The Issue With Cornel West Criticizing Ta-Nehisi Coates

Dr. West's history of warring with more prominent Black intellectuals has proven counterproductive.
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I will begin this by saying that I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Cornel West. I respect Dr. West not only as a scholar and an intellectual, but as someone who genuinely stands for justice. Dr. West doesn’t just write books and deliver lectures about fighting injustices. He is someone who has been on the frontlines marching, protesting, and even going to jail for his convictions. Unlike many other intellectuals, Dr. West has been involved in the struggle in very direct ways. But with as much respect as I have for Dr. West, there has also been many times where I disagree with him. His recent critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those times.

For me, the biggest problem with Dr. West’s piece is that are there more pressing issues that need to be addressed. There are many issues that confront African Americans on a regular basis that are more important than whatever disagreements Dr. West may have with Coates. The time and energy that Dr. West spent writing about Coates could have been used to discuss those issues. It would also be great if West could speak out on the many issues that confront black people around the world. For example, the people of Togo are currently fighting against dictatorship, the police are brutalizing black people on Kenya, black people in Barbuda are fighting to retain their land, Africans are being enslaved in Libya, and black people in Guyana are being horrifically murdered. I could go on, but the point is that with so many issues confronting black people both nationally and internationally I do not understand why Dr. West felt that dedicating an entire article to criticizing Coates was so important.

I understand that Dr. Cornel West is not someone who considers himself to be a Pan-Africanist. In the past he has expressed apprehension towards Black Nationalism and his discomfort with Pan-Africanism is very apparent in his debate with Dr. John Henrik Clarke, so I do not necessarily expect to see Dr. West publically speaking out some of the issues that I have mentioned, but Dr. West’s lack of a real international understanding of the racial problems that confront black people is one of the reasons why I think Dr. West’s own assessment of the struggles of black people is at times an incomplete assessment, but that is a separate issue. The point that I wish to make here is that black people around the world are fighting uphill battles and whatever disagreements exist between Dr. West and Coates is the least of our concerns.

One of Dr. West’s issues with Coates is that Coates tries to compare Barack Obama with Malcolm X. I myself believe that this is a ridiculous comparison for many reasons, although I also didn’t agree when Dr. West claimed that Bernie Sanders represents the legacy of Martin Luther King. One of the reasons for that disagreement is that Martin Luther King was someone who advocated for reparations, which Bernie Sanders was obviously against. The reason why I mention Malcolm X is because the point should be made that Malcolm X was a Pan-Africanist who was seeking to unify the struggles of African people around the world. How many of our leaders and intellectuals are committed to that vision? Malcolm X certainly had his disagreements with Martin Luther King and other leaders of his day, but Malcolm always had solution-based approaches to the problems that he spoke about. When Malcolm X criticized Martin Luther King, it was because Malcolm X had approaches to the problem that differed with King’s, yet he was still willing to support and work with King. Malcolm X did not criticize or critique other black leaders simply for the sake of doing so, but this has become a seeming habit for Dr. West.

I am not saying that Dr. West shouldn’t critique Coates, but my issue with that is, with so many issues confronting black people daily, is Coates really so much of a problem in the black community that he is the person who needs to be criticized in such a public and direct manner. There are so many issues that Dr. West could have written about, but he instead decided to criticize Coates. Dr. West says that he stands with those who represent the radical wing of the black freedom struggle, but for that wing to truly be radical it must also be committed to ensuring the progress of black people. Dr. West’s past disputes with Michael Eric Dyson and Melissa Harris-Perry were, perhaps, entertaining for some, but they did nothing to help advance the black struggle, and this most recent dispute with Coates again does nothing to advance the struggle.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook.