by Dr Boyce Watkins
When I chose to become a public scholar in the 1990s, there were three people who inspired me the most: Michael Eric Dyson, Julianne Malveaux and Cornel West. I also found myself to be a strong supporter of the great Minister Louis Farrakhan and Rev Jesse Jackson. Rev. Al Sharpton might be one of the smartest public figures I’ve ever met, but I confess that we don’t always see eye-to-eye.
All of these individuals have made significant contributions to our society in their own way. However, in a time of political turmoil, Dr. Cornel West stands alone in his willingness to go to war for black and brown people around the world. In fact, the world needs him now more than ever.
Just this year alone, Dr West has been arrested in Ferguson, Missouri. He’s gone head-to-head with the most powerful government on earth. He has inspired an entire generation by showing us that love is always stronger than hate. He is a scholarly version of Muhammad Ali, fighting at the age of 61 with the ferocity of an energetic 19-year old. Even his enemies have a hard time hating him because, deep down, they know he’s right.
If you’ll notice, most of those seeking to discredit Dr. Cornel West (i.e. Melissa Harris-Perry, Michael Eric Dyson and a few others) have a difficult, if not impossible, time proving that Cornel is wrong. Instead, they’ve tried to make us believe he was crazy, obsessed, petty, neurotic and hostile. This is how political operatives do their work, and the last few years have led to Dr. West emerging as the winner of the stealth game of “IncogNegro Politics,” where numerous black surrogates have been well-paid to undermine the legacy of a man who only wanted to help his people.
It is for these reasons that that Dr. Cornel West could be the greatest black man on the planet, at least among black public figures. They wanted him gone, and it only made him more visible. They tried to break his back, and his spine transformed to iron. They tried to shut him down and it was like pouring grease on a bonfire. Cornel West is no longer a man….he has officially turned himself into a LEGEND.
Here are six reasons that Dr. West is the kind of leader who only comes along once in a generation:
1) Because he’s brilliant: Few people can articulate the struggle of the masses with the same style and articulation as Dr. West. He’s not just highly educated, he’s spiritually-developed enough to know what to do with that education. He isn’t just powerful, he’s focused enough to know where that power should be applied. This is in huge contrast to many of our public figures who believe that selling out to the highest bidder is the path to fame and fortune. When President Obama was elected, the fix was in: The deliberate efforts by the White House to divide black leadership kept us so busy fighting with each other that we were unable to present any kind of unified front. I hope you’re not naive enough to think this occurred by accident.
2) He’s courageous: Dr West has no problem saying things that are unpopular, which he has done consistently over the last several years. He didn’t just gain this courage in 2008, he’s been a consistent advocate for the disenfranchised for his entire 35-year career. Most people don’t know how many friends Dr. West lost when he began to speak up for poor, black, brown and incarcerated Americans. He’s lost more money than most, and found himself banished from the crowd of black elites who got rich off the Obama presidency. His willingness to serve as a one-man army on behalf of the forgotten people of the world is nothing short of extraordinary.
3) He’s humble: Cornel West typically wears the same suit and shoes for the entire year. As a tribute to the struggles of those in poverty, Dr West doesn’t waste his time obsessing over fancy cars, big houses, and all the other trappings that serve to distract many of the black public figures on television. He accepts the magnitude of his purpose, but doesn’t believe that he’s better than anyone else. He is determined to connect with everyone and to hear every voice, even those with whom he disagrees. He was even able to be kind toward Sean Hannity, which I was unable to do (yes, for the record, if I were to see Sean Hannity on the street, I would ignore him in order to avoid punching him. Hannity’s rhetoric gets black people killed).
4) He cares about people: During our New Paradigm forum in New York last year, Dr. West and I spent several hours together. Within that time, I saw him interact with people of all races, genders and socioeconomic classes. One thing I noticed is that Dr. West treated the janitor with the same respect he would have given The President of the United States. He often shows love in his words, deeds and actions, and everyone he meets seems to love him back. Despite being pulled in every direction imaginable, he has the patience of a pastor dealing with a congregation of 50 million. This kind of spiritual balance is valuable and rare, and I respect it.
5) He can’t be bought: The reason that most of your favorite black people on television are hesitant to speak the truth is because they’re too well-paid to do so. Steve Harvey is hanging out with Paula Deen. Al Sharpton is doing book deals with Lil Wayne. Snoop Dogg is apologizing to a white female rapper, but never apologized for appearing at an awards show with black women on leashes. Most of our major black media outlets (TheGrio, Essence, TheRoot, BET, and even a large percentage of NewsOne) are owned by whites. As Cornel has stated in the past, it almost seems that the entire world is eager to sell out.
We live in an age where you’re considered stupid if you’re not willing to be corporatized or bought out by the highest bidder. We’ve traded lives of substance for an empty existence centered around worshipping the dollar bill. As a Finance professor, I can speak to the power and importance of money and the building of wealth. But as a black man, I can also talk about the dangers of a one-dimensional focus on the size of your bank account without considering the consequences of having a white supremacist benefactor. Fortunately, Cornel West is one of the few people who is able to remember that there are some things in life that are more important than money.
6) He’s not ashamed of being a black man: One of the greatest losses to the black community in the age of Obama has been the almost instaneous willingness to trade authentic black advocacy for some kind of weak, diluted, unfocused multi-culturalism that puts the struggles of black men, women and children at the back of the bus. Dr. West has been one of a very small number of black public figures with a national platform who has been willing to remind the world that black families are falling apart, black men are being eaten alive by the criminal justice system, and black children are dying in the streets. In other words, he truly loves his people and isn’t willing to let go of his blackness in order to receive mainstream acceptance.
Let’s be clear: Dr. Cornel West is the closest thing we have to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like Dr. King, there are people seeking to villify him at every turn and there are some who would rather see him gone altogether. Many of these attacks occur because Dr West isn’t going along with the program. Among all of the black elites who were offered “the hookup” by the Obama Administration, he was one of the few who remained committed to righteous advocacy on behalf of the people. This makes him a political nuisance, considered too idealistic to play ball in a world where most of us are trained to accept whatever we can get.
But each generation needs people who are naive enough to seek out a better existence for our community. We need leaders who state the obvious: That neither the Democratic nor Republican party are serving the black community, and that we are sick and tired of seeing our people severely unemployed, our fathers and husbands locked in chains, our children being uneducated, young people being shot down in the street and the rest of us being hunted like dogs by the police.
The fact is that this is SICK and our low self-esteem as black people leads us to believe that we should settle in and remain comfortable with second-class citizenship. If white people are allowed to become outraged over 8% unemployment, then I’ll be damned if black people must remain silent when unemployment hits the double digits. In some ways, we are like rape victims who are supposed to be happy with just a little molestation. All the while, the black people who represent us are telling us that our suffering is entirely our fault, that there is nothing they can do, and that we should be happy with whatever we can get.
Dr Cornel West is not one of those people, and that’s why he stands out among black public figures today. Most of them simply do not have the courage to do what West has been doing for the last seven years.
The spirit Dr. West is so extraordinary, so forthright, and so powerful that his light will shine long after he is gone from this earth. But the truth is that we probably won’t truly appreciate his unique sacrifice until long after he is gone. That’s what makes this so disappointing.