On Saturday, I went to activist hangout spot and coffee shop, Busboys and Poets in DC to watch one of my favorite columnists talk about Martin Luther King. The Guardian's Gary Younge had written a book on the story behind Dr King's speech, and as a big fan of his writing, I went down to listen to him talk about it. I didn't realize that Cornel West was going to be there until I checked the Busboys and Poet's website to verify the time. A good opportunity to interview the Princeton professor I thought, something our readers would certainly appreciate. I've seen West on TV on numerous occasions and read a fair few interviews he's done. I agree with much of West's critiques of America, particularly the economic system that produces such huge disparity between rich and poor. On television, he mostly comes across as an affable guy - he refers to everyone 'brother' and projecting a sense of compassion with his trade marked righteous anger.
However, that wasn't what I saw from Dr West at Busboys and Poets.
Gary Younge spoke eloquently about his new book (a fascinating insight into Dr King and his complex status as a civil rights leader in the 60's that is definitely worth a look), and the tremendously articulate Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor delivered a breathtaking polemic on racial and economic injustice in America. Then, West took to the stand to talk about.....I'm not exactly sure what. There was talk about Trayvon Martin, about Dr King, about Malcolm X, a long rant on racism in America, lots of dramatic pauses, and a vicious attack on President Obama and Al Sharpton. Despite getting the crowd riled up and delivering some powerful one liners, it was impossible to make out what West's point was. It just seemed like a lot of shouting.
I switched off momentarily, but caught a line about someone being the 'bonafide house negro on the Obama plantation'. I wasn't sure I heard him correctly, so asked a middle aged African American lady sitting next to me who he was talking about.
"Al Sharpton," she said, rolling her eyes slightly."They don't get along."
More alert, I continued listening as West railed against Sharpton for refusing to criticize the President and being a 'sell out'. Although he didn't say it outright, the subtext was clear - Obama is a whitey and Sharpton an Uncle Tom.
I waited till the speech was over and initiated a conversation with the lady sitting next to me. I asked her whether she thought West's attacks on Al Sharpton were justified. "I think Al Sharpton did a lot of good in the past, so whatever he's doing now, he should get cut a little slack," she said.
I asked her what she thought of West's speech.
"A lot of shouting. I think he's resting on his laurels a bit these days."
The other ladies on my table (all African American) seemed to agree. And it wasn't hard to. The speech left a bit of a bitter after taste - not because I didn't agree with much of what he said, but for the tone and the unpleasantness laced between his often profound insights. West might have a point about Sharpton - the civil rights activist inexplicably announced in 2011 that he would no longer publicly criticize the President, preferring instead to serve Obama as a trusted advisor and protect the first black President from attacks on the left. Not exactly in keeping with his 'speaking truth to power' reputation forged over decades of fighting social injustice. There is also no doubt Sharpton is a shady character - he's had run ins with the IRS over a questionable non profit he ran, been on the wrong side of some very serious travesties of justice, and often used the issue of race in America to significant personal gain. Of course Sharpton has done much good as an outspoken advocate for African American causes, going to prison for political protests, and being a big advocate for gay marriage, but there is a general sense that he is at least part hustler.
West's depiction of him though, was pretty disgusting. First of all, referring to the President as a 'plantation' owner is not only deeply offensive, but ridiculous. West has rightly criticized Obama for failing to stem deepening black poverty in America, but it's not like the President got into power and thought 'how do I make like more difficult for black folk?' He's bogged down in a political system that effectively blocks everything he tries to pass, and has to craft policies that won't alarm vast quantities of the country who hate the idea of a black man in the White House. West has he benefit of not having any responsibilities or people to answer to in his life as an academic and agitator. Obama does not. To conclude that Obama is as bad as a slave owner because he hasn't been able to fulfill West's wish list of political objectives is monstrously unfair and unnecessary.
To label Al Sharpton as a 'house negro' went far beyond the pale. Those types of insults between African Americans are incredibly serious and personal. They imply self hatred, selling out, traitorship and abandonment of community. Sharpton is not a saint or a martyr - he is a complicated and contradictory man who has done much right and much wrong. Sharpton still fights for African American causes, and just because West does not find them acceptable, doesn't mean they aren't.
The truth is, Cornel West has carved out a very nice niche for himself as a professional agitator, and elected himself spokesperson in chief as to who is a 'real' African American and who isn't. He was apparently at the event to pay homage to Dr Martin Luther King, but given no one could really make sense of what he was saying, it seemed more about him than anyone else. Dr West might want to ask himself why he harbors so much resentment towards people like Al Sharpton. Perhaps it's because deep down, he sees flawed elements of himself in them.
I thought about interviewing Dr West after the event afterwards, but when I looked over at the table he was signing books at, he was busy taking photos with adoring fans."It's turned into a bit of a circus," Gary Younge said to me as I chatted with him about his book amidst the throngs of Cornel West admirers.
And West was loving every minute of it.
You can see parts of Cornel West's speech at Busboys here (52 minute 40sec mark):