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Cornel West Should Forgive President Obama for Allegedly Disrespecting Him

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) May 22, 2011: Cornel West of Princeton University has been disrespected by Barack Obama, President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. From Cornel West's published account of events, it sounds like he was indeed disrespected by President Obama.


The Republicans will love, love, love Cornel West for criticizing President Obama. They will hug, hug, hug him for criticizing President Obama. They will kiss, kiss, kiss him for criticizing President Obama. They will respect, respect, respect him for criticizing President Obama. They will be grateful, grateful, grateful to him for criticizing President Obama.


I can understand that Cornel West is pissed off at President Obama. If we believe Cornel West, President Obama is an ungrateful lout. He has not been suitably grateful to Cornel West for all that he has done for him in campaigning for him in 2008.


But we have not heard President Obama's side of the story. In a similar way, we have not heard Lawrence Summers' side of the events at which Cornel West took umbrage when Summers was president of Harvard University, the upshot of which was that Cornel West moved to Princeton University. From what Cornel West has revealed about the exchange between Summers and him, it might be fair to say that Cornel West felt that he had been disrespected in that exchange.


But Cornel West's terminology about being disrespected by President Obama suggests that Cornel West lives in an honor-shame thought-world. Cornel West is of course an African American product of the Old South with its Jim Crow laws and customs.


In his wonderful book READING FAULKNERIAN TRAGEDY (1987), Warwick Wadlington notes that the white culture of the Old South was basically an honor-shame culture. Wadlington says nothing about African American culture in the Old South. However, when Cornel West says that he has been disrespected, he is using terminology that calls to mind the honor-shame culture of the Old South.


I don't want to press the likeness too hard, but my impression is that Barack Obama's unflappable demeanor makes him kind of like the old black man in William Faulkner's novel INTRUDER IN THE DUST. But did Faulkner just create the old black man out of his imagination, with no help from real-life examples of such black men who were self-respecting and dignified and unflappable? Or did Faulkner draw on real-life examples of white men to create the characteristics of the old black man? Put differently, is there perhaps another viable and living African American tradition of self-respecting men besides the African American tradition of living and loving out loud that Cornel West and Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged from?


Cornel West himself uses the expression "living and loving out loud" as the subtitle of his book BROTHER WEST: LIVING AND LOVING OUT LOUD, A MEMOIR (2009). But the expression "living and loving out loud" suggests a strongly oral-aural orientation, akin to oral-aural orientation that the American cultural historian Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) associates with oral cultures and with residual forms of oral cultures. See, for example, Ong's book ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (1982; 2nd ed. 2002).


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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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