Mike Check:
Dyson on ‘The Ghost of Cornel West,’ and Why He Had to Go There

Mike Check:
Dyson on 'The Ghost of Cornel West,' and Why He Had to Go There

The scholar and MSNBC contributor on his controversial takedown of his former mentor, and says Black intellectual beef isn't a waste of time

Mike Check:
Dyson on ‘The Ghost of Cornel West,’ and Why He Had to Go There

On Sunday, I attended a beautiful Washington, D.C., wedding presided over by Michael Eric Dyson; someone I consider to be a friend and professional confidante. As we chatted during the cocktail hour, he pulled me to the side and said, “I’ve got a piece coming out tonight for The New Republic: ‘The Ghost of Cornel West.’

I knew this day was coming. We’d spoken in the past about his issues with West and his feelings of betrayal and frustration at the hands of someone who was once his academic mentor. And I knew the responses would be immediate and very mixed. Certainly those folks who have heard the unkind remarks that West has made about Dyson wouldn’t be surprised that the tension there was palpable. But for many others, the extensive take down of the famed scholar came as a total surprise. Some folks enjoyed the drama and the spectacle, while others were perturbed that Dyson took such great lengths to call out one of Black America’s most beloved thinkers—or anyone who doesn’t pose physical danger to our people in the era of #BlackLivesMatter.



I sat with Dyson for a lengthy dialogue about his former friend, why he chose to run the article where it did (and not, say, at EBONY) and why he still wants to read new work from West in the future. The following is a condensed version of our conversation.

EBONY: Do you feel that being the one to drop the 10,000-word missive on—not just your personal issues with Cornel West, but what you see as his decline (as an academic, as an activist, as a member of the Black community)—is going to leave people with a bad taste in their mouths about you?

Michael Eric Dyson: It could be for some, and that’s the risk you run. But that didn’t outweigh the necessity of trying to weigh in on what is an untenable situation: a remarkably gifted figure of estimable moral value has descended into the pits of personal assault. And fear that somehow my reputation might be sullied in the mix, or that somehow I would be misinterpreted, could not outweigh the fact that West was getting away with, so to speak, with rhetorical murder. Beatin’ up on people's reputations, calling them into account, recklessly assaulting them with epithets and hurling invective at them. 

From the President, who needs to be vigorously criticized, but within the context of propriety and respect just fundamentally as a human being… Melissa Harris-Perry, I found West’s animus toward her especially troubling, because it carried such virulent misogyny, aimed at a prominent female figure in a way that—even though he had assaulted me and [Reverend Al] Sharpton and [Reverend Jesse] Jackson—just carried an extra dig. So when you look at all that, you have to ask yourself the question: Why is it that we are complicit through silence in the dissemination of West’s vitriol? 

I wanted to say something that would expose that for people who didn’t know, address it for people who did know, and hopefully argue about why this stuff is so deleterious and destructive, and why West especially is implicated in horrible ways through all of it—the decline of his reputation, the decline of his intellectual force, the decline of his scholarly production and the descent into a kind of rhetorical viciousness that is far beneath the pedigree he once claimed.

EBONY: The reactions to the piece have been mixed. [Some] agree with the bulk of your criticism. And there are people who perhaps didn’t necessarily take a side but they just enjoy your mastery of the language. There was a lot of “Yassss,” and “Oh, Dyson knows how to throw shade!”

But there was one word that I saw, particularly on Twitter, coming up over and over again, and that word was “petty.” Now that you’ve had a couple days to sit with the responses, do you agree with that at all? One example I’ll give you: the Anita Baker reference.

MED: Mm-hmm.

EBONY: That was something I saw people calling out, saying, “What’s his point here?

MED: Well, that’s interesting. That was a story that simply talked about our camaraderie, me and West. You know, that he had a crush on Anita Baker. I got us in [to a concert] because I’m a Detroit homeboy. I bought the tickets there. There was another story about Sarah Vaughan that that we ultimately didn’t use. I wasn’t trying to display anything negative about him in those instances, the Anita Baker instance or the Sarah Vaughan instance. Those would’ve been displays of our intimacy as mentor and mentee, and a friendship that had been generated outside of the classroom. So, no, I didn’t read that as petty. If it came off that way, that’s unfortunate, but it was not even meant as a negative. It was a positive.

EBONY: One of the critiques I found to be the most fair was Dave Zirin’s piece for The Nation, which I know you read. There’s a passage that spoke to many of the critiques I read elsewhere. [Zirin says:] “The timing of the essay is also very disorienting. We are at a moment where a new movement is attempting to confront an epidemic level of police violence. Dyson and West have in word and in deed both been important voices in this movement. As the challenges of sustaining this struggle grow with every police killing, it is an odd moment for a public figure like Dyson to write so particular, so personal, and so granular an attack against West…” I think that’s a question a lot of people had. Why right now?

MED: There’s no rhyme or reason in terms of looking at the tea leaves and seeing, “Is this the right time?” It’s when I finished the essay… [Also,] I had published on [the same day], in a little small newspaper called The New York Times, an op-ed called “Fast Terror, Slow Terror,” so I can chew gum and walk at the same time. I can talk about West and I can talk about Black people under terror. And I do it in the most highly visible fora that allow me to use whatever influence I have, my bully pulpit, to defend the vulnerable Black people and to make an argument in defense of our humanity.

What’s interesting to me is that Mr. Zirin, my good friend—I wrote a preface for his book, he’s a beautiful writer and a great man—did not write his article about sullying unity and undermining the humanity of Black people until I wrote mine. But West has been assaulting Black people now for six years. Did our lives not matter? Were we not Black? Did Michael Dyson’s Black life matter? Did Obama’s Black life matter? Did Sharpton’s Black life matter? Did Melissa Harris-Perry’s Black life matter?

So now, I’m afraid what Mr. Zirin has done has subversively placed priority on West’s persona and status as an untouchable reality that we must pay a kind of uncritical deference to. And at his best, that’s not what Dave Zirin is about. So if that’s the case, why not the article before mine?  Why was mine necessary to elicit these comments?

Why was my article—hard-hitting, tough, aggressive, but hopefully also fair in many ways—why was it the occasion of the publication of my article that out of nook and crannies have emerged people defending Black humanity when he’s callin’ Obama “a global George Zimmerman,” when he’s saying that Sharpton is the “head of the Obama plantation,” when he’s callin’ Jesse Jackson the “head of the Clinton plantation,” when he’s saying that Melissa Harris-Perry is a fraud and a liar, when he’s calling me a liar, a prostitute and a bootlicker?

Sir, Mr. Zirin, a failure on your part to not have caught this, [to] not have collared Professor West and said, “You know what? Black lives matter. Why are you doing this at the height of Black people’s suffering? Why are you attacking Black people who are prominent and visible, looking as if you are somehow making yourself vulnerable to the charge, which is probably not true, of jealousy or envy, while we’re here trying to fight a battle?”

Truth is simultaneous. We can [mourn] Rekia Boyd, speak out against the death of Michael Brown, look at Empire, go to a ballgame, celebrate the birthday of Luther Vandross…and still be Black and human and concerned. So I don’t buy at all that at this moment it is not propitious for us to engage. This is precisely the moment when we’re making the argument that Black lives matter. Every Black life matters, and if you’re not gonna respect that, if you don’t respect the integrity of all Black lives, you respect the integrity of no Black lives. Professor West needed to be called out and I made the call.

EBONY: Why do you think there has been so much silence around the comments that West made about you and Melissa Harris-Perry?

MED: How do I say this without sounding self-important? In many ways, people missed them because they weren’t payin’ attention to what he was saying. Here’s where I can criticize myself. Maybe I overplayed the degree to which people had even heard what West was saying. Because I heard them, I thought they heard them. That may be true. Maybe because it was so viciously directed toward me, it amplified the intensity. That could be one explanation. The other explanation is that people who are often misbehaving may not get called to account until somebody claps back, and then it becomes a fight as opposed to a rumination [or] a temper tantrum.

EBONY: Zirin and others also noted that you didn’t make mention of West’s time in Ferguson, his critique of police brutality, his stance on Palestine. Is that an omission or a critique? Are you saying he no longer is a leading voice around these issues?

MED: I’m not saying that. Here’s the problem with West. And here’s the problem with that criticism of my leaving [those things] out. West has besmirched Sharpton and Jackson for being “ontologically addicted to the camera.” Sir, we saw you on TV getting arrested, it was camera ready. Now, Martin Luther King, Jr. was brilliant at usin’ the cameras. You don’t dog him. But you dog Sharpton and Jackson. Let’s apply that to you. Let’s apply this ready-made, camera ready photo op of you going to Ferguson. And by the way, there were some people like Tef Poe and others who thought what you were doin’ was extremely and explicitly exploitative, while others of course appreciated it.

So that’s the point: Anybody can be called exploitative and called opportunistic. So why should we believe you more than anybody else, especially with men who have cut their teeth and made their bones on doing precisely the thing that you occasionally do? They have given their lives to doing it. This is the consequence of Cornel West refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of another person’s approach. “Handkerchief,” you know, “on a plantation,” ”liar,” “fraud,” “bootlicker.” Sir. Then why should we not apply the same litmus test to you? Are we to believe you because you said you did it for the right reason? It makes no sense.

Tavis Smiley was this guy, he says in his memoir he’s his best friend. Now they don’t even speak. Jay Z. Cornel West was asked by American Express—wait a minute, is this the left wing critic? American Express. Is this the person against oligarchy? American Express. Anti-capitalist? American Express. ([And] I love Ken Chenault as the Black face of American Express coming up with the black card. What a subversive message that is: the highest piece of possession in one’s own personal finance is a black card.)

EBONY: [Laughs]

MED: That is brilliantly Undercover Brother-like ish. So, but you were asked by American Express to vet Jay Z if he was worthy, if he were worthy of a commercial. What? Not you, not Cornel West. The American empire, through its corporatist, capitalist zenith, seduces you into vetting a capitalist exploitative artist, you claim, Jay Z, and you gave him your blessing. And then four years later, you’re clowning him as an example of a man who lacks courage. Who are you not beefing with? So Jay Z, Tavis Smiley, Michael Eric Dyson, Melissa Harris-Perry, Al Sharpton… I mean, at the end of the day, tell ’em why you’re mad, son, tell ’em why you’re mad! So when I put it all together, it just doesn’t hold water.

EBONY: This sort of falling out between Black public intellectuals is obviously not anything new.

MED: It’s not.

EBONY: But there are a lot of folks in our community—particularly those who are not in and around the academy—that say, “Two Black men debating each other in public, why can’t we just get along?” Or, if we’re gonna take one of our folks to the woodshed, we don't do it publicly, we don't do it in “the White folks’ space.” How do you respond to that?

MED: Well, I mean, what’s a “White folks’ space?” We go to concerts in White folks’ space.  We go to Verizon Center. I don’t think that’s Negro owned. I’m not sure, but I saw Beyoncé there with a whole bunch of Black people. You go to school. Now, some of us go to Black places, like you, the great Howard University. I started at Knoxville College, but I’m teachin’ at Georgetown. I know a lot of people got a problem with that, but I make it a Black space when I’m there.

You know what the old ladies say: “Where you did it is where you get it.” You did it in public, bro, you showed yo’ ass in public? Guess what? I’ma tap yo’ ass in public. So my point is, he showed it in public. West didn’t do this privately.

He was very public with his consternation and his vicious assaults, and his slander, and his malignant speech. So the thing is, we are public intellectuals who engage in public discourse about the public good, so therefore, our disputes will be public. I don’t have private disputes with President Obama; I articulate them publicly. Or Ronald Reagan. I didn’t call him up; publicly articulated those.

And then thirdly, most Black people don’t have access to Black spaces among Black elites. It’s not like I can call Jay Z or Beyoncé. “Hey, I just wanna talk about that latest video you have.” That’s not how we do it.

EBONY: So why not EBONY or The Root?

MED: If EBONY would publish a 10,000 word piece of mine, I would be grateful. There’s limited space and they got better articles to run, and I appreciate that. I love EBONY magazine. I would’ve loved to have published it there. But that’s unrealistic to expect that EBONY would turn over 10,000 words to me. They’d have to turn over a special issue of the magazine. That’s ludicrous. And the well-known monthly magazine devoted to Black politics is? Yeah, it doesn’t exist. So therefore, [I chose] The New Republic because Jamil Smith went to work for them.  And because I respected his work and I trusted his editorial guidance and his ability to make arguments in my behalf, I landed at The New Republic.

This notion that, “Oh, you can’t do it in public and Black people arguin’…” Look, I get that. But that’s outmoded. And here’s the great irony about West: he wants to and does benefit from the same Black protectionism that he claims Obama unjustly is subjected to. ’Cause otherwise, there would be no argument. West, like Dyson, like anybody else, is worthy of critique. But do you want to be advantaged and benefited by the same protectionism that you claim has prevented us from criticizing Obama? You can’t have it both ways.

EBONY: How are you gonna feel when somebody comes up with a 10,000 word “Ghost of Michael Eric Dyson?”

MED: I better stay on my job. I’m writin’ a book right now on Obama. You know, I got 17 books in. I gotta make my first like my last and my last like my first. When I read Jamilah Lemieux, I was like, “Man, that young lady right there is doin’ stuff,” and I'm not even sayin’ this ’cause you’re here. But I really need to take note of: I learn from you. 

See, if you’re a teacher and you teach the next generation, the generation after that, and you can’t learn back from them, you’re a failed teacher. The greatest mark of a teacher is to learn from his or her students. Because your job has been done so well that they bring back to you new, fresh, innovative approaches to knowledge that you need to take advantage of. When I read William Jelani Cobb, I’m like, “Dude, I gotta go back to the woodshed because this dude is killin’ it.”  What Ta-Nehisi Coates is doin’ is like, “Man, you gotta raise your game.” I read the best writing of younger people out there. It really invites me to take seriously to continue to sharpen multiple skills, and to deepen my approach. So I’m tryin’ to keep from havin’ a 10,000-word piece published on me.

EBONY: So one of your biggest criticisms of West, outside of your personal issues with him, is that he’s more on the level with his celebrity and his access than he is with the work at this point in his career. And that’s he’s anointing himself as a “freelance prophet,” which is one of the greatest insults I have ever heard anywhere. But aren’t most public intellectuals just a little bit guilty of being seduced by the attention? How do you chin check yourself? Because you get to go to concerts, you get to meet cool people—

MED: All the time.

EBONY: Most scholars don’t.

MED: But I’m still doin’ the work. And this is where I put the direct gauntlet down to West: Do the work. For the last decade, you have [had] co-authors, which means you ain’t writin’, which means they’re doin’ the work. You’ve been interviewed in your own book? Dude, stop. Professor West has turned, he’s outsourced the labor of his intellect. We know he has a prodigious intellect, ’cause we hear him, but there’s a difference in talking.

When [EBONY] is asking me questions, that’s important, but that ain’t the same as me at home doin’ the work. Ooh, I’d rather be looking outside, I’d rather be listenin’ to music, oh my God, and I’m lookin’ at the screen and it’s empty and I got a 1,000-word essay due. I got an iPad, I got a 100,000-word book due. Like, it’s hard. You know when sometimes people ask me, “How come you wasn’t at the protest?” Because I was writing about it, I was trying to shape people’s understanding of it. I don’t have to match arrest records. I have been arrested multiple times. 

I saw a tweet from Reverend [Osagyefo] Sekou, and he said, “I’ve never shared a cell with Michael Eric Dyson.” That’s doesn’t mean I never been to jail. [That means] I ain’t been to jail with you, right? So how narcissistic is that? I have been to jail with Rev. James Forbes here in this city over Amadou Diallo, [and] with Rev. Jesse Jackson in Illinois. But I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to evidence my record to prove that I’m bona fide.

As an intellectual, if I do my job right, everything else is gravy. Ain’t no necessity. When people ask, “What are you doing?” I’m writing. Well, “What you doin’ for the movement?” I write. I don’t apologize for that. West can take all the invitations because he’s not producing a text that will testify to the enormous brilliance [he has].

I’m not saying that’s the only thing a public intellectual does, but I’m saying the celebrity can be seductive. You don’t wanna work. You just wanna hang out. You wanna enjoy the limelight as opposed to doing the work behind the scenes; the unsexy normal versus the sexy spectacular. That’s what it’s about, and a lotta us are seduced by the sexy spectacular and not the unsexy normal.

EBONY: So what does the unsexy normal do for the people? If West was doing the work you say he should be doing, and you say you’re doing the work you should be doing, what does that mean to a Tef Poe or a Rev. Sekou or somebody who is a foot soldier?

MED: You got a book to read, you’ve got something to be inspired by. Du Bois wrote Souls of Black Folk, they’re still reading it. It’s an extremely important book. He wrote Black Reconstruction. Extremely important. St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton. Those are important books [and authors] to teach a younger generation. Especially those fed on digital literacy and Instagram, the imaging and the kinds of Twitter… [the] generation that lack the kind of patience for sustained work.

Martin Luther King, Jr. understood poor thinking leads to poor activism. If you’re not informed at the height of your abilities… This is why the people who are activists had to be taught, had to learn lessons about how to engage in nonviolence. There were classes. I do my job right as a public intellectual, I’m gonna help clarify ideas, which is important. And West does that in an extremely valuable fashion. But also, produce books that feed the soul in terms of knowledge and the mind in terms of information, and also, display and exhibit and model the behavior of a serious thinker. So the descent into name-calling and hurling invective is a direct contradiction to the high and noble calling of a serious public intellectual.

EBONY: How do you avoid thinking of yourself as the Michael Eric Dyson in the way that you imply Dr. West seems to think of himself as the Cornel West?

MED: Marcia Louise Dyson. [My] kids, people around you who call you to account. You know when you talk to people who hold… like you’re holding me accountable in this [interview.] This ain’t no softball. “Oh, EBONY.com, let’s go there with the Black people and hang out!” You killin’ me! You’re killin’ me up in here. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to subject yourself to that kind or rigorous critique.

You know I got friends—Marc [Lamont] Hill, James Peterson, Salamisha Tillet and older figures—who hold me to account. They love me, they admire what I do, and they also push me and challenge me constantly. Not nastily, but constantly and vigorously. My wife is one of my harshest critics.  Not nasty, but she’s fairly vigorous and wants even my contretemps with Professor West to be worked out in a civil fashion, and has warned me against a kind of hubristic self-investment that repeats the very sin that I’m pointing out.

EBONY: Speaking of, let’s shift focus for a second, speaking of accountability. There’s a tweet that circulated last night, and it was a quote of yours from an interview that I was, I admit, a little surprised to see it myself. And I’d like to give you space to explain or defend it. I couldn’t find the original article [for context] and I was confused.

MED: I was making the point that, “Are we gonna call Mike Brown by the mistakes he made, we gonna start by saying ‘the thief Michael Brown?’ ” I said, that’s not what I would do. First of all, why are we calling him a thief because we caught on camera? He did steal, but is he a thief, is that what his character is? Is that who he fundamentally is? I made the parallel, so then therefore would you call Thomas Jefferson a rapist and a molester? I said I wouldn’t. That’s not how I would start. I’m not saying that Thomas Jefferson didn’t do those things. I’m saying, “Is that how we start in talkin’ about Thomas Jefferson?”

My point was, if you in America, don’t start with Thomas Jefferson in the following fashion, “The rapist, slave owner and molester, Thomas Jefferson,” as opposed to “The writer of the Declaration of Independence.” Why do that with Michael Brown? That’s the context within which I made my remark.

EBONY: Thank you for clarifying. So to wrap this up: Does West vs. Dyson continue, or does it end here for you? Do you intend this to be a wake-up call or a eulogy?

MED:  To the first question, I’ve had my say. I mean, I’m gonna talk a bit more about what I said and what I meant. But that was a pretty thorough, pretty comprehensive, pretty damning piece of writing I did that took me a year. I don’t intend to devote that much time and attention again to those issues. I think it’s fairly comprehensive and it’s fairly explicit about what I mean.  It depends. You know, since people have been using the Nas and Jay Z [reference] and saying I “Ether”ed [him] or “Took Over.” You know, it certainly worked out for Jay and Nas. Nas’s productivity increased significantly, and it afforded him the opportunity to defend himself, prove again that he’s a genius. The same rules [go] for Professor West. Now let me make a prediction. I’m not sure that in his near future a return to writing is somethin’ that he will value…

EBONY: Do you think that there’s anything he can do to redeem himself at this point, even if he’s not in a place in his life where he can anymore sit down and devote time and energy to writing?

MED: Stop tellin’ us that Melissa Harris-Perry’s book is all over the place and inferior. Then stop taking potshots at people who are disciplined. If you live in a glass house, don’t throw those stones. Stop with the self-righteous condemnation and the condescending assaults. If you will not write anymore, fine. But then stop throwing stones at the quality of [others] work. This is where, again, the complicity of the Black left to not call West to account is rather striking. West has spoken in many ways in regard to Melissa and others in terms of the quality and character of their work. He’s assaulted them for what they have and have not done. And yet he’s not come to grips with the fact that he lost that kinda scholarly center. And in losing that scholarly center, lost so much of the intellectual purchase that he was able to offer to the world as a result of his discipline. I mean, early on, those earlier books were extraordinary.

But unfortunately, with him constantly besmirching the character of others and calling into question what their intellectual productivity is about, he’s just incapable of withstanding the most rigorous criticism that he offers. And beyond that, what’s also troubling is that is in making assertions about others, it invites attention to one’s own career trajectory. And unfortunately, even if he chooses now to say, “Hey, I’ve given up writing and I’m a speaker and a talker,” that’s fine. But the kinds of arguments you make against people who take that kind of work seriously has to be conditioned and qualified by the fact that you will no longer undertake the rigorous, practice of writing. There’s a process of discovery that writing gives that talking doesn’t. And we would lose an enormous amount by West refusing to write again.

At his best, West was one of the most provocative and insightful and stunningly original scholars that we’ve had, and a man who was capable of inspiring a whole generation to follow suit with his desire to use his intelligence for the benefit or the masses of Black people. And that would be a tremendous loss. But what’s even worse would be [for him] to have descended from the throne and come down from that high mountain he once occupied only to throw stones at those who occupy a higher register.

 

 

 





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