On April 19th, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson published an article titled, The Ghost of Cornel West. In the piece, Dyson addresses an emerging feud between he and his former mentor Cornel West. Needless to say, the internet blew up with a flurry of tweets, accolades and impromptu rebuttals.
On the positive side, the piece was welcomed as painful but also thoroughly insightful when speaking on the current state of West’s scholarship or lack thereof. On the negative side, the piece was chided as a johnny-come-lately, petty, overly personal blow.
I would say it’s somewhere in between, in a good way. Dyson’s article about West’s supposed fall from scholarly grace does not exist in a vacuum. After being a close friend and mentee of West for over 30 years, it is impossible for Dyson to critique West’s scholarship without it being connected to their personal relationship. It’s actually unfair to ask of him to do so, because that would lead to a disingenuous analysis. Scholars are humans. Cornel West has given himself free range to call Michael Eric Dyson, Melissa Harris-Perry, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson “toms” and “plantation negroes.” Consequently, they have free range to a rebuttal that’s not so sparing. Additionally, the personal tone of the piece highlights the pain felt due to a ruptured relationship.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, pointed this out stating, “…people critiquing Dyson for being too ‘personal’ have no problem with West regularly accusing whole swaths of blacks of being Toms.”
Tone aside, The Ghost of Cornel West is the continuation of a rich legacy of discord amongst Black scholars. Dr. Blair L.M. Kelley reminded us of this history in a series of tweets, stating:
Remember that time W.E.B. DuBois and Walter White (exec. sec. of the NAACP for those new to the game) fell out about how to approach FDR…I bet you don’t remember the time that Booker T. Washington had his people come for Anna Julia Cooper and no one really defended her.
She also chided that people were “Pretending like there was some time in history when all black folk got along, put ego aside, and focused on important stuff.”
An additional example is when Richard Wright publicly attacked Zore Neale Hurston’s work, calling it reminiscent of a minstrel show:
Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes.
Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.
Zora Neale Hurston had criticisms of Wright’s work as well stating, “Since the author himself is a Negro, his dialect is a puzzling thing. One wonders how he arrived at it. Certainly he does not write by ear unless he is tone-deaf.”
While there are distinct differences between criticisms of literary and academic writing, the point is to understand that Black writers are often and have always been critical of each other’s work. These criticism are beneficial to the art of critical thought and writing. It’s actually healthy. This is public intellectual discourse.
When history evades us, we end up with an overly nostalgic and unreasonable view of Black intellectualism. This nostalgic “just get along” perspective trivializes the Black scholarly experience.
There is an importance to remembering the humanity of disagreements in Black scholarship. This call for Dyson and West to “talk it out” is far too simplistic. Black scholarship is not monolithic and should never be pushed into a child like, dismissive, “don’t air our dirty laundry” corner.
Furthermore, as much as some want to disregard his article as “petty,” Dyson asks some pivotal questions concerning activism, scholarship and intellectualism.
For one, Dyson raises a discussion on the scholarly politics of naming, focusing on West’s fascination with the “prophetic tradition.” Dyson asks, in terms of Black intellectual discourse:
How is it that West deems himself a prophet of Black America, without ever actually providing a thorough definition or analysis of “the prophetic” in terms of activism and scholarship?
Furthermore, why is it that West can profess ownership of the Black prophetic legacy without actually possessing any real accountability for taking on such a moniker?”
But the most important issue Dyson raises, was the decline in Cornell West’s scholarship. Whether or not you agree with West’s criticism of Black scholars and President Obama, one thing is certain. His intellectual impact in public discourse has been significantly stifled by his impromptu rants (however well intentioned), name calling and seeming lack of focus.
Cornell West is a brilliant source of Black knowledge that should still be celebrated and uplifted. Yet, Dyson’s assertion that West is a ghost of his former self is not without merit. This is not a new assertion, however it is extremely bold and thorough.
Dyson even reaches back to reference issues within West’s most notable work, Race Matters. He points out how West’s focus on “nihilism” as the greatest threat to Black achievement actually parallels the sentiments of conservatives wishing to place the blame of Black oppression on Black masses instead of systematic/institutionalized oppressive forces.
Ultimately, Dyson’s article is healthy for Black academia. Not only is Black scholarly thinking not monolithic, but in order to evolve sometimes undertaking public discourse is a necessary evil. This robust discussion would be furthered by an even more thorough response to Dyson’s article from West. As the old saying goes, iron sharpens iron. Maybe Dyson’s piece will push West back into the lane of his previously more strategic approach to public Black intellectual discourse…even in the prophetic tradition.