Cornel West couldn’t let 2017 end without injecting himself into another battle of the ‘Intelligencia.’
This time he had his sights set on writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
West explained the nature of his now viral critique of the author and Atlantic columnist on The Root. West reiterated his position that Coates was a ‘neoliberal darling’ of the white media and a suspect thought leader who’s too myopic about Barack Obama’s legacy.
“What we have to do,” he asserts in the video, ”is be honest in private and public”—a curious sentiment for someone who has waged nothing but a public tirade against Coates for the last couple of weeks in places like The New York Times and The Guardian. These critical call-outs to Coates have taken on a bizarre appearance best exemplified by that two-minute interview: A lonely man reduced to arguing with himself.
West definitely respects Coates. Yet as he goes on, the loquacious West can’t help but reveal his rather condescending and contradictory attitude. “…We (he and Coates) come from a tradition that lifts every voice” he says, and then in the same breath shares the shade all over again, “—but from what I can see, there’s a difference between someone blowing on the saxophone sounding good and Coltrane.”
And this is where much of West’s argument crumbles.
Coates’ work is out there for the consumption of the public and is rightly up for any type of scrutinizing. His works are volatile in their content, tone and worldview and his pen has been one of many that have carried the torch on how we evaluate our backward, forward and sideways progress in this country.
His writings can feel nihilistic at times as well as hell-bent and unrelenting on the pernicious persistence on the system of white supremacy. To read Coates is to sometimes suffocate in how direly stagnant progress is on a systemic level, and his work, Between the World & Me aside, can be characterized as impersonal, even clinical.
But that’s because Coates is a journalist and historian with the passionate heart of a writer.
He’s at times been ceremoniously crowned by a fervent readership base and mainstream media as being one of the most vibrant thinkers on race in the country; an anointing that Coates could not be less interested in.
West is perhaps honest when he says that he reveres Coates’ mind and to some degree, it must anger him that Coates seems so disinterested in responding.
If that’s the case, it’s perhaps more a question of how he’s going about showing that respect. Brother West comes across as a caged, aging fighter still hungry for the type of gladiatorial battles that spawned the thought generation he came from: A political boxing ring that was on the streets, on talk shows, and in lecture halls.
For West, much of this sort of spirited debating — this desire to “let’s hash it out, Brother Coates,” — is pat to his approach to public discourse.
West has made headlines before for his public recriminations on Melissa Harris Perry, Al Sharpton and others he views as cozying up to the Obama administration. He’s gone as far as referring to Harris-Perry as a ‘fraud’ and saying that Sharpton too got in line and traded the good fight for a seat at the table.
Over the course of the Obama years, West seemed to take on the offensive for many of these public figures, and while it has been surmised that this is about not being invited to the big party, it shouldn’t be missed that even if that was the motivation, he’s had some valid critiques.
Still, to listen to West at length is to be dragged back to Obama again and again, and in an era when much of the public has been derided for being a single-issue or perspective voter, West’s disdain for the litany of things that he feels Obama both did and did not represent becomes the central argument.
With an inability to perhaps command an audience with the ex-Commander in Chief, he has instead set his sights on those he feels are Obama’s acolytes or sycophants. In many ways, Coates’ biggest crime is neither Between the World & Me or We Were 8 Years in Power but that he is perceived to have come between West and Obama for 8 years.
West’s been as much a showman as a truth-teller, and as the culture has shifted away from such battles he thinks he needs to continue. This is evidenced by how a new generation of black writers and thought leaders like Jelani Cobb and Nikole Hannah Jones have done the opposite of battle—they’ve chosen to instead embrace their peer and friend in a way that’s reflective of how some Black journalists and writers have seen that there’s more power in collectivism instead of individualism.
To coin Issa Rae, maybe now there’s actually a stronger sentiment amongst a newer generation of Black folks that look around at the stagnant representation in key places and choose instead to be here “to root for all the Black people.” Perhaps because in addition, these writers have realized what the real battle is, something that Sistah Souljah tried to remind a younger Cornel West about on Phil Donahue decades ago.
One gets the impression that West feels owed Coates’ audience because West still needs something and someone to butt against and so his entreaties to join him on the public stage feels part #fortheculture but also decidedly performative.
Between the neoliberal chatter and the Obama admonishments, West comes across as lonely, maybe even a tad bit desperate to prove that he’s still got the chops to chop it up, and in Coates’ rising star, a chance to still prove his mettle.
“Brother Coates explain to me what you mean,” West says during The Root interview. “…If he (Coates) wants to sit down and talk, I’d love to do it. I’d pay for the meal and the cognac.”
It must anger West to some degree that Coates seems so disinterested; that for the foreseeable future, that dinner will continue to be a table for one.
But maybe that’s what West wants anyway, right?
Tre Johnson writes on race, culture and politics. Follow all of his work at www.trejohnsonwriter.com.