Cornel West in the middle (where he at?), In the middle.
Cornel West in the middle (where he at?), in the middle. scarletsails/gettyimages.com

I must begin by recalling the afternoon I read The Future of the Race, a medium-sized book about the most prominent black American intellectual in the early years of the 20th century (W. E. B. Du Bois) by two of the most prominent black intellectuals at the end of that century (Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West). I read the book in 1997 in a sunshine basement near the corner of 15th and Union (rent $400). The book had two sections: one by Gates, and the other by West. The first section was lukewarm and lacked any of the deep insights and scholarship that usually appeared in Gates' academic work. The second essay, however, was intellectually rigorous and dazzling. West analysed Du Bois' concept of black nationality in the complicated context of its inspiration: Otto von Bismarck's construction of German nationality and identity in the second half of the 19th century. The implication was that the idea of nationalism as understood and pursued by Du Bois with the black American population in mind was deeply problematic. Friedrich Nietzsche once described the philosopher as a person who is "dreaming extraordinary things" and "who may even be himself a thunderstorm." This was the philosopher who wrote that second essay on Du Bois.

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Sadly, this philosopher was not present when Cornel West made comments in the New York Times Magazine about one of the leading black American intellectuals in the early years of the 21st century, Ta-Nehisi Coates.

During the interview with Audie Cornish, the host of All Things Considered, Cornel West calls Coates a darling of the neoliberal establishment. One might think this criticism has deep meaning, as its key word, "neoliberal," is not simple at all and is still undergoing development. But it doesn't. It only means this: Barack Obama is a fan of Coates' work; therefore, Coates cannot be good or know what black people are going through because, in West's view, Obama was a total sellout (in a CNN interview, West called Obama "the first 'niggerized black president'").

When West is asked about Coates' new book We Were Eight Years in Power, he says sharply: "Who’s the 'we?' When’s the last time he’s been through the ghetto, in the hoods, to the schools and indecent housing and mass unemployment? We were in power for eight years? My God. Maybe he and some of his friends might have been in power, but not poor working people." (Cornel West is a professor at Harvard.)

This response indicates that West did not read the book because, just by scanning its first page, he would have known the title refers to a statement made by a black Reconstruction-era South Carolina congressman, Thomas Miller. The concept, which West should have given a little more consideration even if he disagreed with it, is this: Whenever blacks show they can rule, white supremacists freak out and do everything they can to bury the evidence of "Good Negro Government." Obama was "not a revolutionary." His drones certainly killed thousands of innocent people. He did little to change the bonus culture of Wall Street. Nevertheless, many whites saw his presidency as an abomination: a black man governing the US well by conventional standards. This is one of the themes Coates explores in his book. It's not so much about a fear of a black planet, but the fear of Good Negro Government.

All in all, West is not really mad at Coates. He is still hot-mad at Obama. He betrayed West's ideas and dreams of a black presidency not long after he was elected. Michael Eric Dyson discusses this bitter drama of betrayal in the New Republic essay "The Ghost of Cornel West: What happened to America's most exciting black scholar?" (I have a mixed opinion about this piece—some parts of it are insightful, while others are deeply unfair to West.) I feel that this hatred of Obama has made it impossible for West to subject Coates' work to an analysis that (be it negative or positive) is productive.