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A lesson for Cornel West

It was not enough for Cornel West to ridicule the first African-American president as a "black mascot." The loquacious professor also fired his blunderbuss at Michelle Obama. In the process, he splattered a generation of black people freeing itself from narrow identities and stereotypes.

The Princeton African-American studies professor belittled the first lady's causes of child obesity and assisting military families, by scornfully asking on the website Truthdig: "Why doesn't she visit a prison? Why doesn't she spend some time in the hood?"

The down-with-the-people professor clearly has spent too much time in the ivory tower to see the many ways to be "in the hood." It escapes him that 42 percent of African-American women are now obese, putting them on the leading edge of a crisis that is shortening the lifespan of U.S. citizens.

West's dismissal of Ms. Obama's work with military families is even more peculiar. In a nation 13 percent black, African-Americans comprise 20 percent of the active-duty Army. More than a third of Army women are black. Retired Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the national foundation that recognizes women's military service, said Michelle Obama "is following in the footsteps of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt's World War II fame."

The backstory for West's attack is that he supported the Obama campaign hoping for a progressive White House but has since felt politically betrayed and personally snubbed. While criticizing Obama's policies is fair game, it is despairing to see an Ivy League professor of rare privilege himself succumb to a jealous attempt to humiliate fellow achievers.

West's attempt to claw the Obamas down into his crab barrel of authenticity contradicts his own writings. In 2007, he wrote how remarkable it was that descendants of slaves "now excel in the broad range of American life." West complained that we spend too much time debating the woes of black people to "discuss the factors that led to the successes of millions of African-Americans," and that we should ponder more optimistically why "a country so flawed in its founding nonetheless produces such an accomplished population?"

Those accomplishments are growing, both domestically and globally. But West would prefer to launch missives that by extension would block the vision of today's generation of African-Americans. Their accomplishments are not restricted to any specific "hood," but to the world stage. For example, my two adult sons speak fluent German. One of my teenage goddaughters speaks fluent Japanese; another has written musical compositions performed by adults. The daughter of one of my mentors, an editor who co-founded the nation's largest black journalist organization, speaks fluent Mandarin and taught English as a second language in China.

It has not occurred to any of us that these unscripted lives, young lives unimagined by ancestors in shackles, make them any less black. W.E.B. DuBois once said a black person just wants to be "both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face." West has no business spitting out racial curses that serve to close those doors of opportunity.

© 2011 Boston Globe

A lesson for Cornel West 05/31/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 4:25pm]

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