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Whither Cornel West? The “Devil in a Blue Dress” in Act III

Mister and Myth is West

If black American scholars are like prizefighters, then West is not the greatest ever; that title belongs to W.E.B. Du Bois. Not the most powerful ever; that’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. Not the most influential; that would include Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, Black History Week founder Carter G. Woodson, historian John Hope Franklin, feminist bell hooks, Afrocentricity pioneer Molefi Kete Asante—and undoubtedly William Julius Wilson, whose sociological research has profoundly shaped racial debate and the public policies of at least two presidents. West may be a heavyweight champ of controversy, but he has competition as the pound-for-pound greatest: sociologists Oliver Cox, E. Franklin Frazier, and Lawrence D. Bobo; historians Robin D.G. Kelley, Nell Irvin Painter, and David Levering Lewis; political scientists Cedric Robinson and Manning Marable; art historian Richard J. Powell; legal theorists Kimberlé Crenshaw and Randall Kennedy; cultural critic Tricia Rose; and the literary scholars Hortense Spillers and Farah Jasmine Griffin—all are worthy contenders.

Yet West is, in my estimation, the most exciting black American scholar ever.

–Michael Eric Dyson, “The Ghost of Cornel West,” New Republic

One of the many stereotypes proven both offensively hyperbolic and comically astute when describing the social dynamics within the Black Church of America (which, while far from monolithic, is still exceptional) lives, in the subculture’s psyche, right next door to its faith: ye olde the devil is a beautiful woman myth.  It is still easy, sadly, for African-American people in the 21stcentury to dismiss a disturbing idea: much like with our view of corporal punishment, the 18thcentury Puritanical and 19thcentury Victorian sensibilities of the Southern Plantation culture terrorizing Black America’s ancestors are still bigger influences on Black sexual mores and heteronormative agendas than Protestant theology. (The conservatism that rears its ugly head in Church whenever the LGBTQIA community demands its right to exist can have its origins nowhere else.)  Sadder still it becomes when considering how such mores & agendas, with their European origins, were the pistons and crankshaft in the engine of the American 20th century—with its repressions, oppressions, depressions, and recessions; neocolonialism, racist imperialism, cultural matricides and physical genocides; institutionalized lynching (physical & socio-economic) and modernized rape culture; human rights struggles, fluctuating mortality rates, and a trio of world wars, hot & cold.  The devil/womanmyth, however—the sneaky landlady through which all the aforementioned dynamics of the American id can rent space and live, like a GOP-led Senate, in the Black church’s unconscious—can’t be dismissed so easily.  You don’t need a graduate degree in anything to understand her, and she won’t go away. Even a cursory Google-glance at the world’s libraries, teeming with anthropology and comparative religion studies on the topic, will show that the tendency to conflate unusual feminine beauty with immorality, preternatural creativity, or evil predates the advent of Christianity by millennia. And this “pagan” force, hiding in plain sight on the corner of White Supremacy and Capitalism, has colonized Euro-American Christianity for centuries far better than the other way around.  Without wrestling with Freud or Marx; neuroscience or linguistics; Afrocentricity or Black Nationalism, or even the most benign of the LGBTQIA community’s revelations re human sexuality and its cultural implications, we can see Protestant theology (or at least the dubious purity often ascribed to it) as being more like an uncharted island; one surrounded by an ocean of other influences on the greater African diaspora’s collective unconscious in every city and small town in America.  Ignore the great white shark of Anglo-American patriarchy in that ocean of influences despite it being a psycho-sexual determinant on Black American religious culture we can, but there it is, making the Great Mother of the most ancient of myths the Devil while staring us in the face whenever women enter the room. (Just ask them.)  We can run from it, but we can’t hide.  The anxiety surrounding exceptionally beautiful women in Church (especially the single ones) therefore has its origins in things in the Church but outside the faith.  Unexamined, these psychodynamics are simply too strong to be dismissed by what Christ said to do or not to do, as interpreted by Reverend A or Pastor B (who is usually straight, male, and overwhelmed by them himself). Hence the patriarchal rituals—devoid of all significance—remaining, like the tides or a full moon, as predictable as they are virtually inexorable.

Virtually.

A Hollywood screenwriter can always get away with writing a visual trope that touches on this raw nerve in the African-American Christian world.

Fade in…interior, large church, view from inside the front doora service begins in the church of either the Black side of a mid-size town or the venerable Black neighborhood of a major metropolitan city.  Full of couples and singles representing the usual demographics (suspiciously) proud of the great jobs and fashion choices upon which their faith and social activism ironically rests, the conversations and laughter filling the church decrescendo with the fountain of harmonics coming from the Hammond B3 organ, signaling to all that it’s time to “choose your seat and sit down” as the service has begun.  But the organist doesn’t quiet the Saints as much as a drop dead gorgeous woman who walks in just afterwards, alone; seeing that the only seat available is in the first space on the fourth pew, way down the center aisle.  It’s not so much that her heels are an inch higher than the shoes of all the other women—as is the place on the fashion food chain of the designer who made them.  It’s not so much that the dress she is wearing, in a perfect color and fabric for her complexion, hugs every last one of her body’s curves so perfectly above an obvious pair of very expensive stockings.  It’s not so much that her hair and makeup are done to perfection; or that her clutch matches the dress and shoes so artistically; or that her genuine smile so lights up the room whenever it asserts itself to anyone who speaks to her—especially the greying, overweight, sex-starved married men.  What’s so—what’s the word?—inconvenient, is that she carries it all, knowing the effect her elegantly unnerving sexuality has on both men and women, unapologetically.  You can almost feel the eyes of the Church follow her, downright angry over how little their unisexual fixation on the shape of her body bothers her. The hushed voices of the congregation say, in code, that while a minority will celebrate her beauty without agenda as if by instinct, the moral majority will irrationally choose not to like her first and find an excuse for it later. God may not like it, but it’s just easier that way….

When a woman reminiscent of an iconic female symbol just walks into a room, the energy shifts.  So if she is actually human, e.g. if she has a temper, or is aloof; if she is either naïve or brilliant, in comes anxiety’s high tide.  If, God forbid, she has any realfaults, like being arrogant, condescending, brittle, inappropriately suggestive or excessively bold as the partial result of a mid-life crisis (a thing somehow verbotento even normal looking women), the anxiety tsunami released can make her a lightning rod for the kind of aggressive, projection-based hypocrisy that can drive whole communities of people to psychological violence or endless distraction.  In other words, the beautiful woman that a church community can’t stop looking at can ironically become the mirror to a convoluted, un-Christlike, traumatized and ugly take on the people’s hearts; that which the community in question would rather not see at all.  So much so, in fact, that the drop dead gorgeous woman, no matter how chaste or kind, can easily become the sexuality scapegoat who refuses to drop dead.

The hypnotic sexual power of the “Devil in a Blue Dress” in Church, to me, is the perfect metaphor for the mind & heart of Cornel West in our time.

IS THIS THE LITTLE GIRL WE CARRIED?           

Going further: the “Devil in a Blue Dress” in mid-life—who isn’t wearing blue, and isn’t the Devil—is a perfect metaphor for the sixty-five year old Cornel West, particularly as he enters Act III of his public life.  Simply because his piercing, poetic and ebullient intellect has long since been enough to shift the energy in whatever room he entered; from a Harvard lecture hall to the soundstage of Real Time with Bill Maher.  West was practically bound, as a young man, to crossover from the Black community to the world stage and capture the American imagination in ways typically reserved for celebrities in sports or the performing arts.  His book Race Matters led the otherwise preeminent scholar Henry Louis Gates to call him “the pre-eminent African-American intellectual of our generation.”Michael Eric Dyson said of his Prophesy Deliverance (1982) and other early works that they were “…a marvel of rigor and imagination.” The almost musically accessible Race Matters, published in the early nineties, in fact, was like a debutante ball to which the world was invited: the formidable curves of the intellectual’s mind were, as he deemed them, seasoned and mature enough to be courted by a public audience.  These earlier stages of Cornel’s development, hindsight being 20/20, were met with nothing but respect and excitement.  In other words, he was pretty without being threatening. However, just like with young girls marching and menarche-ing into womanhood, the safe and unwavering adulation was not meant to last.  It was only a matter of time before the thorny marriage of media celebrity and academic integrity would lead West into courting controversy.

Stages of life—whether they be as delicate & miraculous as the caterpillar’s path to butterfly-hood, monumental as the ancient kingdoms of dynastic Egypt, or as abstract as the acts of a screenplay—are typically punctuated by periods of crisis and instability.  But if the kind of life “God” presents us is, in its uniqueness, psycho-socially disorienting at its most stable, its periods of instability can be so PTSD-engendering as to make it unforgiveable in the broken hearts and confused minds of many who experience it. The “forms of sensibility” with which we try to capture and control things (from archetypes to stereotypes) are coping mechanisms more than anything else; they are barely held together with gossip and moral duct tape when a uniquely dynamic human life is at its most benign.  They fail completely in times of instability, making a mockery of our demands of something new to operate according to our rules.  (Fascists and strongmen have been hiding their barbarism behind this truth so often as to make people throw out the baby with the bathwater whenever it asserts itself. Assert itself in our daily lives, however, it continually does.)  It takes a certain amount of detachment; a certain amount of objectivity, and a great deal of empathy to embrace the paradoxical message of God’s messenger: the new life, revealed in death, as The Divine (truly) intended.  Which, given how trauma makes us all hate even small change, cannot come without personal excruciation.

Enter the woman in the blue dress.

THE (PUBLIC) ENEMY OF GOOD   

Dyson opened the door to this devil/womanmyth when hurtfully discussing West in his tell-all for the New Republic(“’Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’ is the best-known line from William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride…”).  As a result, though Dyson was not attacking Black women, I assert that he inadvertently used them to put his own heart on display more than Cornel’s, or that of anyone else.  Feminine metaphor, ironically, only works brilliantly when used as a lens with which to see men. Feminine myth used analogously, in the comparison of ancient women to modern women, or specific men to all women, helps men see the banalities of manhood—the psychological trauma, overemotional contradictions and insecurity-based microaggressions—ever so clearly.  It is a lens that, thanks to patriarchy, can reveal the frightened irrationalities of men well enough to see problems inherent to the entire community, but never moreso than the problems in the heart of the singular man who chooses to use it disrespectfully.  Dyson, therefore, didn’t analyze West with the “woman scorned” analogy as accurately as he unconsciously analyzed the effect a man like West can have on him. The common law intellectual marriage between Dyson and West, as a result, said nothing truly useful to the Black community until the unceremonious divorce.

The end of Dyson & West (to the degree that was even a thing), arguably, began with Obama.  The transformational nature of the “Hope and Change” presidency, realand imagined, swept both Dyson and West up in a wave of euphoria; one that was inevitably going to crash after the honeymoon. There had always been buzz-kills before 2008 , telling us all to be more sober in our appraisal of both Obama’s actual politics and not just the forces against him.  But given they could only do so byembarrassing us in one way or the other, they were, for the most part (like most prophets), dutifully ignored.  Cornel’s singular nature, however, made that ignoring-the-truth thing impossible, even when he was incentivized to do so.

A Dyson-led break from West, after West broke from the likes of President Obama, was therefore only a matter of time.  And the overarching reason (i.e. why West didn’t bother to publicly break from Dyson first) was clear: the inherently unstable relationship between goodness and greatness.  When Spike Lee rankled the Black community with his “coonery and buffoonery” reference to the work of other filmmakers on the rise years ago, West spoke to a church group (knowing to whom the critique would inevitably stick) and said (presumably in order to explain the beautiful origins of a potentially ugly debate and neutralize it accordingly), “Tyler Perry is a good filmmaker…Spike Lee is a GREAT filmmaker.”  Similarly, by all accounts, Dyson is a good scholar, a good intellectual, a good activist.  West, by Dyson’sown accounts, just so happens to be a great one.  Goodness has a way of being passionately unforgiving with greatness; particularly when greatness follows its own rules and leaves goodness behind.  The instability and eventual demise of Dyson & West is not so much a product of what either of them did, but who they are; Obama’s first year in office just made the defining difference between them obvious.  Cornel walking so unapologetically into the awkward transition his nature demanded afterward simply made the difference between him and Dyson not just obvious but too much so for the general public to ignore; Dyson just understood the why of it better and responded accordingly.  Nobody wants to be Jazzy Jeff-ed or Destiny’s Child-ed, but it’s usually God’s choice, not that of the Will Smiths or Beyonces—or Cornels—who leave without leaving. It’s hard to see that as we find ourselves alone when the morning comes; particularly when the rift is a product of principle, and not just talent.  Dyson’s meditation on the broken heart of the scorned re Obama shunning West, therefore, had nothing in actuality to do with the nature of women in general, or West & Obama in particular. Cornel’s heart is fine.  So is Obama’s. The damaged heart in question was the one rapidly beating while broken in Dyson’s chest, because of West.

West (perhaps the best analogy) is the Miles Davis to Dyson’s Wynton Marsalis. Dyson will always be more acceptable to the congregation.  West will always be more significant to its faith.  Nothing could more savagely break a young pastor(with father issues)’s heart, turning a good friend & mentor into a great enemy.

I think West understood this better than all of us.  While disappointed by the Clintonian tendencies in Obama, I don’t believe West ever had a broken heart because he became the intellectual equivalent of peri-menopausal soon after the election and rose above all of these quasi-romantic concerns. His relationship to the power he spoke truth to, and the self he spoke truth from (and all the monthly cramps they gave him as he rented his soul to celebrity) was already coming to an end, and he could feel it.  Especially when Obama established a disturbing dichotomy between himself and MLK during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.  Let’s be clear: the whole thing regarding an Obama & West split wasn’t about the latter being jilted during the former’s ascent (a trite and petty pseudo-explanation that routinely pops up in the Black community like herpes).  It was as if God made Obama a strange new neoliberal butterfly, while putting West in a new Christian socialist cocoon at the same time.  The hurt wasn’t the result of personal rejection, it was a product of ideological revelation.   And as the changing phases of life would imply, as much as some would like to blame Cornel for his subsequent PR choices, I think it is high time we accept that they weren’t really his.  This is who he is; he really had little choice in the matter.  People change.  Great people, already disquieting, change in extra-disquieting, uncontrollable, sometimes paradoxical ways.  (For example, sometimes they change by staying the same, while the world, by dropping its masks, changes in ways we choose not to see.)  The agenda of greatness, along with its purpose and being, are not conveniently ours, much as we’d like them to be. How soon we forget: the woman in the blue dress might always be here with you, but she’s never here for you.  Which hurts like the devil.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, RESOLUTION, AND PURSUING THE PSALM                                                                          

Now, two years into the madness of King Trump, West’s self-imposed exile from the news cycle reveals how some Liberals and Progressives still seethe because of his criticizing of the new debutante that is Coates. (The rest of the Left just moved on to more importantthings.)  Either way, none of us are either as confused by him or as angry with him as we want people to believe.  Deep down, we know what withering anxiety our “Whither Cornel?” rhetoric is designed to mask. And addressing that begins with accepting a painful truth: with or without Cornel West, we are stuck with the messy theatre that is the Church of the Black Intellectual, and the often contradictory gospels of Black freedom its ministers preach.  We are still stuck with the preponderance of straight male Baby-boomers in the revolving pulpit, and their awkward dependency on neoliberal institutions of power—the psychopathic rapacity inherent to such institutions being that whichthey are otherwise preaching against.   Some of us are still angry at West in that regard, if we’re honest, purely because it’s easy.  God may not like it (say the Deacons and Deaconesses resentfully as his smile lights up the church), but it’s just easier this way.  It’s always easier to judge the metaphorical hemlines of scapegoats than it is to look deeply into the psychosocial mirror they become and not like what we see.  Yet others are angry at him, however, because his antics (if you want to call them that) remind the greater African diaspora in America of something even more disquieting: not going to Church, after declaring it useless in the era of Facebook and Climate Change, doesn’t make the Church disappear, because it is within us as much as it is among us.  The Church of the Black Intellectual, with all its problems, is an ocean of influences on our Black American self, surrounding the uncharted island of our on again/off again disdain for it.

We can wish that West didn’t grow into the mature woman who doesn’t apologize—for neither her still hypnotic beauty nor off-putting mid-life crisis issues—while stealing focus from the Pastor as she sashays down the center aisle.  We can project every fault we’ve ever had onto him as we kick the neutered Tavis Smiley while he’s down, in the name of (not victimized women but) ritualistically defending the 44thPOTUS: the one Black man on Earth so powerful, even now, as to need no defense we could provide.  We can even say, yet again, that West is just jealous and scorned because first Obama and now Coates is the new prom queen and he can’t take being upstaged; that we loved him more when he was academically rigorous and non-controversial; that we loved him most when he was young and just wrote incisive books instead of arguing with people on television—when his celebrity was prepubescent and manageable.  And yes, we can continue to castigate the man for raggedly entering what promises to be a socialist ideology-driven, post-menopausal Act III of public service more exciting and meaningful than the two acts before it, as if there was any other way it could have been done.  The First Amendment isn’t dead (yet); it is our right to feel and say it all. However, if expressing the need say so now is our justification for not actually reading the books West wrote back then; or defending the indefensible of the Obama administration because of its iconicity; or making no space for loving the sinner and debating the sin of any of our other celebrities (so we can shamelessly celebrate lessor minds with even bigger mouths that entertain us without offending us), then we will be held accountable for choosing to dance to the tune of anti-Blackness.  We will be held accountable for inviting the world to honor us just a little less in the process, while we pretend to raise God up just a little more.  For Black folks in the age of Trump (even with a Democrat majority House), that agenda could be suicidal.

Dr. Cornel West is no saint.  He is human; a flawed human academic, Christian, intellectual, social critic and activist.  He makes mistakes; lots of them.  Both his relevance and irrelevance are often hyperbolically exaggerated.  And yet, and still, he has one of the most important voices of our time.  For speaking his truth, and thetruth, he owes neither Black liberals, nor white progressives, nor the Black community, nor the Ivy League, nor Coates, nor Dyson, nor Obama, nor Bernie, nor Hillary an apology.  We owe ourselves a gracious forgiving of this shining Black earl—if not duke, king or prince—while we make room for him in the fourth pew, even after the next service begins.  Particularly while the absence of his allure—growing, not in spite of him not being a kid anymore but because of itparadoxically upstages us all.

Especially given that his sins, more often than not, are actually ours.

The Offertory is here. GOD is at the organ.  Soloist Turana Burke is singing, and the church, shamefully realizing it has always known her song, is finally joining her and the Women’s chorus on the bridge.  It’s not just the time in the service for us to put our fragile little egos in the collection plate, as The Lord can make better use of them.  As West enters Act III of his social activist/intellectual life, it’s time to embrace the transformative mystery of ever changing, ever growing, ever evolving—ever anarchic—life, and bethe change we wish to see him make in the world.

And will someone please let Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at least deliver the Benediction?

Earl Wellington Hazell, Jr., native New Yorker, is a bass-baritone opera singer, jazz composer/arranger and writer who, when not working with companies nationally and internationally, is the Executive Director of the production company Jazzoperetry, Inc.

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