Cornel West had a simple message for the crowd that filled Nott Memorial at Union College on Thursday night to hear him speak: The lives of black kids killed on the south side of Chicago and the lives of white kids killed at a Connecticut elementary school are equally “precious and priceless.”
West, the iconic social and civil rights activist, outlined his speech with a set of four questions from W. E. B. Du Bois: How shall integrity face oppression? What shall honesty do in the face of deception? How shall accomplishment meet detraction and lies? What shall virtue do to meet brute force?
“Integrity is a difficult thing to find these days,” West said. “We live in the most commercialized, commodified and marketized time in society. And integrity is not a commodity.”
He dished out criticism in equal parts across the political spectrum from President Barack Obama (for his failure to stand up to Wall Street) to Donald Trump (for his “narcissism rooted in self-doubt”), from Henry Kissinger (for just about everything) to the Founding Fathers (for writing a constitution that failed to even acknowledge the slavery that built their republic).
He bemoaned the degradation of American culture and harkened back to the soulful power of jazz and blues. As the music loses meaning, the youth lose social and democratic sustenance, he said.
“Beyonce is a good entertainer, but she is no Aretha,” he said. “She knows it and we all know it.”
And he was unrelenting in his appeal for deeper recognition of the oppression of black Americans and a sustained, democratic discourse that wasn’t reduced to its most basic critiques and enflamed without context (“West slams . . . West trashes,” headlines read after he takes to the airwaves).
He called on people to awaken from privileged slumber and shake off the inaction of comfort — the suburban living and advertised happiness. He called out colleges and universities for catering to “market models of education” and their obsession with buzzwords like “networking” and employable “skills,” rather than developing self-questioners and critical thinkers.
“More and more people are becoming well-adjusted to injustice,” he said. “And indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself.”
His speech, delivered with graceful physicality and rhythmic evangelism, called on its listeners to live out their beliefs, to act on their passions, to be loud in the face of injustice. Each time he dropped a line that resonated with the students, teachers and residents in the audience at Nott Memorial, they snapped their fingers in solidarity.
He said the symbolism of seeing “a black man in the White House largely built by black slaves” carried strong meaning but doesn’t go far enough. Without providing explicit answers, he pondered how a power structure topped by a black president, black attorney general and black secretary of homeland security could still see a person of color “shot every 28 hours.”
“We’ve got to get beyond symbols, we’ve got to talk about substance,” he said. “We’ve got to talk about what is happening on the ground.”
After his speech — not quite an hour long — he took each question that came his way. Rather than diminish with time, the crowd’s hunger for more of West’s opinions grew.
A pair of young black males — one said he was 11, the other close in age — took their turn to question the 62-year-old West.
“For a young black man, as I am, what would you like to see when I grow up?” the first asked.
Three things, West said: “Study hard. Play hard. Love hard.”
“Don’t be ashamed of embracing others and loving others as you sharpen your mind and learn how to play,” West said.
But the second young inquisitor left West as close to speechlessness as he came all night: “What inspired you to do poetry?” the boy asked.
“I’m not sure I’ve done poetry, but that’s a real compliment,” West answered. “You use the word poet and that makes me shake.”
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.