With his full-blown Afro, close-fitting three-piece suits and fondness for rap music, Cornel West comes across as too hip to be a philosopher. That helps explain why people are always confusing him with someone considerably less highbrow, especially when he's not on campus:
-- Driving through upstate New York to lecture at a New England college a few years ago, West was pulled over by a cop who figured him for a drug runner because of his flashy clothes, jewelry and sporty Camaro. When West protested that he was in fact a professor of religion, the officer scoffed, "Yeah, and I'm the flying nun. Let's go, nigger," and hauled him off to jail. It took a phone call to the college to secure West's release.
-- As a teaching fellow at Harvard, West was preparing to give a talk on the Greek tragedy Antigone when one of the students, mistaking West for a janitor, asked him to bring in more chairs. West complied, but when the rest of the class arrived he marched to the lectern. He delivered an impassioned discourse on Antigone's love song "about human beings being so noble on one hand and so cruel on the other."
-- After watching West coax amen after amen from the hard-to-please congregation of the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California, with a fiery sermon, many people are convinced he's an ordained minister. Observed theologian William Sloane Coffin, who witnessed it: "That was black preaching at its best." The truth, says West, is that although he accepted Christ as his personal Saviour when he was 14, "I've just never felt the call to preach. I don't proselytize for anybody, including Jesus."
As these incidents suggest, Cornel West is one complex dude: brilliant scholar, political activist, committed Christian and soul brother down to the bone. At 40 he has become one of the most insightful and passionate analysts of America's racial dilemma to emerge in recent years, the architect of a post-civil rights philosophy of black liberation that is beginning to be heard across the country. "I think he is one of our most important critical thinkers," says James H. Cone, West's former colleague at New York's Union Theological Seminary. "He has almost singlehandedly helped us see the importance of economic and class issues within the black community and the larger society." Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of Harvard's black-studies program, calls West "the pre-eminent African-American intellectual of our time."