After the 1993 publication of his seminal work Race Matters, Cornel West soon became—and remains—one of the leading voices on race, specifically as it relates to the lives of Black people in America. His prominence helped secure him a place among the “Black intelligentsia,” with Ivy League track records whose opinions seem to matter in the public sphere.
West is perhaps the most popular and controversial member of this influential circle. But to classify him solely among the academic elite might not be satisfactory to the man who calls himself “a bluesman in the life of the mind, and a jazzman in the world of ideas.”
It is the voice of the soulful, free-spirited and at times weary bluesman that drives the outspoken Princeton University professor’s new book, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, A Memoir. Coauthored with David Ritz, the man behind noted autobiographies of such musical icons as Ray Charles and B.B. King, Brother West reveals a man who wants to be seen as simply a bluesman singing for his supper, trying to remain true to what he calls “the funk of living.”
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and brought up in Sacramento, California, West says he owes everything to his parents, who made sure he had all the books he could read after discovering he had both a high IQ and an unhealthy inclination to bully other kids. His voracious appetite for learning—he was digging into philosophy books “like other kids read comic books”—along with his unwavering Christian faith (“I decided to love my way through the darkness of the world”) soon shaped his life and set him on a mission to teach, heal, inspire and serve—a quest he claims he’s never abandoned. For over three decades West has traveled the world, giving hundreds of lectures a year, all while teaching, writing books that interrogate systemic and cultural understandings of race, and occasionally releasing hip-hop CDs. He’s even acted in a couple of The Matrix sequels.
West talks candidly about his three failed marriages and relationships that usually left him in financial straits (he ended up sleeping in Central Park for a short time in the 1970s while going through a divorce), even if he does too often speak through the music of favorite artists like Marvin Gaye to express his pain. He speaks fondly of his days with cultural critic and feminist Michele Wallace and gives details about his passionate affair with opera singer Kathleen Battle.
Known as a person who rarely holds his tongue, West says that for him “critique and praise are inseparable.” That’s his standard line to those who believe him to be too critical of President Obama, whom he campaigned for vigorously. He says he intends to be a “[B]lacker Frederick Douglass” to Obama’s “[B]lack Lincoln” and expresses concern over Obama being pulled in by the visionless, brainless, “fast-talking establishment figures” who surround him. His willingness to hold Obama accountable, however, does not seem to extend to considering the possibility that this President—like most others—has surrounded himself with people who tell him what he already wants to hear.
West reminds readers that in 1996 he gave then-President Bill Clinton the same dose of tough love when he refused to support him for a second term because of Clinton’s welfare bill. West argues that such critical views are tied to that quest he remains committed to, a mission he says is rooted in truth and love.
Brother West is certainly worth the read. It is a story with very few dull moments about a man on a mission with no intention of slowing down. He gives us the story of a man whose respectability is presented as an accidental byproduct of a bluesman just living to “fight the good fight and keep moving on.”
Natalie Maxwell is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is also a contributing writer for the Feminist Review blog and SeeingBlack.com.