Cornel West, the fiery human rights advocate, enlivened an already enthusiastic audience last Saturday in a commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Cross-Cultural Center at UC Davis. He made his remarks at the Mondavi Center. Many in the late arriving audience (the address was delayed for 30 minutes) came from a gala dinner held elsewhere on the campus.
Dr. West has gained fame over the last decade or more for his impassioned advocacy of human rights, and he covered many of the foundational points of his advocacy in a speech that ran for more than an hour (and was followed by a 30-minute Q&A). He spoke without notes or any apparent prepared script, and yet delivered his thoughts with supreme articulation, even as he allowed himself to be side-tracked as one thought seemed to lead to another.
He began by speaking of the importance of his family in his development. (His mother and brother were in the audience.) He said his upbringing (he was raised in Sacramento) had been marked by calls to integrity, honesty, and virtue. He then turned to the teachings of W.E.B. Dubois, the civil rights activist who co-founded the NAACP in 1909. The core of West’s remarks were built around three of Dubois’ “questions”: How shall integrity face oppression?; What shall honesty do in the face of deception?; and What shall virtue do to meet brute force?
Dr. West placed equal emphasis on culture and history in his talk. At one point he made a comparison between the Beyoncé and Aretha Franklin to emphasize the meaning of integrity. “What are you going to be faithful to?,” he asked. “Peacocks,” he said, apparently referring to Beyoncé, “strut because they can’t fly.” He stressed the need for true activists to find their own voice, rather than being an echo. “Pay a cost,” he said. “Take a risk. Be willing to sacrifice your own popularity for what you know to be right.”
He then spoke of the injustice in the “basement below” in contrast to the “glass ceiling,” decrying in the process hedonism and narcissism. Returning to modern culture, he allowed that Hank Williams was “all right,” connecting him cross-culturally to Bruce Springsteen. But most of his cultural praise was directed to John Coltrane, the legendary saxophone player, whom he recognized as having artistic integrity that transcended personal ambition.
At one point he told the many students in the audience to follow a calling rather than seeking a career. And he exhorted them to understand that indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself. He called it a moral abomination that 22 percent of U.S. residents live in poverty, comparing that figure to the 2 percent in Finland and the 3 percent in Norway. He also decried the fact that one-tenth of one percent of all Americans own 40 percent of all of the world’s wealth.
He referred to his Christian faith several times, referring to himself as a “Revolutionary Christian and a radical democrat.” When an audience member asked him if Jesus was a Republican or a Democrat, he demurred. Claiming, in essence, that current political identities would not interest Jesus, he emphasized the example Jesus set by throwing those seeking profit (the money-changers) out of the temple as a way to condemn wickedness in high places. “Justice is what love looks like in public,” he said, again referring to Jesus’s teaching and its emphasis on love.
On education, he said that rich kids in America get taught, while poor kids get tested. He urged that no one should ever be “locked in” by their birth, pointing out that teaching history only from a European-Caucasian perspective only provides “a slice of the story.” To be honest in America today, he said, is to be “counter-cultural.”
And he stressed that the quality of the effort is the key to identifying integrity. Noting that everyone is a hybrid in one way or another (meaning, as we interpreted his point, a mix of angelic and devilish), he concluded his remarks by urging everyone to acknowledge their failures at leading a life of integrity, but to continually strive to “fail better.”
In all, Dr. West’s remarks were impassioned, his specific points were well-founded, his cultural references were clever and intriguing, and his delivery was powerful. And he certainly left his audience mesmerized, and even perhaps committed to his brand of activism.