‘I Want to Be Like Jesus’: Cornell West Is Leaving Princeton University to Express His ‘Own Prophetic Christian Identity.’
In November 2007, Cornel West got onstage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and before a hollering crowd of more than a thousand people, with much arm-waving and wrist-flapping, along with a certain amount of ass-wagging, introduced his candidate for president of the United States—“my brother, my companion, and my comrade”—Barack Obama. “He’s an eloquent brother,” preached West. “He’s a good brother, he’s a decent brother.” Obama returned the sloppy kiss and pronounced West “an oracle.”
That compliment could not have been more apt, for West regards himself as a prophet more than a professor. He believes that he is called to teach God’s justice to a heedless nation. “There is a price to pay for speaking the truth,” reads the signature on e-mails coming from West’s office. “There is a bigger price for living a lie.” So when his view of the commander-in-chief changed from adoration to disappointment, West was moved to proclaim it out loud. He had already been lobbing rhetorical grenades in the direction of the Oval Office, calling the president “spineless” for his failure to make poor and working people a policy priority and “milquetoast” for kowtowing to corporate interests during the economic crisis. But in an interview with Truthdig, published last May, West went nuclear. He called Obama “the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.” And then he said he wanted to “slap him,” as the article put it, “on the side of his head.”
In the white world of mainstream media, the interview made a few headlines. But in precincts of the left, and among certain African-American scholars, it unleashed a tide of anguish. West has been an intellectual celebrity for three decades, protected and cherished by his like-minded comrades, but the nasty tone of his Truthdig comments caused many of his closest colleagues to question their devotion, to suspect his motives, and to wonder whether West’s prominence had finally exceeded his merit. Their concerns were in part pragmatic: As the 2012 election approached, some thought West might make his case better if he weren’t quite so mean.
‘Oh, it’s time to go home,’ said West, explaining his move. ‘It’s about that time in your life where you begin to assess, what do you want the last stage to be in terms of your work and your witness. I have lived the most blessed of lives in the academy. Eight years at Union, three years when I first tenured at Yale, six years at Princeton, eight years at Harvard, back to Princeton ten years. It’s time to end that last stage where I started. Union is the institutional expression of my own prophetic Christian identity, and that identity is deeper than any identity I have.’
What West doesn’t say is that for the past decade, he has been wandering in an emotional and spiritual wilderness. At 58 years old, he has let old wounds fester. He nurses a personal beef with Obama, and he still smarts from the bruises inflicted upon his ego in a 2001 fracas with Larry Summers, in which the then-president of Harvard University queried West’s scholarly bona fides in public and West departed Cambridge in a red-hot rage for his second stint at Princeton. (‘[Summers] needed to be the president of Harvard the way I need to be the president of the NHL,’ he told me.) West is also a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed and treated for late-stage prostate disease just as the Summers debacle was unfolding. He is thrice-divorced and still pays alimony to his last ex-wife.