Magazine article Tikkun


Magazine article Tikkun


Article excerpt


Whither the Black Public Intellectual and the Recent Saga of Cornel West

In an important sense, this episode is a cautionary tale about the prospects and perils of free speech.

On a brisk yet comfortable Thursday evening last November, Cornel West came to Berkeley's campus to give the annual Mario Savio Memorial Lecture. By the time his presentation began at the 800 seat venue, well over 200 people had overflowed into doorways and aisles. Conservative estimates suggested another several hundred were turned away at the door. The size and response of the Berkeley crowd-unusual for these kinds of campus events-are typical of the audience response West has engendered recently. At least since his best-selling book Race Matters (over 400,000 copies sold since 1993) made him a commanding public spokesman, his audiences have been large and avid. Within the last decade, Cornel West has become an important national, even international, activist voice, speaking on a wide range of central issues, but most famously on justice and equality, as well as race.

Little over a month after West's Berkeley speech praising the legacy of the Free Speech Movement and assessing the global meaning of September 11, word broke of an ill-fated October 2001 meeting between West and the recently installed president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, renowned economist and a former head of the Treasury Department under President Clinton. What apparently began as a conversation between them in Summers' office had deteriorated a couple of months later into a public feud, a national news story with front-page coverage in the New York Times. By mid-January 2002 the controversy was subsiding, but its reverberations persist. In an important sense, this episode is a cautionary tale about the prospects and perils of free speech.

According to West, in that initial encounter Summers upbraided him on several counts. Among these was the fact that West's extremely popular Introduction to Afro-- American studies course-often with upwards of 500 students-has yielded too high a percentage of A's and A-s, contributing to Harvard's grade inflation dilemma, an issue Summers has made a priority. Not only did Summers want West to toughen his course standards, but he also questioned him about activities such as his spoken word CD, Sketches of My Culture, and his participation in Reverend Al Sharpton's presidential exploratory committee. The message was evident: someone of West's stature should be devoting himself more fully to more conventional scholarly activities and paying more attention to his undergraduate teaching. West ably defended himself against these and other similarly unfair and misguided charges, but left the meeting offended and angered. In early January 2002, in a National Public Radio interview with Tavis Smiley, West observed that "In my twenty-six years of teaching this is unprecedented for me.... I have never been attacked or insulted in that particular way."

Even before the controversy hit, unofficial word had spread of concern and discontent among the faculty in Harvard's Afro-American studies department as well as among African American faculty throughout the university. Other faculty members sensed that Summers' treatment of West was symptomatic of a generally dismissive and insulting attitude toward several of them as well as some of their collective concerns. In particular, Summers' failure to speak out forcefully in support of the university's affirmative action policy further enflamed the fires of concern in an already volatile area. When news of the ill-fated meeting between West and Summers burst onto the public scene, these numerous background issues helped to shape the broader framework of the controversy.

By the time the dispute became hot news in mid-- December, two of West's colleagues were also estranged from Summers: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African American literature specialist and department chair, and Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and Afro-- American studies. …

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