April 3, 2006

Cornel West Tackles Race, Injustice

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More than 600 people turned out on a Saturday night to listen to a man preach.

Prof. Cornel West, religion and African-American studies, Princeton, spoke from the pulpit of Sage Chapel, promoting social engagement and non-complacence with his singular dexterous fusion of academic theory, political activism and pop cultural commentary.

“I’ve come here tonight to try to say something that unsettles you,” West said.

In the lecture that followed, West challenged his audience to confront and examine societal norms about race, which he called “the rawest nerve in American society.”

It’s not his three-piece suit, West would tell you, but what’s on the inside – character – that counts.

Still, the public intellectual cuts an interesting figure, wearing an all black suit, a black scarf wrapped tightly around his neck, an unruly goatee and a close-cropped afro.

West’s cufflinks feature a gilded image of the African continent.

It’s not the outfit, but the oratory, though, that really gave him command of the room. West is a powerful pulpit presence. He uses rhyme (“ubiquitous cowardice,” “institution constitution”), imagery (man is born, he said, “between urine and feces”) and gesture to great effect. West sweeps his arms back and forth in front of himself to make a point like a baseball umpire, as if to say, “Safe! Safe! Safe at home!” Other times, West works the fingers of one hand together like an archaeologist examining a soil sample: “Rub this in. Struggle with this. It’s important.”

West said that people should adopt a Socratic mood to question injustice. While Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living, Malcolm X also said that an examined life is painful. West said people ought to be ready for examination – not just of self but of society – to be difficult.

“Bold speech, frank, honest – even if you have to pay a price,” West said, ending the sentence with a drawn-out, gravelly stage whisper big enough to fill the room.

“The last thing one wants to see [is] people who are well adjusted to injustice,” West said.

West said that his talk, sponsored by the NAACP and the Men of Color Council, was about confronting the effects of white supremacy and imperialism on the American experience. “Hatred is a species of cowardice,” he said, adding that since the time of slavery, racism was a system of oppression designed to “make sure black people hate themselves” to prevent them from rising up.

West said that there have been many progressive whites, and throughout his talk he cited civil rights figures as diverse as former President Lyndon B. Johnson and the philosopher and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“But,” West added of progressive whites, “they’ve got a lot of cousins.”

He told his audience to practice paideia, a Greek word for an ancient Athenian system of education in which students were encouraged to learn widely with an eye to public engagement. According to West, paideia is an attitude of critical engagement with society and ideas – a proactive process of questioning and learning.

West said that people ought not to be optimists but “prisoners of hope,” always looking for something better.

West placed high value on political courage and doing the right thing.

Of Oprah Winfrey, the daytime talk show host, West said it was an “accomplishment” that a black woman could find such a large audience in the “vanilla suburbs,” but that “Oprah lacks political courage” despite her work with nonprofit organizations.

“Charity,” West said, “is not the same as courageousness.”

West criticized hip-hop culture, including an artist he referred to as “half dollar – two quarters – fifty cent, whatever he calls himself,” as promoting an aggressive, misogynistic, and unloving lifestyle. He did, however, praise artists such as Common, Mos Def and Kanye West for their positive or politically courageous messages.

Respect for self and others was a theme that West raised numerous times, citing sources as different as the Hebrew Bible, from which he said he learned that, “to be human is to be kind to the stranger,” and John Coltrane’s jazz classic, the album “A Love Supreme,” which West said is about self respect and loving one’s blackness.

West had harsh words for materialism that he said prevailed in part as a result of hip hop culture. “We don’t have enough people who really want to speak the truth,” he said, accusing black youth of neglecting activism for “the felicities of bourgeois living.”

“Young negroes become peacocks,” he said, attacking the culture of bling. “I can hear my grandmother say that a peacock struts because it can’t fly.”

Referring to “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about decadent socialites during the Roaring Twenties, West said, “If you only want the green light, you’ll end up empty inside.”

Throughout his career, West’s work has drawn on the Baptist faith, socialism, pragmatism and transcendentalism. “I come down on the King side,” West said of the civil rights era dichotomy between Martin Luther King, Jr.’s doctrine of love and nonviolence and the

West has served as an advisor to former President Bill Clinton and perennial presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton. West’s most recent book, “Democracy Matters” is the sequel to his 1993 work “Race Matters.” West appeared in the last two installments of The Matrix trilogy and recorded philosophical commentaries for the DVDs.

West also serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America and these political leanings came out in the lecture in references to “Brother Hugo Chavez,” president of Venezuela and a vocal critic of the Bush Administration, and “Brother Evo [Morales]” the recently elected populist who is the first Native American president of Bolivia.

During his speech, West also expressed support for demonstrators against a new French labor law, saying they are fighting for “the triumph of quality of life over profits,” and for Hispanic Americans demonstrating across the American southwest against a proposed immigration bill.

“It was a tremendous talk; he’s a very erudite speaker, with a phenomenal memory, I think, with many of the references he makes especially to specific lines in various texts,” said Prof. Robert L. Harris, Jr., vice provost for diversity and faculty development, referring to West’s multiple citations of the words of Socrates in Plato’s “Apology” and other works.

“I would particularly like to see Cornel West do a commencement speech instead of just coming up on a Saturday because I think he could reach more people,” said Justin Davis ’07, president of Black Students United.

“He wasn’t coming to shove race and how race matters down peoples throats … he wasn’t coming as an elitist African-American talking down to Cornell students … he was coming as a person with ideals, values, and just communicating that to us,” Davis said.

“I was on the tip of my seat for the entire ride.”

Archived article by David Wittenberg
Sun Staff Writer