My Dinner With Cornel West


In a desperate attempt to avoid the guy sitting next to me, I wedged myself as far into the corner of the Greyhound bus seat as I could. He seemed greasy and dirty and looked like he had the potential of smelling bad, so I breathed through my mouth. I stared out the window, not making eye contact, and I watched the comforting browns and greens of the Midwest blur past on my trip from Chicago to Eau Claire. My mind wandered back to the purpose of the trip, to see Cornel West speak. I pulled Race Matters from my backpack and read. I wanted to finish the book by the time my mom picked me up at the Greyhound stop. 
The year was 1999. I was young and stupid. I had just graduated from college with a degree in English literature and was working at a behavior-disorder school. It was far from what I wanted to be doing with my life.  
My mother’s job, at the time, was to bring speakers to the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire to address the faculty, staff, and students. She had lined up Cornel West to visit and thought it would be nice for me to hear him speak. While I don’t remember the exact logistics of that evening, I do remember that my mother was responsible for picking West up at his hotel and driving him to the university. I remember being impressed with how my mother went about her job. She made sure West was comfortable. When I was younger, she had loved having guests over to our home and serving them a meal; this job seemed like a perfect extension of that love for entertaining guests.
That evening, I sat in the back of a packed, dimly lit auditorium, and I watched as West asked for the spot light to be cut because he couldn’t see the audience. I listened to him speak enthusiastically about Race Matters. I was enraptured. I remember thinking that even a person who didn’t understand English would have been swept away by his passionate inflections and his bold gesticulations.
When West was done speaking, he took questions from the audience, and then, after the questions were answered, he stood there and greeted the people who had lined up around the auditorium to shake his hand. My mother and I waited patiently. 
When West had spoken with every single last person in the auditorium, my mom ushered him to a banquet hall on campus where he was to have dinner with the faculty and other university VIPs. Mom and I sat at West’s table alongside various PhDs: philosophy, theology, sociology, etc. I listened to them discuss Tibet and that country’s quest for independence. I injected myself in the lofty conversation. I said, “I read about that in Rolling Stone Magazine. There was a freedom concert. The Beastie Boys played there.” The PhDs snickered at my comment and then plowed forward with their pontifications. I sipped my water, wishing that I wasn’t there.
“Now hold on a minute,” West said as he pivoted forward on his elbows. “You know, there is great value in pop culture. It’s a reflection of who we are as a people, as a culture.” There was a stupefied silence. I smiled a, take that, sort of smile and quietly finished my dinner.  That day, Cornel West scored some serious points with me.
I write this on the heels of recent criticisms from Michael Eric Dyson who criticized West for not being academic enough. When examining West’s recent ventures, those criticisms may be valid, but I feel the need to point out that significant societal change and cultural revolutions cannot be effective with out the populace embracing those ideals. Academia tends to get lost in its own fruitless discourse. While West may not have found his most effective voice with Everyman, I admire his journey. He recognizes that he has to make his ideas accessible for them to be relevant in our world, and he doesn't seem to be afraid of the criticism. More points from me.
I will tell you that my Greyhound ride home was different than the ride there, and that had everything to with my dinner with Cornel West. This time, I was very aware of the man I was sitting next to, and despite his peculiarities, I talked with him. I breathed him in. I tried to understand him.