Only words from Goethe might help paint a self-described bluesman that is Cornel West or Corn as friends call him:
Soul of man,
How like the water you are!
Fate of man,
How like the wind.
Cornel West was born in the year of the dragon 1953. He became a born-again Christian with a Buddhist wisdom heart — your basic fire-breathing-keeper-of-the-flame black boy. His memoir Brother West was more than a delight to read. His collaboration with David Ritz creates a conversational tone to this tome of memories. The love, brilliance and destiny of brother West as a tenured philosophy professor at three Ivy-league universities has left its mark on every corner of the globe in this and the past century.
His early academic life, aided by his love of track along with his brother Cliff, push his life forward. As a youth, his Robin-in-the-hood ways of taking from one student to give to less fortunate ones borders on reckless. Young Cornel risks expulsion, and he must choose. He chooses books, philosophy and success and finds the teaching profession calling. A waiting fate leads from a childhood spent on the California coast to the East coast where his academic star shines at Princeton and Harvard, where he graduates with a Ph.D.
His tenure at Harvard becomes fodder for front page news when he abruptly leaves to teach at Princeton. He recounts the target on his educated black back when Larry Summers takes the helm becoming Harvard’s first Jewish president, and how Henry “Skip” Gates comes to his rescue and warns him that he was about to be put on what amounts to a professional growth plan. Brother West was not buying it. So when the misgivings of President Summers were buried beneath the mountain of evidence that, in fact, Cornell West is a first-rate academic — sparks fly, Summers apologizes, then lies in an interview that he did not apologize. West is livid and takes his talents to Princeton. But not after exposing the duplicity he encounters with Summers; in his memoir, West reveals that Summers also sports a long streak of racial bias.
West dubs that adventure “Messin’ with the Wrong Brother.” Cornel’s collaborations with A-list movie stars, politicians, President Obama and academia could fill a book and trumps the misadventures of Harvard — their loss, Princeton’s gain. After William Julius Wilson, the first black professor at Harvard — a brilliant and generous man with impeccable credentials whom I met in grad school at SIU-C where he traveled to lecture to our sociology department while he was still professor at the U. of Chicago — comes Cornell West, only the second black professor hired by Harvard. But he was leaving now.
Race Matters, a ground-breaking book on race, brings Cornel international fame and fortune. But he has trouble holding onto his fortune and finds himself starring in his own tragedy once again. Another self-inflicted wound, this time a monetary one.
Cornel is a bluesman and a lover. He marries and divorces three times, just another self-absorbed, unable-to-commit black man? And because he leaves the relationships, he sinks into legal jeopardy. In a touch of irony reload Cornel seeks a soul mate, falls in love at first sight, and then walks away when cemented in place. Friends suggest he try therapy to smooth some of the knots in his emotional brain — he declines and keeps moving. The true peripatetic philosopher has no home. His only address, at times, a car or bench in the park, especially after his third marriage to an Ethiopian beauty. They have a royal wedding in Africa, complete with crowns.
Together, they buy a home near Harvard University where he is teaching and fill it with finery and friends. In the end, West leaves the marriage with an old Cadillac and some shred of dignity. With Zen-like capitulation he gives it all away. His soon-to-be ex-wife brings in the lawyers to turn his pockets inside out: a hiccup before entering the fight of his life — 8-rounds. For all his brilliance and gift of gab, Cornel stands clueless with cancer.
Health takes a back seat in his daily dramas. He has more problems on his mind than money in his bank account drained dry from divorce and child-support payments (he has two children). He also has the IRS blues. And just when he thinks his life cannot sing in a lower key — an advanced stage prostate cancer diagnosis pushes him. His Jewish girlfriend suggests he seek the best surgeon at Sloan-Kettering in New York City to save his life and sexuality. He does and lives to become a cancer survivor.
Brother West’s love of tribe, blackness and those he hopes to inspire transport him from philosophy to Africa to hip-hop adventures like cutting a CD and working with top recording and performing artists. He collaborates with or advises folk from Ken Wilbur to Warren Beatty! He even romances the great Kathleen Battle; they remain good friends.
In Cornel, we have an inscrutable, multi-dimensional, modern-day Peter Abelard, in demand by the best and doing his fire-breathing duty to the rest. He opens his heart and life, albeit cautiously, in a wonderful memoir that should stand as a monument to the complexity that is rooted in blackness, living life out loud and breathing a fire that doesn’t burn, but lights the lamp for other seekers after knowledge, love and truth.