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Cornel West Gives Black Scholars a Bad Rap

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Cornel West Gives Black Scholars a Bad Rap

April 16, 2002

By day I am a professor, and have written two academic books and numerous articles on my subject, linguistics. Though I relish my vocation, I'm troubled by its hermetic nature. Most academic work is consigned quickly to libraries, consulted only by the occasional student or professor.

So, rather as Cornel West has done, I've tossed my hat into the public fray -- writing books and newspaper articles for lay readers. But here ends my resemblance to Mr. West, a professor of Afro-American studies. This is my second career. I still produce a linguistics article every few months. Having just put the finishing touches on an anthology of magazine essays on race, I am now writing an academic paper examining whether our ability to speak is innate. And my current research will culminate in an academic book, which will most surely not net me any talk-show appearances.


I find myself thinking about these matters in light of Prof. West's decision to leave Harvard for Princeton, feeling "disrespected" by the suggestion, made by Harvard President Lawrence Summers, that he produce new academic research. Prof. West is known for his lucrative career as a public speaker, and has recently recorded a rap CD and supported Al Sharpton's bid for the U.S. presidency. His decision to decamp to Princeton betrays tragic assumptions, of the sort that lead too many African-American leaders and thinkers to reinforce the very stereotypes they seek to exterminate.

A rap CD isn't scholarship.

Some may respond that his academic gravitas is confirmed by his having authored over a dozen books. He has written some academic volumes in his field -- philosophy -- but he wrote these over a decade ago. His books since he has become a celebrity are all edited anthologies, collections of pieces written for the media, or co-authored books for the general public. That is no mean feat -- but these are not academic books.

The simple fact is that serious academics are expected to produce a steady stream of academic work. Of course, Prof. West proudly identifies with the class of "activist scholars." As such, he likely sees it as morally urgent that he communicate with the general public. And there is not a thing wrong with this. But he attempts to maintain a foothold in the academic realm.

It's a delicate balance. Today, I don't write as many linguistics articles as I used to. I will soon take a year's leave of absence from Berkeley to write a book for the general public. Yet at the same time, I will continue to write a grammatical description of a creole spoken in Suriname. My academic career impinges on my public one: I turn down requests to write and speak in favor of maintaining my scholarly output.

In that light, what troubles me is Prof. West's reflexive insistence that it's an attack on his integrity to even question why he, as one of only 14 "university professors" at Harvard, has stopped producing academic work. Or to be more specific, that it's racist. He's been circumspect on that charge with most interviewers, but letting his hair down in a NPR interview with a fawning Tavis Smiley, he conveyed that Mr. Summers' suggestion reflected a fear among Harvard's leadership that "the Negroes are taking over."

There are other responses Prof. West could have made. He could have argued that he has suspended academic work temporarily, feeling a duty to lend his voice and pen to the urgency of the race dilemma in America. But instead, he has implied that a CD and support for Mr. Sharpton are legitimate substitutes for academic work -- a "visionary" paradigm of inquiry. Here is a coded wink to black people that Mr. Summers' failure to understand this is racism.

I see a different subtext here: that serious academic work is optional for black intellectuals, and that to require it of a black scholar beyond a certain point is a racist insult. But can Prof. West not see that this only reinforces the stereotype of black mental dimness that feeds the very racism he is so quick to sniff out? Visionary or not, rap is not scholarship. Nor is putting one's arm around a hustler like the Rev. Sharpton "speaking truth to power."

But wait, there's more. Prof. West's spokesman, Harvard Law Prof. Charles Ogletree, says that his client is indeed working on three academic books. This is staggering, and begs the question of why Prof. West didn't mention this to the New York Times, or on NPR to "Brother Tavis." Ideally, he should have told Mr. Summers that he was engaged in just such work and felt that this was a triumph. Instead, he played down that he was, in fact, doing exactly what was being asked of him, and finally left for Princeton to maintain his "dignity."

Party Turn

This only makes sense as a scripted routine: After all, he could assert dignity more resonantly by standing his ground and producing new academic books. Bolting only qualifies as "dignity" under an assumption that playing victim trumps showing us the money. The overarching message is that for black scholars, serious academic work is just a party turn.

Top black scholars smugly support Prof. West's decision, but I can't see them as role models. If in 10 years I had restricted my academic output to pop work, my department head would call me out on the mat, and the only thing that would make her a racist would be not doing so. Is it racist to hold black scholars to mainstream standards of evaluation? Prof. West's muse, W.E.B. Du Bois, is turning in his grave.