Magazine article The New Yorker

The Oracle

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Oracle

Article excerpt

Among the grandees of the Princeton University faculty, past and present, Cornel West is the only one to have appeared in two sequels of "The Matrix," playing a Zion Elder called Councillor West; recorded songs with both Andre 3000 and John Mellencamp; and seen his words quoted on a Starbucks cup. A couple of weeks ago, West published a memoir titled "Living and Loving Out Loud." He did not write it, exactly; the book is an as-told-to with David Ritz, who has similarly collaborated with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Grandmaster Flash. None of the above can be said of Christian Gauss or Woodrow Wilson.

Cornel West is everywhere, constantly on the road. A self-fashioned "scholar-bluesman," he travels from lecture hall to church pulpit and on to Barnes & Noble, wearing a formal and elegant uniform--black suit, white shirt, French cuffs, black tie, black scarf. "I've got four more just like this one," he says. "And the dry-cleaning bills to go with it."

West stopped by Times Square the other day on his way to a speaking engagement uptown. He had in tow his publisher and his sweetly beleaguered assistant, Mary Ann Rodriguez, who valiantly attempts to get him to his gigs on time; just in case Rodriguez loses him, he carries a tiny leather-bound date book crammed tight with the details of his obligations, paid and otherwise. "I've never spent a weekend in Princeton," West said. "I'm on the road, on the move, brother. I meet magnificent people, I have a great time, I learn so much, and, at the same time, I've got to make some money, because I've got women in my life--or women in my past, let's put it that way."

Of the many roles that West has played in the academy and the media lately, it's been his ongoing support-slash-critique of Barack Obama that is the most curious. It was not a relationship that began with daffodils and candy. At Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union conference, in February, 2007, West said that he admired Obama as a "very decent, brilliant, charismatic brother," but lamented that he "holds us at arm's length," the better not to alienate white voters.

A few days later, Obama called West and the two men spoke for what West described as four hours. "First thing he said was 'Well, Brother West, you're much more progressive on these things than I am. We're not going to agree on everything.' I said, 'Of course! My only thing is--you be true to yourself, I'll be true to myself. That's all I ask.' Then he went in and talked about what King meant, what that legacy meant, how he'd been shaped by it, and so forth. …

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