colors living in or near poverty is a national disgrace. It's a moral obscenity. It's an ethical abomination.
BATES: It's not the stance normally associated with inhabitants of the academy's rarified reaches. West graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1973. Princeton awarded him his doctorate in 1980. He's published almost 20 books, including the landmark best-sellers "Race Matters" and "Democracy." With that kind of cred, you'd assume he'd be firmly seated in the upper reaches of a very tall ivory tower. Yet it's Cornel West's insistence on climbing down from the academic Olympus that has made him a hot commodity as one of the nation's foremost public intellectuals.
His ability to mix Schopenhauer and Bootsy Collins, to quote Henry David Thoreau and Sly Stone in the same sentence, has made him accessible to the folks he and Stone both champion: everyday people.
(SOUNDBITE FROM ALBUM, "NEVER FORGET A JOURNEY OF REVELATIONS")
WEST: (Singing) Among us, raise your Socratic questions to the system.
BATES: To extend his reach to young folks, West made a rap album, "Never Forget a Journey of Revelations," with some heavyweight friends.
(SOUNDBITE FROM ALBUM, "NEVER FORGET A JOURNEY OF REVELATIONS")
WEST: ...true to who you are and be true to the grand vision that keeps track of the least of these. Break it down, brother friend. What's wrong with the world today?
BATES: Then there are the cameo appearances in "The Matrix" series.
WEST: Comprehension is not a requisite of cooperation.
BATES: This insistence on mixing the intellectual with the popular was the catalyst for a pretty public dust-up a few years ago, when West taught at Harvard. He'd gone there at the request of his friend Henry Louis Gates, as part of the latter's vision for a world class African-American studies department. But Harvard president Larry Summers thought the rapping, the movie appearances and political endorsements were inappropriate, and not sufficiently scholarly.
Offended, West returned to Princeton, which welcomed him back. He's spending this year on sabbatical using much of the time, often with talk show host Tavis Smiley, to insist that poverty be on the nation's front burner.
WEST: We can't allow Obama's charisma and brilliance to hide and conceal the suffering of not just black poor, but poor people across the board.
BATES: That has not been a popular move.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Obama 2012, Obama 2012, Obama 2012.
BATES: Some of West's and Smiley's critics - like Jeanette Bush(ph), here at a street demonstration to protest their criticism - believe the two are angry at the president because they've not received enough of his personal attention.
JEANETTE BUSH: Well, I know when it originally started because President Obama didn't want to come to his little, you know, thing. And it just seemed to just keep going on and on and on. And it's like, can you let go?
BATES: That clearly irritates West.
WEST: What we're talking about is so much bigger than us. The problem is, is that so many persons who look at this cast it as if it's just about us. But we're trying to focus on the causes. And we're trying to focus on the social misery and the suffering that's out there.
BATES: He and Smiley took a minute before their Wilshire Temple appearance to clarify for others what is already clear to them.
TAVIS SMILEY: I think that sometimes in life, when you do the kind of work that Dr. West and I are attempting to do, you are misunderstood. I think that when you are in this line of work, there are times when you're going to be challenged - sometimes with merit, sometimes without merit.
BATES: There has been particular offense that West's worked with Ralph Nader. He and Nader are suggesting that a third-party candidate run against Barack Obama in the coming Democratic primaries. Some black observers feel this could draw important votes away from Obama, as they believe Nader drew from Al Gore in the 2000 election. West disagrees.
WEST: My dear brother, Ralph Nader, he's been an exemplary citizen in so many different ways, whether you agree or disagree with him. And his idea is simply to have some robust conversation and debate within a Democratic primary so that the president doesn't run all by himself - and ends up just with uncritical adulation rather than critical interrogation.
BATES: Not everyone thinks West is wrong to push the president to do more for the poor. George Curry is a Washington, D.C.-based syndicated columnist.
GEORGE CURRY: Cornel West is absolutely correct when he said the president has not paid enough attention to poverty and the plight of joblessness among African-Americans. He is absolutely correct.
BATES: However, Curry says, the way in which West has couched his criticism has turned off a number of black Americans who might otherwise listen to him.
CURRY: He is wrong to start name-calling because then, the conversation becomes over his name-calling instead of the substance of his critique.
BATES: West admits sometimes, that hurts.
WEST: It can be painful when you're thoroughly misunderstood, especially by friends and sometimes former friends, you know. But I mean, that was all right. That goes with the territory, too.
BATES: It's what his hero, James Baldwin, liked to call the price of the ticket.
WEST: You have to try to be true to yourself, even as you're open to criticisms.
BATES: Cornel West sees himself acting in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets - men who were sometimes reviled by the people they were attempting to wake up. It's partly why the black suit has become his trademark. Warriors for justice, West says, have to wear their cemetery clothes just in case.
So even though it angers some people, the self-described Shiloh Baptist kind of brother intends to take the advice of his R&B hero, the late Curtis Mayfield.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP ON PUSHING")
CURTIS MAYFIELD AND THE IMPRESSIONS: (Singing) Keep on pushing.
BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP ON PUSHING")
CURTIS MAYFIELD AND THE IMPRESSIONS: (Singing) I can't stop now. Move up a little higher, some way or somehow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.