This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
I first met Cornel West almost thirty years ago when I was invited to share the podium with him at a New York venue on the subject of Israel and the Palestinians. I had just published Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation but more importantly the first Palestinian uprising was in full swing. Looking back those who invited us may have been looking toward a reinvigorated Black-Jewish dialogue by the infusion of the Israel-Palestine issue. I remember thinking that West was a bit soft on the issue; he let me lead while he followed along.
Back then, West was a little known academic and I remember driving around New York in his secondhand beat-up car. Soon after he exploded on the American academic and public intellectual scene in an almost unprecedented way. As an African American Christian, West was upfront about his justice-seeking agenda and, quite unexpectedly, the American media and university scene was ready for such a voice.
That was many years ago and when, just a few days ago, Michael Eric Dyson’s article excoriating West, his former mentor, colleague and friend, went viral, the internal African American debate about Black leadership and the broader public debate about liberal and radical politics heated up. The heat continues unabated.
Dyson’s article is long and personal. It has been hailed by some as analytical. It has been labeled by others as a diatribe. My sense is that Dyson is making a case for himself replacing West as the leading Black public intellectual in America. The title of Dyson’s article makes this clear: the once giant Cornel West has taken a great fall.
What is that fall about? Primarily Dyson calls West out for a self-reference that is epic, including among other things, West’s self-proclaimed prophetic mandate. Carrying that mandate most vociferously in West’s condemnation of President Obama as, among other things, a sell-out and a war criminal, Dyson protests loudly. Such a sweeping condemnation is unmerited, Dyson believes, and in its personal nature, exposes West’s overwhelming ambition. West calls out other Black figures, including Dyson himself, as favoring Obama because he is Black and lacking the moral fortitude to speak truth to power.
Though Israel-Palestine is a side issue in Dyson’s critique of West, it is important to note that both he and West are called to account in Stephen Salaita’s, Israel’s Dead Soul (pdf), in a scathing chapter, “Ethnonationalism as an Object of Multicultural Decorum.” Salaita’s critique of both is formidable and needs further exploration. At the same time though, it is important to note that West was one of the few public intellectuals with access to the national media to call out Israel’s war against Gaza in no uncertain terms. Recently West turned down a prestigious lecture at the University of Illinois in protest over Salaita’s dismissal.
In the continuing debate over American foreign policy and Israeli militarism, West, unlike Dyson, is clear and upfront. Though West sometimes seems out of his depth when the particular history of Israel-Palestine is discussed and has been accused of being overly protective of Jews in their empowered status, his use of the word “annihilation” in relation to Israel’s bombing of Gaza is again by far the strongest public commentary by a nationally known figure on the American scene.
I reconnected with West in 2011 when he gave a moving presentation on my own writing and teaching through the years at the national convention of university religious teachers. As with Salaita, he was there for me as I was being persecuted by the infamous Ken Starr who had become president of my university.
I saw then that West was a marked man, famous now, as he wasn’t when I first met him, with much more money, but clearly exhausted. He had become an icon to many, especially in progressive religious circles. In recent decades the religious community has come alive on many issues, including and especially Israel-Palestine.
Though Dyson’s predicted fall of Cornel West is clearly exaggerated, his penchant for disciplining West’s prophetic voice should be taken seriously. For with whatever deficiency West may have on the Middle East, whatever the personal overreach that marks many of our public figures, including Dyson himself, it is more than countered by the potential growth in his prophetic voice that still has many more miles to travel.