An Open letter to an old friend on The Perils of Celebrity

by Herb Boyd

For more than a score of years Dr. Cornel West has been among the nation’s leading public intellectuals—black, white or otherwise. His bona fides have earned him a heavy five-figure payday for a two-hour lecture across the planet, and the demand is such that he confesses that he has yet to spend a weekend in Princeton, where he’s a professor of African American Studies and Religion.

Arrayed in his typical undertaker garb, an Afro sprinkled here and there with gray, and a warm, engaging gap-toothed smile, West captivates his audiences with a bevy of profundity and wit. In one sentence, bluesman John Lee Hooker and philosopher Sidney Hook are cleverly juxtaposed as he pontificates on existentialism and the real meaning of prophetic pragmatism (Ahem!).

Sponsors of events can expect a full house when West, 56, is on the program, and he is smart enough to know he is a commodity, a celebrity who can command a sizable payoff for entertaining folks with his verbal gymnastics and vaguely apprehended colloquy. It should be noted that these expensive forays are often balanced by charitable appearances and less costly community service speeches.

His persona is so commercially rewarding and appealing that filmmakers have purchased his image (see part two and three of The Matrix trilogy), and he has performed with a gaggle of rapsters. But it’s as a stand-up communicator on today’s issues, particularly for Left organizations, that West is in his most comfortable métier. On these occasions he can be absolutely mesmerizing, a veritable wizard with a blizzard of commentary on practically every social and political hot point au courant.

With a new book, a memoir, Living and Loving Out Loud, written with David Ritz, West’s cachet will obviously be expanded and enriched, especially if you’re not one of those careful reviewers alert to every gaffe and typo. Many of his followers seem rather puzzled, however, if not miffed, that such an astonishing master of words could possibly need help writing his own life story. What they fail to understand, perhaps, is that most of West’s books tend toward the academic and that his publisher and friend, Tavis Smiley, shrewdly deduced that it would not enhance his quest for a larger audience.

Has West abandoned the world of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche for the golden ring of popularity? Rather than the often solipsistic cerebral world, there is the glamorous allure of celebrity, and he appears to be wallowing in this addictive web. If this is his chosen venue, which with each new conquest becomes ever more difficult to escape, then we’ve lost one of our most promising thinkers.

Comparisons are odious, but I think of Drs. David Levering Lewis, Manning Marable, Gerald Horne, Barbara Ransby, and a number of scholars toiling in the vineyards with only their research to commend them. I hate to believe what one writer has said of West, that he is a mile wide and one inch deep, suggesting again his penchant for the gallery’s spotlight, rather than burning the midnight oil and thereby resorting to the flip and glib, rather than the thoughtful analysis.

The point here, Dear Cornel, is that I am prone to agree with all those who have read your recent memoir and concluded it falls far short of what we expect from a man of your immense standing and learning. Recounting each one of your love affairs, your early years as a bully, and the unbridled dilettantism does little to inspire our younger readers who have come to admire your style and elegance. (As you have said when asked of your views about President Obama, of offering him “critical support”; well, consider this appraisal in the same light.)

What we have, at best in your latest book, is a cautionary tale, and maybe telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth is better than “speaking truth to power,” which for many years was your forte and where we first encountered your magnetism and charisma.

Cornel, you are not the first beguiled by the muse of celebrity, entrapped by fans like a marquee star or rock idol. But you have much more to offer and many more gifts with which to enlighten the untutored mob. Your talent is much too valuable to be wasted on the one night stand and the hustling from one profitable moment to the next.

I know these warnings are nothing new to you and it’s easy to recall your remark on celebrity in the past—“I’ve always wanted to use whatever celebrity status I have for the struggle for freedom, the struggle for goodness.” But the danger here is to be overwhelmed by the monster, so much so that your original intention is lost in the glare of the media and the onslaught of autograph seekers.

Oh, brother, beware the clutch of celebrity; it is as fleeting as fame, and in a minute you’ll be yesterday’s fancy. You deserve better, and we deserve better given the enormous majesty of your endowments. To whom much is given much is expected, and we expect so much more of you.


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