April 20, 2011

Cornel West ‘worries about’ Al Sharpton. Should you?

As I prepare to leave the University of Louisville until 2012, I’m finishing up one of the most enjoyable instructional years I’ve had in recent memory. This semester, I’ve been lucky enough to have a great group of students and a good combination of class offerings (Black Political Thought and The Obama Phenomenon).

Political Thought engages socio-political philosophies and theories from ancient Egypt to Malcolm X. Students leave with a handle on an array of religious and spiritual systems, nationalism (fundamental, neo, and cultural), integrationism, accomodationism and other approaches. The Obama Phenomenon is a biography class that also examines how these ideologies have evolved and interact leading up to (and during) the age of Obama.

Importantly, both classes expose students to influential American thinkers (and fools). A few of them took center stage recently. I’ll let you decide who belongs in the category of thinker or fool.

Just after his untimely death at 60, the last book written by the prolific scholar Manning Marable was recently released. According to The Washington Post, in the sweeping and sometimes controversial “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” Marable “convinced people who had been silent for decades to sit for interviews.” He also drew upon oral histories, old police reports, and FBI and CIA documents.

While Malcolm’s story is well known, Marable is sure to tell it in his own intelligent and penetrating way. He even stirs a little controversy with allegations that both Malcolm and his wife, Betty, engaged in extramarital affairs (some homosexual on Malcolm’s part). One of my contrarian colleagues snidely asked, “What does this matter? It doesn’t change anything Malcolm accomplished.” My answer is, the fullness of history matters. This is what good scholars do. We engage all subjects and people as completely as possible.

Remember, Martin Luther King Jr. smoked in private but not in public and was a notorious adulterer. These facts contradict his “image of purity” but don’t change his historical and political impact. But we need to know the full truth and place him in proper context. The same can be said of Washington, Jefferson, Douglass, Lincoln and others. In my opinion, knowing that these men were not perfect encourages us to fight for change (and possibly achieve greatness) in spite of our own imperfections.

By far, the most provocative recent verbal exchange in the continuing attempt to write a complete and accurate political history was between Princeton professor Cornel West and the ubiquitous Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC’s “The Black Agenda” special. Candidate Barack Obama was openly and enthusiastically supported by West a few years ago. Now West, like others who are politically informed and have moved beyond the emotion of 2008, is beginning to ask hard questions.

West has concluded that, to date, Obama has disturbingly shown himself to have sensibilities that enable the same “oligarchs and plutocrats” as previous administrations. Sharpton vehemently disagrees. Though they make strange bedfellows, Sharpton has been able to secure inroads to Obama since his election (even though Obama’s camp handled him like a leper during his presidential campaign). Now, he’s invited to meetings at the White House, and Obama even attended an event hosted by Sharpton in New York recently. The reverend refuses to criticize Obama in any way. Why? As one former Clinton cabinet member told me, “Al thinks he’s in now, so he isn’t going to say one damn thing. Like Ben Jealous and the others, he doesn’t want to lose his place in line.” Whew!

In one of the most heated exchanges I’ve witnessed in a while (and the first time I’ve actually seen Cornel West angry), West blasted Sharpton: “I loved this brother when he was outside, I love this brother now that he’s given access. But, I’ll tell you this — I worry about you, brother!” Sharpton resorted to an old, anti-intellectual trope and retorted that he is the one “out there in the trenches” while “a lot of people are sitting around in their ivory towers talking.”

West is worried, and you should be as well. We should all worry about any person, regime or system that seeks to silence serious questions and thought. We all must keep reading, debating, writing, talking, thinking and acting. The fullness of history and the future are at stake.