Author Cornel West encouraged a diverse, standing-room-only crowd at Packard Auditorium Thursday evening to “find their voice, shape their own destiny, and have the courage to fight for democracy.”
Clad in a black suit, crisp white shirt and his trademark black scarf, West, author of the landmark book Race Matters
, examined a host of issues related to the struggle of African-Americans for equality and the challenges facing American society. After his hour-long talk, West answered questions ranging from finding a comfort level for minority students in a primarily white university environment to the issues surrounding school funding.
In his lecture, West, who has been called “one of America’s most gifted, provocative and important public intellectuals,” drew on pivotal moments in the history of civil rights, including the demonstration that followed the funeral of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the African-American from Chicago who was castrated, beaten to death and then submerged in a river while visiting his mother’s family in Greenwood, Miss., in 1955. His offense was speaking inappropriately to the wife of a white shopkeeper.
Till’s mother, West said, refused to give her heart over to anger or despair, saying that she “didn’t have a moment to hate.”
Such a response, offered in the aftermath of a brutal and senseless tragedy, spoke to a higher level of character than we are now accustomed to in contemporary politics, he said.
West also advised students who are on the path to success to use their education and the advantages life has provided them to help others—particularly at a time when there is an increasing disparity between wealth and poverty.
“We are so intoxicated with success,” he says. “But will you use that success with service? Once you succeed, will you help others?”
`Not optimistic’ about elections
Earlier in the evening, West met with a small group of students from a race and philosophy course taught by Gordon Bearn, the W.W. Selfridge Professor of Philosophy and director of the Humanities Center. In that discussion, students peppered West with questions about his views on rap music, the prison industrial complex, and the upcoming presidential election.
West, who initially supported former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination before backing Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the general election, said he finds few candidates addressing what he considers the important issues of our time: wealth and equality, the criminal justice system, and the plight of children of all colors.
“So I go to the Republicans and I find that no matter what the color—Colin, Conde, or Clarence—they’re all conservatives and place a premium on hierarchy, privilege, and order,” he said. “And then I go to the Democrats, and they’re very centrist, for the most part. But there are two people who are talking about what I’m talking about: Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton.
“Now I’ve know Al Sharpton for 20 years now, and I want him to stay in this to keep raising these issues,” he continued. “Right now, I’m with Brother Al. But I have to tell you, I’m not that optimistic about the American political system. We’ll see what happens.”
West, a professor of religion at Princeton University, came to Lehigh to speak as a part of the “Just Globalization” lecture series sponsored by the Humanities Center. Future speakers will include former Black Panther and ‘60s activist Angela Davis, now a professor in the history of consciousness department at the University of California.
-- Ella Studdiford