Why Cornel West Matters: On His Leaving Princeton

Triangle sold out so fast when people thought this was a real Sondheim-adapted rap musical.

Triangle sold out so fast when people thought this was a real Sondheim-adapted rap musical.

Cornel West, African-American Studies/Religion professor and one of our many celebrity academics, recently announced that he will be leaving his Princeton post in 2012 to teach Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, the school where he first began his career in academia.

For his time at Princeton, West will be remembered for more than just his commitment to paideia (which I learned is not a Spanish rice dish), his multiple political arrests, and his theological bromance with fellow professor Robbie George.

Oh, and that time his cartoon self roundhouse kicked some R. Kelly supporter in the Boondocks.

Since he began teaching at Princeton in 2001, West’s radical liberal politics have made him a controversial figure. A smattering of editorials and always well-phrased comments in the Prince since his arrival highlight the various opinions on West: “Princeton’s foremost hire” to “clownish entertainer,” “hero” to “charlatan,” and “exemplary human being” to “media whore.” My crowd of friends isn’t a big fan of West either, and as one friend once put it: “Why is he in academics at all? Why does he matter?”

I’ll be honest. Despite his platitudes, gangster proclivities, and propensity for showmanship, I believe Professor West matters.

After following (not creeping) West around and hearing him speak to various communities, both in academics and outside of them, I understand why some in the academic community object to his pathos-heavy, Baptist-preacher style of lecturing. He doesn’t fit the mold of your standard university professor. Princeton kids aren’t used to lecture information being disseminated like a Sunday morning sermon.

But Professor West matters in a different way to the African American community at large. When he spoke at the One Table Café dinner last year, a community dinner comprised of lower-income families and youth from Princeton, Trenton, and Camden, that’s when I really got up close and personal with Professor West. (Literally, two feet from his face.) And that’s the relative distance needed to really understand the impact that he has on the African American community.

As one person I spoke to at the dinner put it best, “He is one of the few black male role models these kids have today who isn’t either an athlete or a rapper.” (Granted, he does have a rap group named after him.) As an academic, West is a model of how intellectualism, faith, and badassery can co-exist for a community with a long history of academic disenfranchisement and systematic oppression. The students at the dinner were enraptured. They asked him question after question about his feelings on the political implications of rap music, intellectualism, President Obama, etc. This was West doing what he does best: engaging, provoking, and inspiring — something he doesn’t change or curtail once behind a lecture podium.

I could go on about our need for Afrocentrism, radical academia, and an energized dialogue on race and religion at Princeton, but my point is, Professor Cornel West matters as a role model in the academic sphere — if not for us, then for a generation of young intellectuals coming from places with less privilege than our Orange Bubble.

Okay, maybe I’m just hoping that he’ll secure me a seat on the Council of Zion to combat the rise of the machines.

I know kung fu too, Keanu.

I know kung fu too, Keanu.

    By Vivienne Chen on November 17th 2011, 3:06am
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