"provocative public intellectual”

Meet Cornel West, the African-American challenging Joe Biden for the presidency

By Jeanne le Bihan

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Posted on June 14, 2023 09:13

In the US, Californian academic Cornel West has announced his presidential campaign as a member of the People’s Party, a candidacy that could overshadow incumbent President Joe Biden, who is seeking a second term.

Just 30 seconds into the video, the name of the American left’s new candidate, Dr. Cornel West, appears in orange letters against a black background. Dressed in his customary three-piece suit, he announces his intention to take part in the presidential election, scheduled for November 2024. His aim is “to give power to those who have been marginalised”, as explained against music.

To produce this promotional clip, which has all the makings of a feature-length trailer, the California-raised intellectual and activist sought the assistance of three professional directors. Teacher, philosopher, writer, musician, actor, and director – West has done it all in his career. Now he is adding another string to his bow by entering politics, having spent so many years on the streets demonstrating for civil rights, women’s rights, and democracy.

Very popular despite being at the heart of several controversies in the US, the Doctor of Philosophy, who turned 70 in June, is also an excellent speaker. As seen on his Twitter profile, West identifies as “one of America’s most provocative public intellectuals” and “a champion of racial justice”.

1.  Activism

West never parts with his black suit, not even during demonstrations, or when he was arrested in October 2014 in St Louis, Missouri while protesting against the death of yet another Black teenager killed by the police.

This did not change even when he was arrested, a few months later, along with other African-American activists during a blockade organised to mark the anniversary of the death of the young man named Michael Brown, also killed by the police.

Highly critical of the militarisation of the police, the intellectual is also involved in other progressive causes. An avowed anti-racist and anti-fascist, West also campaigns for women’s rights, and in mid-2022 took a stand on the issue of access to abortion, whose restrictions he denounced.

2.  Committed family

West’s activism did not come out of nowhere: he grew up in a working-class district of Sacramento, California, in a Baptist family very involved in the fight for civil rights. His father was a civil administrator in the Air Force and his mother a school teacher.

In the introduction to one of his books, West explained that he was strongly influenced by the values of his family and those of the church communities with which he came into contact in Sacramento.

West’s militant heritage is complemented by his admiration for major figures in African-American activism: his icons are the nationalist and pan-Africanist preacher Malcolm X, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, and of course, the revolutionary movement of the Black Panther Party, whose local headquarters were close to his church.

3.  Ivy League

He was sent to a school for gifted children at the age of eight after striking a pregnant teacher for attempting to force him to salute the American flag. West flourished academically, graduating cum laude with a BA in Middle Eastern languages and literature from Harvard, going on to study philosophy at Princeton University, where he would obtain his doctorate in 1980.

4.  Doctor of Philosophy

A fervent fan of Socrates, and also of Karl Marx, West’s philosophical analyses focused on racial issues and his militant battles. In 1991, he also wrote an essay in the form of a dialogue, Breaking Bread, insurgent black intellectual life, with Bell Hooks – an American intellectual and pioneer of Afro-feminism who died in December 2021.

Throughout his career, he has taught philosophy, religion, and African-American studies at some of the country’s most prestigious universities: Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. ‘Brother West’ currently teaches philosophy of religion – among other subjects – at Union Theological Seminary, a Protestant seminary in New York.

5.  Joining the People’s Party

A supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016 and again in 2020, West is running for president in 2024 under the People’s Party banner, in the name of ‘peace, freedom, and prosperity’. When it was founded in 2017, the party’s objective was to support and draft Sanders, who was unsuccessful in his bid for the 2016 Democratic Party nomination. West is the first person to stand for election under the People’s Party banner.

The party’s website sets out the six key points of the candidate’s programme:

  • ‘creating true democracy’ by ending ‘corruption in government’
  • ‘revitalising the economy’ by guaranteeing quality education, housing and pensions for all
  • creating universal health insurance
  • ending ‘America’s wars’
  • ‘expanding civil liberties’ and
  • ‘protecting the environment’

6.  Obama criticism

The last two American presidents did not find favour with West, nor did Barack Obama. In his announcement video, West described Donald Trump as a “neo-fascist” and Joe Biden as a “neo-liberal twit”. Nonetheless, the intellectual had been a fervent supporter of Biden’s campaign in 2007 when he sought the presidency for the first time.

Back in 2011, West explained that he had been deeply disappointed by the first Black president of the US. In an interview with the news website Truthdig, West accused Obama of being “the Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs” and a “Black puppet of corporate plutocrats”.

7.  Active on social networks

West has mastered all the codes of social networking. He announced his candidacy on the Rumble video platform after announcing a live broadcast the day before. Already a regular on television and in the media, the activist has over 270,000 followers on Instagram and 1 million on Twitter, and has also expanded his campaign’s reach to YouTube.

8.  Race Matters

West has over 20 published written works to his credit, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Race Matters, a sociological work published in 1993 by Beacon Press. This compilation of eight essays written by the activist theorises the American ‘nihilism’ surrounding the existence of the notion of race. For him, on the contrary, race “counts”, and the population must stop pretending that it is blind to the differences between skin colours.

West also discusses the “crisis of black leadership”, which “contributes to black political cynicism,” adding that “it encourages the idea that we can’t really make a difference to change our society”.

9.  Enter Prince

“Cornel West is no ordinary rapper, as the public who gathered at Harvard University to hear his recent hip-hop debut well know,” said an article published in 2001 in the archives of the Washington Post. His first album, Sketches of My Culture, focused on the experiences of African-Americans in the US. In 2005, he released a second, Street Knowledge.

Three years later, his third album was released under the name Cornel West & BMWMB (an acronym for Black Men Who Mean Business), featuring 16 rap and hip-hop tracks and a series of collaborations with Black artists. Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations features a collaboration with Prince, and Dear Mr. Man is a cover of a song that appeared on a previous album by the late artist, who died in 2016.

10.  Matrix

A producer of podcasts and short films, West has also appeared in several documentaries, owing his status as an actor to his performances in two of the films in the Matrix film franchise by the Wachowski sisters: The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.

In 2003, he played Councillor West, a member of the Council of Zion, a hidden city where the rebel population had managed to escape the grip of the machines and where three of the heroes, Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity, ended up taking refuge.

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