MRBlog | Playing The Prophet: Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, and The True Black Prophet

Cornel West


By Thomas J. Whitley

By now you’ve no doubt heard about (and hopefully read) Michael Eric Dyson’s epic 10,000-word excoriation of Cornel West, his once and former mentor: The Ghost of Cornel West. My Twitter timeline blew up almost immediately with shock and awe under #GhostWest (and it has slowed only a little). Much has already been said about this in the few days since its publication that is insightful (including on this site). As such, I thought that I should keep my head down on this one, focus on the semester that is wrapping up, and leave the insight and analysis to those better suited to this task. But, of course, I could not resist.

I have come back to the piece multiple times since I first read it Monday morning trying to better understand what Dyson was doing, what he hoped this piece would do. It is, to be sure, more than a settling of the score between him and West. West has harshly criticized Dyson and others publicly, so Dyson returned the favor. This part didn’t really bother me, even though I thought time and again that I was audience to something deeply personal and private. What I simply cannot shake, though, is the struggle in the piece over what counts as true prophecy, who gets to count as a true prophet, and who gets to decide.

Dyson, it should be said, recognizes this larger struggle.

The argument over who and what is prophetic has rarely been more heated in black culture than it is now.

And Dyson appears as an almost giddy participant in this argument. He lambasts West for styling himself a prophet and for claiming the authority to determine who is and is not a prophet. Yet Dyson wastes no time telling his readers, in no uncertain terms, that West is no prophet. This claim is repeated a number of times. West has a “limp understanding of prophecy” and his is a “pretense to Christian prophecy.” West plays it safe, according to Dyson, and so “doesn’t qualify for the prophetic role he espouses.” His is the role of “a dynamic and once-indispensable social critic,” whose words are most certainly not ordained from on high. That is not all.

West may draw on prophetic insight; he may look up to prophets on the front lines; and he may even employ prophetic vocabularies of dissent. But none of that makes him a prophet.

West can talk like a prophet and act like a prophet, but he is no prophet. Rather, West is a hypocrite in his anointing of prophets, especially himself, and he is no different from Russell Brand or Tupac.

What makes West a prophet? Is it his willingness to call out corporate elites and assail the purveyors of injustice and inequality? The actor Russell Brand does that in his book Revolution. Is he a prophet? Is it West’s self-identification with the poor? Tupac Shakur had that on lock. Should we deem him a prophet? Is it West’s self-styled resistance to police brutality, evidenced by his occasional willingness to get arrested in highly staged and camera-ready gestures of civil disobedience, such as in Ferguson last fall? West sees King as a prophet, but Jackson and Sharpton, who have also courted arrest in public fashion, are “ontologically addicted to the camera,” according to West.

Dyson allows the comparisons in this passage to do the lifting for him. By playing to the assumptions of his readers (Brand and Shakur were obviously not prophets), he is able to cast West as fairly “normal” and mainstream, no different from actors or musical artists. What may be his most severe critique, though, is also his most succinct: West is merely “playing a prophet on television.” This is merely a game for West, designed to increase his fame and his bank account.

One of Dyson’s main critiques of West’s self-proclaimed prophetic label and the freeness with which he does or does not label others as such stems from West’s lack of a definition of a true prophet. (“Despite the profusion of prophecy in his texts and talks, West has never bothered to tell us in rich detail what makes a person a prophet.”) Dyson attempts his own definition, but it rings hollow. He offers platitudes – they “draw on divine inspiration to speak God’s words on earth;” “they are called by God to advocate for the poor and vulnerable whole decrying unrighteousness and battling injustice” – but no substance. And he shifts freely back and forth between talking about prophets and talking about ordained ministers. Indeed, he says that West “most closely identifies with a black prophetic tradition that has deep roots in the church,” but he speaks in the next sentence of “ordained ministers, and especially pastors.” True prophets, Dyson tells us, “embrace religious authority and bravely stand up to it in the name of a higher power.” How does one “embrace” and “bravely stand up to” religious authority? Dyson does not tell us. Dyson seems put off by the lack of institutional accountability for West, yet the biblical prophets to whom he looks often work outside the realm of institutional and “religious authority.” Dyson’s need for West to be institutionally accountable is seen more clearly in the examples of true prophets he offers.

As a freelancing, itinerant, nonordained, self-anointed prophet, West has only to answer to himself. That may symbolize a grand resistance to institutional authority, but it’s also a failure to acknowledge the institutional responsibilities that religious prophets bear. Most ministers are clerics attending to the needs of the local parish. Only a select few are cut from prophetic cloth. Yet nearly all the religious figures we recognize as prophets—Adam Clayton Powell Jr., King, Jackson, Sharpton—were ordained as ministers. Powell and King were pastors of local churches as well. To be sure, there are prophets who are not ministers or religious figures—especially women whose path to the ministry has been blocked by sexist theologies—but most of them have ties to organizations or institutions that hold them accountable.

Again, we see the elision of “prophet” and “minister.” Dyson speaks of “nearly all the religious figures we recognize as prophets” being ordained ministers. Yet this tells us more about Dyson’s definition of “prophet” than it does West’s role as one. There is one question left to ask then. What is at stake in Dyson’s definition?

For starters, Dyson is doing the very thing for which he criticized West: claiming the authority to determine who is and is not a prophet. West knows a prophet when he sees it, Dyson says, “and quite often, they sound just like him.” The same can be said of Dyson. West does not criticize Obama in the right way, according to Dyson. Dyson, on the other hand, is gracious enough to lay out his three-pronged approach to criticizing Obama (profess love for him, acknowledge the unprecedented challenges he faces, and then “target his missteps and failures”). Also, notably, Dyson quotes Richard Lischer saying that Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from his prophetic forbears “how to get mad,” a lesson West has yet to master, the text implies. Further, West is not ordained like Dyson is (and like almost all of the prophets of whom Dyson can think).

Dyson does not, it is true, claim to be a prophet. In fact, he tells us, it is “something [he] never claimed to be.” One cannot escape, though, that in much the same way that historical Jesus scholars are seemingly destined to paint a portrait of Jesus that looks eerily like the scholar doing the painting, Dyson has painted a picture of a prophet that looks an awful lot like himself and that, by design, does not look like West. In other words, Dyson seeks to wrest the mantle of anointer of prophets from West in order to reveal his criticisms of Dyson and others as illegitimate. Dyson has a vested interested in delegitimizing those who critique him, as do we all. His tactics are familiar. Classification is his game. Draw the boundaries to the category “prophet” such that West is left on the outside looking in and such that you, those like you, and those you like become the only insiders. Bourdieu would tell us that Dyson is creating the world through naming. McCutcheon would remind us that classification is a political act. And in the end we see that, intentional or not, consciously or subconsciously, by exposing West as a false prophet, the conditions are right for Dyson to be anointed as a true one.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.