Cornel West, Ta Nehisi Coates and the Tradition of Critique

It is no wonder that it feels as if the main story becomes Cornel West vs Ta Nehisi Coates rather than centering...

What was once a semi-private interaction among academics lasering in on each other’s work inside journals almost exclusively subscribed to by other professionals in academia, has progressed into a high-definition throw down for the world to see. These exchanges now headline in arenas where a large number of audience members are in fact not trained in the arts of ritualistic analytical sparring matches. So, voices across the internet do what they do quite well: react. And as eloquently scribed high level analysis appears alongside reality show gossip in the streams of timelines and digital stories, it is easy to see how the nature of these two very different sorts of frictions between public figures may appear almost indistinguishable to some.

Cornel West recently published an article in The Guardian lamenting a heavy-handed critique of Ta Nehisi Coates and his latest work, We Were Eight Years in Power. And it seemed as if the internet audiences had again spun into a tizzy witnessing the stage play that may be described as political public figure-vs-political public figure celebrity death matches.

Cornel West–philosopher, activist and author–is no stranger to controversy as he has been found at the front lines of political protests for decades, penned painstakingly bold work on political power in America and used critiques to veil personal attacks against the likes of other Black public figures–including Barack Obama, Melissa Harris Perry, Michael Eric Dyson and Ta Nehisi Coates.

West’s contention with President Barack Obama seems quite clear. Obama reigned and operated in the highest political seat in the United States as another perpetrator of American war, greed and ecological destruction.

On the other hand, Cornel West’s vile attack on fellow stellar political writer Melissa Harris Perry did not even fall within the realm of proper critique–the act of analyzing the logic of peers’ work as a learning moment within disagreement and contradiction. And that simply has not been the case with recent battle royale between Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson within what is meant to be an intellectual tête-à-tête among colleagues. It is certain that critiques need not necessarily be kind, particularly because there is much to learn from discomfort and discord.

You will notice that I have not inserted direct quotes or links to references of the derogatory terms Cornel West has used to describe his peers and Obama. It seems to me that some mitigation of perpetuating such nasty language is a small personal courtesy I could pay to the subjects of this verbal abuse while still addressing what I believe to be a more complex issue than that of the tiffs mentioned above–or ultimately of Cornel West himself.

This brings us to Cornel West’s take on Ta Nehisi Coates, who is a well accomplished journalist and author, but not someone who ventured down the long road of PhDs and professorship to become an academic. This particular response from West does not appear to be personally vicious and I find merit in his argument for leveling the praise of Obama will the reality of death at the hands of his presidential policies. As a writer, it seems reasonable Coates expects some pushback and response to his work, but I hardly doubt he finds himself prepared to again be on the end of Cornel West’s dueling pen. And it is no surprise that West sees the opportunity of Coates’ book as a moment to illuminate the severe lack of Black public figures willing to hold Barack Obama accountable for his actions as ruler of the American empire. West is on a mission to drive public opinion toward a radical perspective on the Black freedom struggle and digital devices make up a large portion of where Americans now consume information. By blogging his critiques, West is simply meeting many people where they are through capitalizing on such pop culture moments.

Now, I am not a professor, nor would I refer to myself as an academic because I finished undergrad some years ago and have not pursued the professional path of academia. But as a student in critical race theory, rhetorical criticism, philosophy and theology courses, the power of a measured critique and its academic rituals became ingrained in me. West is absolutely neither the first nor the most offensive purveyor to sink teeth into peers’ work whilst throwing darts at their personal character. But in the halls of universities and within the exclusivity of papers published in peer-reviewed journals where there is an indoctrination into the culture of political academic critique, these sorts of battles are at least wielded within a certain context.

It is as if one is only among family spewing insults at their cousins. It does not make it right, but there is simply a certain cultural insulation and understanding. Whereas, the moment family members begin accosting each other out on the front steps of their home for the entire neighborhood to watch, things instantly become massively uglier.

It is no wonder that it feels as if the main story becomes Cornel West vs Ta Nehisi Coates rather than centering in on what they both labor to do: lay the bricks to America’s reckoning with its own ostensibly coercive and violent political power structures.

For a quick look at Cornel West’s contention with Ta Nehisi Coates on the meaning of Barack Obama’s legacy, check out this video interview via The Rootbelow.

Penned by Janessa Robinson

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Janessa Elena Robinson
Janessa Elena Robinson


Thanks for reading and the compliments!


I learned a fair bit reading this. Thank you. Thanks too for your trenchant, zingy straight talk. I do like your style.