WORTH REPEATING: Giving Up The Ghost

Cornell West by Hello Von copy


THE NEW REPUBLIC: West has repeatedly declared that he did 65 engagements for the presidential campaign in 2008, and was offended when the president didn’t provide tickets to the inauguration. (Obama later told me in the White House that West left several voice messages, including prayers, from a blocked number with no instructions of where to return the call, a routine with which I was all too familiar.) […] This moment for West followed a pronounced and decades-long scholarly decline, something that did not escape the notice of other academics and intellectuals, none more notably than Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard, who clashed publicly with West. (West departed Harvard for Princeton in 2002.) Summers had reprimanded West for his varied side projects, everything from advising Reverend Al Sharpton’s failed presidential bid to his vanity musical ventures. I couldn’t endorse these criticisms, but I knew Summers was right when he pointed to West’s diminished scholarly output. It is not only that West’s preoccupations with Obama’s perceived failures distracted him, though that is true; more accurate would be to say that the last several years revealed West’s paucity of serious and fresh intellectual work, a trend far longer in the making. West is still a Man of Ideas, but those ideas today are a vain and unimaginative repackaging of his earlier hits. He hasn’t published without aid of a co-writer a single scholarly book since Keeping Faith, which appeared in 1993, the same year as Race Matters. West has repeatedly tried to recapture the glory of that slim classic by imitating the 1960s-era rhythm and blues singers he loves so much: Make another song that sounds just like the one that topped the charts. In 2004, West published Democracy Matters, an obvious recycling of both the title and themes of his work a decade earlier. It was his biggest seller since Race Matters.

Even a cursory survey of West’s recent work captures the noticeable diminishment of his intellectual force. Hope on a CornelWest-spray-COMP22Tightrope (2008) is mostly a collection of West-ian wisdom spoken and then transcribed. The cover features West standing at a blackboard with the words “What Would West Say?” chalked again and again, like an after school punishment, a haunting hubris suggesting a parallel to “What Would Jesus Do?” His memoir Brother West (2009) is an embarrassing farrago of scholarly aspiration and breathless self-congratulation—West, for instance, deems his co-authored book The War Against Parents (1998) a “seminal text”; praises Race Matters as “the right book at the right time”; and brags that Democracy Matters sold over 100,000 copies, landed at No. 5 on TheNew York Times bestseller list, and “continues to influence many.” None of this competes with the description on West’s website of his first spoken word album, Sketches of My Culture, which claimed at the time of its release that in “all modesty, this project constitutes a watershed moment in musical history.”

Brother West was co-written with David Ritz, a writer best known for album liner notes and ghostwriting entertainers’ biographies—a sure sign of West’s dramatic plummet from his perch as a world-class intellectual. It’s one thing for Ray Charles to turn to Ritz; another thing entirely for a top-shelf scholar to concede that he can’t write for himself, or is too busy to do so. It is akin to Du Bois hiring Truman Capote to fashion his autobiography. The journalist David Masciotra called The Rich and the Rest of Us (2012), which was also co-authored, this time by Tavis Smiley, “a cover version of a hit performed better by other singers—Barbara Ehrenreich, Joseph Stiglitz, and William Julius Wilson, to name a few.” West’s latest, Black Prophetic Fire, published last year, is another talk book, this one edited by Christa Buschendorf, a German scholar who interviewed West. Last October, Masciotra reviewed Fire for The Daily Beast, and called it “a strange and disappointing culmination of [West’s] metamorphosis from philosopher to celebrity,” one that is in keeping with “his pattern of not solely authoring any books in the past ten years.” MORE

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