A couple nights ago, Cornel West paid a visit to our fine campus. In attendance (along with what seemed like half of the entire Columbia population) was Bwog’s Resident Lecture Lover, Eric Wimer.
The fire code was almost certainly being broken by the crowd packed into Northwest corner 501, all there to see Cornel West. The Columbia NAACP introduced him as the kind of guest that was certainly worth breaking a few codes to see. Amid a chorus of snaps and ‘mhmms,’ he sketched out the legacy of Martin Luther King and touched on a Core Curriculum’s worth of writers, artists, and leaders, from The Merchant of Venice to Louis Armstrong, “a sad soul with a cheerful disposition,” to Anton Chekov, all with a poetic flourish.
King, he said, “mustered the courage to think critically in the Socratic tradition.” Columbia too, Cornel asserted, should teach its students to examine themselves in this tradition; to do so is to be human. But students here should “beware of deodorized discourse.” Students should instead follow the path of King, who “said let’s deal with the ambiguity and complexity of life. He was not just a ‘civil rights leader.’” A good education, he expounded “should not teach you how to live, but how to die.”
West blasted the idea of a post-racial world, noting that Obama is a beneficiary of King’s dream, but not the fulfillment of it. “We have to acknowledge the white supremacist who is still inside of us, the male supremacist who is still inside of me, even as I fight against it.” A huge supporter during Obama’s election, West promised himself that “I would break my neck getting him elected, breakdance on inauguration day, and on day one, I’d be his biggest critic.” Obama is still part of a system founded on three evils that King had devoted his life to eliminating and which are still rampant in America: Jim Crow, war crimes, and poverty.
West had been thrown in prison protesting a police system with nearly unlimited power to stop and search “2.2 million, only 3% of whom were related to any crime at all.” ‘Jim Crow Jr.’ has a brother in poverty, was deemed “as cruel as cannibalism centuries ago, and we have the ability to wipe it out, so why is it that banks and corporations are still at the drivers seat?” A vocal supporter of the Occupy movement, West praised artists like “Brother Lupe,” who are willing to show outrage and say things that will make them unpopular. Like Lupe, he was also especially critical of Obama’s use of drone strikes and unchecked assassination power, which had actually expanded since Bush.
West also touched on his religion, noting how far many religions have strayed from their original teachings when asked, including Christianity itself. But West embraces “the prophetic tradition” of those like “a Palestinian Jew named Jesus of Nazareth [who] became the central symbol of the empire” rather than the ‘empire’ that high jacked their teachings.
When asked to give advice to all of Columbia’s graduating seniors, West responded that while “you have to make compromises, you can still be a free person in that context.” He explained that too many today act like the ten commandments have been replaced by an eleventh: “thou shalt not get caught.” Another student called him a leader, but he rebuked that “I am not a leader, I am a lover. I love the truth, love to speak from the depths of my soul even if I am wrong. Love the truth, love your neighbor, and love your enemy. Everyone has enemies — if you don’t then something’s wrong — but love your enemies.”
Cornel West via Wikimedia Commons