Cornel West 25 Years After Race Matters: Less celebrated, still courageous

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I remember the first time I read Race Matters.  I was a high school senior who was bored with my course work and searching for a something different to stimulate my intellect and developing worldview.  As I perused the shelves of a local used bookstores I eventually came across a copy of Race Matters and was immediately taken by the now iconic picture of the dapper and studios looking Cornel West that graced the book’s cover.  Instantly I began reading the text and found myself so captivated that I read the entire book in one sitting. 

There were many things that I found intriguing about Race Matters as I journeyed through it.  Not least of which was the feeling that I’d found someone in West that was able to speak about the world in the way that I was coming to know it.  I also found in West’s writing a passion for justice, scholarly courage and a command of language that sparked something within me which I only vaguely knew was there before.  In real sense, I encountered on that day, like many others who’ve read Race Matters, the genius that is Cornel West.

Race Matters and West’s Rise to Fame

When Cornel West released Race Matters in 1993 it skyrocketed him into intellectual stardom.  Prior to its release West was already a celebrity academic of sorts but he was certainly not known to most of the general public.  He had published several critically acclaimed books including a two volume work that won him the American Book award but to that point didn’t have a bestselling book to boast of. 

This all changed when Deborah Chasman of Beacon press suggested that West pull together a collection of his previously written essays into one book about race with the intention to reach a more popular audience.  West agreed to pursue the project but admittedly had low expectations for the book and its commercial success.  He, of course, was wrong about this as the book, eventually titled Race Matters, would go on to become a huge success both commercially and culturally.

From the beginning Race Matters was a hit.  In the first several months after its release it sold more copies than anyone could have predicted and more importantly helped changed the dialogue about race and racial reasoning in the US.  Its success also resulted in many college courses making it required reading and a considerable number of mainstream and progressive media outlets making it the topic of public conversation and debate.  Even Bill Clinton, the President at the time, was so impressed with Race Matters that he invited West to the White house for a private one on one meeting of the minds.

Much of Race Matters’ initial success was due to the fact that it was the right book for the right time.  Keep in mind that it was released on the heels of the Rodney King beating and the racially charged events that followed; so in many ways the culture was primed and ready for a fresh high quality reflection on the state of race which West effectively offered in Race Matters

The Perils of Fame and West 25 years after

It’s safe to say that West was unprepared for the success of Race Matters.  He has publically shared how challenging it was to gain such fame while at the same time trying to navigate the turmoil that categorized some of his private life.  And anyone who has followed West closely over the years knows how much he bemoaned becoming the darling of White liberals during the years immediately following the release of Race Matters.  In fact, West professed to be so ambivalent about his newfound fame back then that he was actually more interested in celebrating the success of Toni Morrison and her 1993 Pulitzer prize in literature than he was in celebrating his own success from Race Matters.

25 years later West’s fame has continued to rise.  Over these many years he has maintained his place as one of the most visible Black intellectuals in the world and continued to occupy a privileged teaching post at some of the most prestigious universities and theological institutions in the US.  He’s also maintained a frantically busy itinerary lecturing and dropping knowledge in colleges, faith communities, civic organizations etc. across the globe.  He’s also managed to publish a prodigious amount of articles and essays and make a countless number of media appearances.  And of course he’s released several book projects, a few of which are notable, but none on par with the success or originality of Race Matters as critics like Michael Eric Dyson (West’s former mentee turned jaded antagonist) have noted. 

In recognition of the book that made him a household name West has re-released Race Matters with a new introduction that connects the iconic text with the current moment which seems very fitting, even necessary, given the state of the world and West’s current public posture in it. 

To be sure, race is still as intractable an issue today as it was in the early 1990’s.  And the central message of Race Matters, that there are serious flaws in American society which largely contribute to black suffering, is still relevant in our time.  As for West himself, he is still celebrated but not as he once was.  Like some who’ve come before him, West appears to be enduring the consequences of having such an extended season in American public life.  Many of those who once lauded West now readily lambaste him and some who were his committed celebrants have become his fiercest critics, while at the same time a generation of younger people less familiar with West question his relevance today.

Yet, despite these realities West is still every bit as courageous and committed to the freedom struggle as ever.  He is still willing to jump in a good fight for justice no matter where it may be.  He’s still willing to be an intellectual activist and raw truth-teller no matter the backlash.  And he’s still willing to courageously declare that race matters in a society that is often hostile to such a message.  Simply put, 25 years later, he is still, the genius that is Cornel West.