CULTURE | Black History: Cornel West vs. Harvard President Larry Summers
The following is an excerpt from Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department? by Cecil Brown. We’ll post a new excerpt from the book each week for the remainder of February, in honor of Black History Month. Who’s your favorite hero of African American history? Help us pay tribute to the important figures in black history by sharing his or her name — or names! — in the comments below.
In a widely reported meeting between professor Cornel West and Harvard president Larry Summers, the underlying disagreement between the two academics was one of the oral style versus the written tradition. When Summers called West to his office, in early October 2001, he set off one of the more controversial sessions in contemporary African American history; the meeting marked the division between popular and academic culture.
Among the president’s complaints were that West had made a rap CD and “that CD was an embarrassment to Harvard.” Why was the CD an embarrassment? The president reflected his own low estimation of the oral tradition. But just as Summers represented the White literates’ stake in the White tradition, West represented the intelligence and power of the oral tradition. Yet West was confronted with someone who didn’t respect his idea of using that tradition to relate the university to the population outside its confines.
Significantly, Cornel West’s account, which appears in his book Democracy Matters, pivots on these issues in the same way that Houston Baker’s account in his book Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy did when it was published in 1993, nearly fifteen years earlier. Both books deal with the tenuous relationship of the Black student to academic culture. Both books look to the civil rights movement and Black culture for a standard to judge Black Studies progress.
The encounter between the president of Harvard and one of the university’s star professors is an example of what happens everywhere in academia as Black scholars confront White department chairs or presidents. In my own personal “meetings” with college deans and heads of departments at UC Berkeley and other institutions, I have often undergone similarly demeaning experiences.
Since most readers do not have the experience of being a Black professor meeting with a White head of a department, the exchange between West and Summers takes on a special meaning and offers a privileged insight into the debate between the written tradition and the oral tradition. If West had been an unknown scholar without the publishing power that he has, he would never have even been able to put this encounter into print.
“When I entered his office,” West writes, “Professor Summers seemed nervous as he shook my hand; frankly, he seemed uneasy in his own skin.”
West had been summoned to the President’s office after he had been alerted by the African American chair at Harvard, Henry Louis Gates Jr., that the president was not pleased with West’s work at Harvard.
“Summers then launched into a litany of complaints about me and reprimands,” West continues. “He complained that I had canceled classes for three straight weeks in the year to promote the Bill Bradley campaign. . . . He then asserted that my course in Afro-American Studies—and other courses in the department—were contributing to grade inflation in the curriculum. . . . That I needed to write works that would be reviewed not in popular periodicals like the New York Review of Books but in specialized academic journals, that we should meet bimonthly so he could monitor my grades and my progress on published work.”
West was obviously taken aback. “He ended his tirade with a sense of reassurance,” he writes, “which was accompanied by a smug grin of the arrogance I often associate with the bosses of my late father as they denied him a promotion for the nth time.”
In response, “I looked him straight in the eyes and asked him what kind of person he took me to be. I informed him that I had missed one class in all my time at Harvard, in order to give the keynote address at a Harvard-sponsored conference on AIDS in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, led by my wife.”
West then reminded Summers that he was as much a part of the Harvard tradition as Summers was, that he had graduated from Harvard College in 1973. He ended his defense by referring again to the hip-hop charge.
Summers questioned the credibility and ingenuousness of West, who professed to communicate with youth through hip-hop. Summers didn’t give much respect to hip-hop traditions as an expression of oral culture. That’s not a surprise because he represents an institution that is built on the controlling influence of print technology. But this print technology is not reaching Black students, and it’s not even reaching many white students; hip-hop is. And that is one reason why West embraces it.
“If I wanted to present,” he told Summers, “a danceable education to young people in their own idiom I would do so.” He called his hip-hop performance “a danceable education” like paidia, the ancient Greek practice of using dance, music, singing, and impersonation as a basis of education—not unlike a modern-day rap performance.
When Summers criticized Professor West for his large classes, West responded that he was not going to deny a student access to his class if the student wanted to be there. “As one who is deeply committed to the deep democratic tradition in America and to engaging youth culture, I have no intention of cutting back on my academic and outreach activities, because the effort to shatter the sleepwalking of youths who are shut out of the intellectual excitement and opportunity of the academy is such a vital one for our democracy.”
The media subsequently turned West into a hip-hop professor who abandons his responsibility. “TV pundits were charging me with never showing up for classes,” he wrote, “spending all my time in the recording studio, refusing to write books, publishing mediocre texts years ago, and mau-mauing Summers to enhance my salary.”
A media frenzy followed the encounter. “The Boston Globe ran a piece on the incident by a reporter who had tried to reach me for two months,” West complained. “The New York Times followed with a front-page article—without talking to me—that focused on Larry Summers’ ambivalence about affirmative action, an issue not even broached in our meeting. The next thing I knew, reporters from around the country and the world were descending on Cambridge to get the scoop on what was really happening at Harvard.” George Will even wrote that West’s position at Harvard was an extreme case of “racial entitlement.”
Students responded with petitions of support, and West also fought back. He went to his friend Charles Ogletree Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School. West notes, “I decided I had to speak, and did so first with Tavis Smiley and later the New York Times and on The O’Reilly Factor.My purpose was to tell the truth, expose the lies, and bear witness to the fact that President Summers had messed with the wrong Negro.”
He responded on radio, TV, and in print. Following the aforementioned meeting, the news circulated that West had resigned and that he would be taking a position at Princeton. When he threatened to bring Gates and other professors with him to Princeton, Summers became nervous.
The significance of this incident is that it is a microcosm of the real relationship between Black Studies and the university across America. One of the lessons that UC Berkeley should learn from this demonstration by Cornel West is that hip-hop is a powerful way to express points about academic responsibility to Black Studies, to all of academia, and to popular culture at large.
This is where he and Summers differed fundamentally from each other. A conflict between the oral tradition and the written tradition was dramatized. Only West was able to articulate the true issue at hand: “Summers revealed that he has a great unease about academics engaging the larger culture and society—especially the youths of hiphop culture and democratic movements of dissent and resistance.”
Cornel West’s concept of education is similar to the original Black Studies concept. “My vision of academic engagement embraces his academic standards of excellence,” he asserted, and “yet also revels in overcoming the huge distance between the elite world of the universities, the young people in the hood, and the democratic activists who fight for social change.” These remarks put him in the lineage of the original ideals of Black Studies.
He recognizes the importance of seeing how hip-hop can be used to help—not just the youth—but also the rest of the American people. Black students, as well as White students, are sleepwalking through life. “I intend to shatter the sleepwalking of youth who are shut out of the intellectual excitement of the academy,” West proposes. I stand with him because I believe that the literate tradition as narrowly defined by the pedagogical establishment has kept Blacksout of the university and away from leadership in our democracy.
Further Reading: Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department by Cecil Brown
WINNER, 2008 PEN Oakland – Josephine Miles National Literary Award
Blacks have been vanishing from college campuses in the United States and reappearing in prisons, videos, and movies. Cecil Brown tackles this unwitting “disappearing act” head on, paying special attention to the situation at UC Berkeley and the University of California system generally. Brown contends that educators have ignored the importance of the oral tradition in African American upbringing, an oversight mirrored by the media. When these students take exams, their abilities are not tested. Further, university officials, administrators, professors, and students are ignoring the phenomenon of the disappearing black student – in both their admissions and hiring policies. With black studies departments shifting the focus from African American and black community interests to black immigrant issues, says Brown, the situation is becoming dire.Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department? offers both a scorching critique and a plan for rethinking and reform of a crucial but largely unacknowledged problem in contemporary society.