Cornel West, Barack Obama, The Shoeshine Man and Me

Recently, Cornel West has been all over the news because of his heavy criticism of President Barack Obama. I’ve always been fond of Cornel West, and I’ve always been fond of Barack Obama so it pains me to see Bro. West making it a point to attack Obama so viscerally. Like many so called progressives, my first response has been to castigate West in defense of “my president” by reducing his attacks to that of someone with unresolved personal issues, issues related to unreturned phone calls, inaugural snubs, and Larry Summers. But another part of me, the part of me that has always appreciated Cornel West makes me feel like maybe he really does have legitimate reasons to be disappointed and to go on the offensive.

Let me break for a minute and tell you about the time I met Cornel West.

It was about 3:10 in the afternoon, I remember the time because I was on a pretty strict schedule during that period of my life. I was putting in 40 hours a week as an intern at Citigroup and going to school full time at Hofstra University. I would work from 7:30 till 3:00 and then take the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan to Hempstead in time to be in class by 4:05. So I’m rushing through Penn Station to catch my train, and who do I see getting his shoes shined in the shoe shine shop – Cornel West. He was sitting in one of the high chairs with an older black man working hard on his shoes and he was flanked by a huge white man who I assumed was his bodyguard. I told myself I had to speak. I was as familiar with West as any young student should be – I had read and liked “Race Matters,” had seen him on shows like Politically Incorrect and beyond all that, was his fraternal brother as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated. It was this fraternal connection that spurred me to speak. So as I walked by, I did the secret fraternity thing one Alpha Brother does to another to let him know that he’s an Alpha and Bro. West responded enthusiastically. He gestured me over, got down off the high chair, and we exchanged fraternal greetings. He was ridiculously nice and down to Earth. This surprised me because when I’d seen him on TV and in interviews he always seemed lofty and prone to speechifying. He asked me what I was studying in school and having found out I was an English Major, asked what I was reading at the time (I think I was reading Sartre then). I told him that I was little embarrassed to admit that, of his books, I’d only read “Race Matters” and asked him which one I should read next. He said, “Oh man, don’t worry about my stuff, my stuff is nothing, make sure you read every word James Baldwin’s ever written before you read anymore of my stuff.” I appreciated the self-effacing humility and the suggestion.

We talked a little more about random stuff, and as the conversation winded down, he looked over at the older black dude who’d just finished shining his shoes then locked back at me and said:

“You see this gentleman right here?” Pointing to the black dude. “Stand on his shoulders.”

It was a really touching moment. I could see in the shoeshine man’s eyes the pride he felt around what Bro. West had just said. He felt like his years of toiling at the feet of those more fortunate were not in vain; that in me there was a certain measure of hope. That in the sacrifices he and his generation had made and in the opportunities my generation and I now have we were inextricably bonded in our people’s pursuit of this American dream. And for me, the moment was equally touching. It was a reminder that any success I might come to know was not just my own. That the heights that I’d see in my life would not be possible were I not standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before.

I’ve been thinking about that interaction a lot this week. In light of all Bro. West has said, and no matter how much I might disagree with him, I can’t throw him all the way under the bus. Sure, he sounds like a jilted ex-lover who clearly cared for someone more than they ever cared for him, but I don’t think that’s all this is. I think Bro. West’s anger stems from a deeper level of disappointment. I think, like many American’s, he projected onto Barack Obama a certain expectation that Obama could never really meet. He expected Obama to be the President he wanted him to be. Every speech Obama makes, every interview he gives, every piece of legislation he proposes, and every Presidential action Obama takes, Bro. West expects to be a reflection and acknowledgment of the shoulders upon which he stands. He expects Obama to actively acknowledge, in word an in action, all the sacrifices that were made by countless Civil Rights Activists, scholars, pastors, busboys and shoeshine men that laid the foundation that he walks upon today. Yeah, I know, maybe that’s a little lofty … or … maybe it’s not.

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