Monday, March 08, 2010

The Cornel West You Don't Know

The Cornel West You Don't Know
By George E. Curry
Feb 15, 2010

I thought I knew Cornel West, the most public of public intellectuals. But it was not until I read his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud that I realized how much I didn’t know about my friend.

Sure, I knew that the brother on the cutting edge of public policy was not ever on the rough edge of technology. He doesn’t use e-mail and has never owned or used a computer. Ever. I knew about the time that he and two black Harvard roommates were arrested after being falsely accused of raping a white co-ed. And I knew that when a cop pulled Cornel over after suspecting him of being a drug dealer, Cornel identified himself as a professor at Williams College. The officer retorted, “And I’m the Flying Nun.”

But I didn’t know how out of control Cornel was as a child.

He put it this way: “Those were the years I was called Little Ronnie—Ronald is my middle name—and for Little Ronnie rage was perhaps the main ingredient…Little Ronnie was, in short, a little gangsta. When it came to confrontations of any kind, Little Ronnie was always up for big drama. Facing the most formidable opponent, he just wouldn’t back down. As a little kid, his hands were sore from fighting. He’d take on kids older and meaner and, more often than not, he’d prevail.”

Little Ronnie fashioned himself as a Robin Hood of sorts.

“I’d notice that poor kids came to our school without lunch money,” he remembered. “Others had money to spare. So I forced the haves into giving to the have-nots. If anyone resisted, I’d beat them until they forked over their nickels and dimes. In the fighting itself, I turned into an unapologetic brute.”

Even adults were not exempt.

When Little Ronnie refused to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, his teacher slapped him and declared, “You ‘will’ pledge allegiance to the flag!” Cornel recounted, “Something snapped inside me. Her slap stung, and just like that, I socked her in the arm. Hard in the arm. She ran out of the room and came back with the principal. Principal had a paddle and went after me. My partners and I jumped the principal until he had to back off. It was practically a riot. The principal expelled me.”

To the extent that anyone could, Cornel’s big brother, Cliff, and their parents kept Little Ronnie in check as he excelled in track and in the classroom. But the major transition from Little Ronnie to Cornel West came after his freshman year at Harvard when a friend introduced him to St. Clair Drake, a professor at Stanford.

“Being in Drake’s presence, my commitment to teaching was reinforced: This is who I want to be. I want to be a professor like St. Clair Drake and my mentor, Martin Kilson,” he wrote.

Once he turned that corner, there was no stopping him. Cornel graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in three years and later earned his doctorate from Princeton. He has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Haverford College, Williams College, Yale, Harvard and Princeton.

At Yale, he was the only black faculty member arrested while supporting a picket line established by striking clerical workers intent on forming a union. West writes that he had planned to serve as a guest professor at the University of Paris when Yale canceled his sabbatical. He remembers:

“Looks like this university is determined to jack you up one way or the other,” a friend said to me. “I guess you’re going to have to cancel your appointment at the University of Paris.”

“That’s what Yale would like me to do, but that’s exactly what I have no intention of doing.”

“What will you do, Corn?”

“I’ll do both.”


“On Monday morning and afternoon, I’ll teach my two classes at Yale. Then fly to Paris where I’ll teach a class on Thursday and another on Friday. Fly back to New Haven over the weekend and be fresh to kick up the cycle again Monday morning.”

And that’s exactly what he did, saying, “Determination trumped exhaustion.”

Cornel West’s principles were also on display when Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, called him on the carpet for his involvement in popular culture, allegedly inflating students’ grades, his association with hip-hop and supposed lack of scholarly research, though West had been published in more scholarly journals than Summers.

Rather than capitulate to Summers’ plans to monitor Cornel and meet with him weekly, Cornel returned to Princeton, where he now teaches.

Cornel was always a voracious reader. One of the most surprising disclosures of the book was that as busy as he is, Cornel manages to read at least three hours every day. “I read as easily as I breathe,” he informs us.

He remains what he calls “an intellectual bluesman,” happy to teach but ever happier as itinerant public intellectual. In many ways, he is doing what he did as Little Ronnie—standing up for the oppressed and disadvantaged.

(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, You can also follow him at

Hear Bro. George Curry On W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Radio:
2010 State Of The Black Union
“It Ain’t About Tavis, It’s About Us, & It's About Time!”

No comments: