Lift as you fly: Dr. Cornel West
Left: Dr. Cornel West speaking at PSU's MLK tribute. Right: West with Rudy Crew, Chief Education Officer for the State of Oregon. Photos by Mark Shearer.
After scrambling to find a ticket to last Tuesday’s lecture by Dr. Cornel West, acclaimed philosopher, academic, author, and activist, I was honored and grateful to have found what must have been the last available seat.
As neither a philosopher, accredited academic, nor author, it’s a challenge for me to put into words the enthusiasm and passion Dr. West spoke with from behind the podium. In a sense, he spoke with the fervor of a preacher dedicated to justice, equipped with a mental rolodex of history and the gall to say what not a lot of politicians get paid to talk about.
In what appeared to be the standard operating procedure of guest lecturers everywhere, he addressed the speakers and performers before him and showered them with thanks—but it was the dousing type of thanks one might give after being saved from a near death experience. He thanked the young man who sang the Black National Anthem with a long embrace, recognized the vice president of ASPSU, Marlon Holmes, who delivered a riveting speech rooted in black history, and an older woman sitting in the second row whose commitment to the betterment and support of the African American community in Portland had not gone unnoticed by Dr. West.
He opened with a message of love, reminding the crowd that we’re all here tonight because “someone cared for us.” What followed was a lecture inspired by the doctrine of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his commitment to serving others.
As if in a church sermon, West spoke with an unrelenting and unapologetic critique of the current political system. His support of Senator Barack Obama in 2008 was well publicized, but things have changed since then. “I nearly broke my back to get him into office the first time,” West said. “But I didn’t break my back to get him in the second time.”
He went on to ask the tough questions Americans must face, the questions conveniently left out of the current administration’s agenda. What about the drone strikes in the Middle East and the killings of innocent women and children? What about the new Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex? Why is it that not ONE banker on Wall Street goes to jail for the financial crisis but yet the black brother or sister on the corner buying a bag of cocaine goes to jail for years? The answers to such questions he blames on America’s newest condition, “moral constipation.” “[We] know what’s right,” he said. “But it’s just not flowing.”
For West, issues of race, gender, and class are interconnected; nothing stands alone. In the land of opportunity we call home, West reminds us to never forget where we came from and the prices people have paid, in blood, to provide us with the liberties we have today. Mahatma Ghandi, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Bob Marley, Jim Crow: not just moments in history, but moments of humanity. West looks to history not just as a tool of remembrance but asserts a much larger idea that the struggles for justice throughout human history are an innate part of who we are as human beings. It’s our duty as people living on a finite planet to reach out to our brothers and sisters throughout the world. This was the message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After all, someone cared for us, why can’t we care for them?
Grant Neely is a senior English major at Portland State University.