Cornell west addresses a packed Page Commons room.
Illustration by Fred Field
Illustration by Fred Field
Self-described "Chekhov lover, radical democrat and prophetic Christian," Cornel West began his speech to a capacity crowd in Page Commons in March with an observation: "You cannot talk about multiculturalism without examining why you are here."
West proceeded to keep his audience in thrall for more than two hours with questions that went to the heart of "Mosaic," Colby's fourth annual weekend-long student-organized diversity conference.
West's talk reflected the trajectory of his career, one that has launched, as Professor Cheryl Townsend Gilkes (sociology, African-American studies) put it, the "eloquent public intellectual."
An acclaimed teacher and scholar of religion, West left Harvard in 2002 after a highly publicized disagreement with Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who questioned West's politics, extracurricular endeavors and what Summers said was a lack of serious scholarship. West quickly returned to Princeton, where he had taught and done graduate study.
Was West the victim of Harvard administrative establishment racism, as many have said? Or was the esteemed professor a casualty of his ego, putting himself above Harvard's requirements? Can one consider West-wooed by Princeton (where he is now the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion), author of more than a dozen books, including the milestone Race Matters, organizer of the Million Man March, rap artist (visit cornelwest.com), actor in The Matrix-a victim at all? Who is this man who has garnered a following so crowded with strange bedfellows? The enigmatic persona before the Colby audience March 6 had a simple response: you are what you leave behind.
West's Colby performance was a public wrestling with "the dogmatism, provincialism and presuppositions" that burden us. In the course of a self-examination that afflicted the audience, as promised, with "intellectual vertigo," he spoke of race as "a litmus test that forces America to confront itself and what it means to be human."
West infused the debate on race with a new potency by moving easily among disciplines and centuries. In his talk, religious figures, philosophers, literary luminaries and political activists from Jesus Christ to Socrates, Edward Said to Louis Farrakhan, Aristophanes to Arthur Miller, became brothers in arms.
Alternating esoteric discourse and the staccato delivery of hip-hop, West made good on his pledge to corral all possible means of communication to get the message out. "Share the same compassion, [don't] move towards Machiavellian group interests," he urged.
The targets of his criticism were varied and diverse, from black youth "who have traded in King's 'let freedom ring' for the bling-bling" of consumerism, to al Qaeda with whose anti-imperialism he identifies but whose thuggery he denounces, to white suburbanites who co-opt black music for their own, infusing it with a dominance of stupidity and mediocre talent.
West reserved a particular venom for "spiritual vacuity," disparaging a society that confuses "giganticism with greatness," values "hedonism and ubiquitous cheating" and "lives by an eleventh commandment: thou shalt not get caught."
West also delivered a scathing indictment of the nation's response to 9/11 and derided policies that rely on "great phallocentric architecture," calling it a metaphor for America's myopia, "instead of trying a little sweetness, kindness and love." For an alternate vision he drew on the black experience in America. "For those who have been so thoroughly hated and taught to hate themselves, as African-Americans have been," he said, "love is not merely an emotion, it's a subversive movement towards emancipation."
As the evening progressed West's challenges grew more pointed. "What judgment would be passed on a nation whose military budget is greater than the combined military expenditure of the next twenty nations and still manages to keep those it professes to love most of all, its children, trapped in poverty and without education or functional families?" he admonished.
Gilkes, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies, reflected later on the accessibility of West's scholarship. In fact, West's responses to the questions of the Colby audience-mostly young, white undergraduates-were gracious and un-condescending. He released his grip on the audience with the observation that "democracy is not about the majority, but about a minority whose passion, commitment and testimonies serve to persuade the less involved to effect change."
As the crowd rose to its feet and applauded enthusiastically, it was clear that West was accustomed to doing just that.