Sandwiched between the visits of two U.S. presidents, Spring Convocation speaker Cornel West—Princeton University professor, civil rights activist, media commentator, bestselling author, poet, musician, and cultural icon—offered hundreds of students a rousing hour-and-a-half-long rumination on the body politic as it relates to race, class, democracy, and UM’s own place in civil rights-era history.
Last Tuesday night’s event was part of the Unity in Diversity initiative to mark the 50th anniversary of desegregation at UM. The Center for the Humanities, United Black Students, and the Program in Africana Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences were involved in presenting the event.
In her opening remarks, President Donna E. Shalala called the Unity in Diversity initiative “a public gesture at speaking honestly and thus coming to terms with our own history.” Describing West, Princeton’s Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies and author of the classic book Race Matters, she said he is “a public intellectual who meshes the academic with the artful, the polemics of racism with the street cred of hip-hop and the soulful overtones of a Sunday sermon.”
With the charisma of a preacher and the timing of a comedian, West commanded the podium. He urged students to “wrestle with the question of what it means to be human,” using the Greek word paedeia to explain that college is not about learning a trade or skill but about “deep education” about who we are as humans, about philosophy (“the love of wisdom”).
He wore the trademark outfit he recently described in The New York Times as his “cemetery clothes” : black suit, black tie, white dress shirt. (“If I drop dead, I am coffin-ready,” he elaborated in the Times.)
Calling prejudice a form of death, West explained, “you can’t be reborn if you don’t learn how to die.” He explained to laughter that his students sometimes get a bit anxious at first when he tells them he’ll be teaching them how to die.
Addressing UM’s Unity in Diversity initiative, West gave a shout out to Whittington Johnson, UM’s first black faculty member circa 1970, and continued throughout his speech to connect UM’s 1961 inauguration of desegregation, when UM’s first black student, Benny O’Berry, was admitted, to the larger picture of the struggle for civil rights in this country. Change was possible then, he noted, because people were willing to speak out and say, “You’ve got the wrong priorities, America, and you’re gonna lose your democracy.”
His lightning-speed references swung in one breath from Plato’s Apology and the Occupy Movement, of which he has been a champion, to President Barack Obama, about whom he has been outspoken at times (“I am here to protect, respect, and correct the president,” he offered). West lamented the recent deaths of Soul Train producer Don Cornelius and Whitney Houston, whose loss, he noted, represents not merely an individual tragedy but a tragic break in a chain of soulful singing tradition passed down for generations. He lauded the mother of slain teen Emmett Till, who demanded an open casket so the world could see plainly the truth of what had been done to her son in Mississippi in 1955. “She said, ‘I don’t have a minute to hate,’” he relayed to the crowd. “I will pursue justice for the rest of my life.”
He explained that where we are now “has so much to do with 1961, with Jim Crow and Jane Crow….”
“Will you muster the courage to examine yourselves?” he asked his audience. “At the center of any serious reflection is courage.”
He said we are experiencing in this country a “Keith Sweat moment” when “something just ain’t right.” He said it’s time to connect to something beyond our individual interests and unleash the kind of “Socratic energy” that fueled the civil rights movement.
Multiculturalism, West added, is not enough in and of itself. He advised students also must be “multicontextual,” must travel out of what may be their familiar “bubble” and into new communities, into prisons, for example, into realities that exist beyond the walls of their institution.
He charged that in a society that has become obsessed with wealth and celebrity, many have become “well-adjusted to injustice and indifference.”
Referencing Election 2012 he said, “This spring is going to be quite colorful and exciting.”
Before receiving a standing ovation, West made a final plea for students to find their own voices and not be merely an echo or an imitation.
Recent UM graduate Rodolfo Hernandez, a fan of West’s, heard that message loud and clear. “I was expecting my world view to be challenged, and that is exactly what happened,” said the philosophy major who plans to attend business school and eventually go into politics. “Dr. West reminded me of the importance of looking beyond the material desires placed upon me by societal norms and the importance of having an open mind. I still have to ask myself many questions pertaining to what I believe and whether I am justified in believing those things.”
West’s energetic visit to campus lasted until almost 10 p.m. as he continued to answer student questions even after the microphone was removed, at one point calling a student up on stage to borrow his microphone so the student’s voice could be heard.