University of Vermont

University Communications

Cornel West Addresses Packed House at Ira Allen

(Photo: Sally McCay)

The word came early on Friday:  the celebrated public intellectual Cornel West, professor of African American Studies and Religion at Princeton, had braved the big snowstorm that was enveloping the Northeast and was comfortably ensconced on campus. West, who’d had to cancel an address in January due to weather during UVM’s Martin Luther King, Jr. week celebration, would deliver his lecture as planned.   

So it was the least members of the UVM community could do to trek through cold temperatures and eight inches of fresh snow to hold up their end of the bargain. Trek they did. Ira Allen Chapel was packed to the rafters by 4 p.m. Friday, with the vast majority of the audience composed of students.

When he arrived at the podium, West couldn’t help having a little weather-related fun with the audience. After a series of lengthy shout outs to half a dozen UVM’ers -- from President Dan Fogel to UVM student Simeon Marsalis and his musical family -- West declared, ”You can see I am in no hurry or rush. I don't know when I'll make it back to Burlington again, so (I’m going to ) take my time. We want to have questions and answers as long as you like, because I can't get back to Jersey until that white stuff decides to stop.”

West was true to his word, spending nearly two hours speaking and taking questions from the audience.

He began by putting Martin Luther King, Jr. in context. King shouldn’t be seen as a “an isolated icon on a pedestal to be put in some museum,” he said, but as a vital figure in a long line of courageous African Americans who were willing to ask the question, “What does it mean to be human; what kind of human being are you going to choose to be?” Answering that question means coming face to face with the existential angst of mortality, West said -- and not only with physical death. 

In the era of slavery and segregation, white America inflicted on African Americans not just physical brutality and murder, but a kind of “social and psychic death.” “They were told they were less moral, less beautiful, less intelligent,” he said.

Mustering the courage to fight back -- as King did -- is “what black history is all about.”  That courage was often expressed in song. “The anthem of the blues people … lift your voice, don’t just have an echo, lift your voice,” he said. “In that voice, (there was) tremendous freedom wresting with this particular form of death.”

West said King’s life held important lessons for the young people in the audience, whom modern culture was bent on inculcating with false values. “Young people of all colors have been told that life is fundamentally about success, life is fundamentally about material toys, status, stature, position and title,” he said.  “Martin says, ‘No, no.’ Life is about a quest for greatness. Never confuse success with greatness. And greatness has to do with the kind of person that you are.”

West made many of his most serious points with poetic wordplay -- not surprising for a scholar who has performed with hip hop bands and written popular books, as well as created a large scholarly oeuvre.

“How do we engage with the shift from the superficial to the substantial?” he asked. “That's what education connected to King's legacy is about, the shift from the frivolous to the serious. The shift from the bling‑bling to let freedom ring.”

Why are ordinary citizens so unconcerned about the growing income disparity in the United States, a trend West spent much time criticizing? “Weapons of mass distraction,” he said.  “Keep them pacified.  Keep them sleepwalking.  Keep them numb.”

West also had a few pithy words for those who glorify the U.S. Constitution, like the Republican members of the newly elected House of Representatives -- who read aloud large parts of the document in the House chamber in January -- whom he seemed to have in mind.

Since the Constitution makes no mention of slavery, “ … it was a deodorized document … a pro-slavery document for almost 275 years,” he said. “I remind my brothers and sisters when they want to deify the Constitution:  Read the whole thing. Tell the truth. Tell the truth.”

At times West seemed in despair about the state of material culture and the undermining effect it has had on King’s legacy.  “The obsession with success has led to what?” he asked. “Not just the wealth and inequality, not just the indifference to poor and working people, not just to polarizing politics of fear, the Balkanization of the body politic, but to a spiritual malnutrition. You look in the soul of sisters and brothers of all colors. Chocolate cities, vanilla suburbs, red reservations or yellow slices of our society. Emptiness of soul.”

West said he was buoyed by the mass protests in Cairo, where demonstrators scrupulously followed the strategies of a popular handbook on civil disobedience available on the Internet, which is based on the practices of the American civil rights movement.

Perhaps his most moving words were in invoking the tragedy of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1965 by white townsmen angered that the boy had spoken with a white woman.  Till was thrown into a river, where his bloated body was discovered three days later.

Till’s mother insisted on having an open casket at the memorial service, despite being advised by the authorities to keep it closed.

“She said, “No, this is my only baby … I want the world to see,’” West said. “And she stepped to a lectern and looked over at her baby, his head was five times the size of his ordinary head. She looked at the cameras and she said ‘I don't have a minute to hate.  I will pursue justice for the rest of my life.’  She said, ‘I would rather be defeated at this moment with my moral integrity than win and be like those who have murdered my baby.’ That's the best of black history. That's not just the best of American history. That's the best of the human spirit.”

West expanded on the theme of acceptance with a story about Frederick Douglass, the pioneering black American social reformer and abolitionist.

Asked if he thought blacks should subject white Americans to slavery as form of retribution, West said Douglass answered, “‘No. I want freedom for everyone.’ That’s why when you talk about the black agenda, you’re not just talking about black people, you’re talking about justice, and justice is what love looks like in public.”

Cornell West's visit to UVM was sponsored by the Office of the President, Student Life, and the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer.