Cornel West delivers ‘inspiring’ lecture

Mandy Silver
Dan Daranciang

To the elation of those who packed Graham Chapel last night to hear the prominent American scholar and public intellectual Cornel West speak, the evening ran longer than planned. Instead of the customary two-hour window for the Assembly Series lecture and reception, Dr. West stayed an extra hour to speak with individual students, many of whom described him as “inspiring.”

According to Barbara Rea, who coordinates the Assembly Series, West is unusual among Assembly Series speakers.

“You always have a few die-hard [fans] after about an hour and a half, but two hours into it, following [West] over here [to the reception].we’ve had about a hundred people over here,” said Rea.

The Princeton professor of religion, whose lecture was entitled “Democracy Matters,” emphasized the role of questioning – “the unleashing of Socratic energy” in preserving democracy. He pointed to black history as modeling the foundation of “democracy,” the tradition of thinking critically and going against the grain.

“I want to say something that unsettles you, unnerves you, maybe for a moment un-houses you. I’m talking about the ways in which you sustain a very fragile democratic experiment,” said West. “That’s a part of what Black History Month is all about.”

Sophomore Temu Bown, already a fan of West’s written works, appreciated the opportunity to see him speak.

“It is good to finally see him in person and to see what he had to say,” said Brown. “When I read what he said, I understood, but when I heard it I felt it. [His words] make everyone want to understand and want to learn more about America. America was built up from unsavory roots, and [his speech] makes people want to come to grips with history.”

West repeatedly warned the audience against becoming part of the United States’ culture of retreat and regress.

“We live in a hotel civilization,” said West. “A hotel civilization is a civilization in which people are obsessed with comfort, contentment, and convenience, where the lights are always on. [We] don’t have time for questions. We don’t have time for such interrogations.”

To escape the pull of the American culture of denial, West urged individuals to examine and question America’s “night-side” – the dark under-belly of society. He added that part of this process of enlightenment is acknowledging real death and violence and also experiencing metaphorical death.

“We must come to terms with the forms of death in the midst of the American past and present. Education itself is a learning how to die. Every time you give up an assumption. it’s a form of death so you can mature,” said West.

Making a point to avoid “cheap P.C. chit-chat,” West challenged the audience to think about what they were going to do in the “interim between the love push [birth] and the waiting grave.”

Repeating what he has told all his students at Princeton, West said that the “world-view rests on pudding – it’s discombobulated and disoriented,” and therefore needs to be examined and aggressively questioned.

He asked, “Who has the courage to attempt to shatter narrow forms of dogmatism? Parochialism?.Fundamentalism?”

Freshman Hunter Zuprick found life lessons in West’s memorable words.

“I thought [the speech] was good,” said Zuprick. “People should question more of what is going on without being complacent. People should not just accept preferential treatment and take things. I connected it with people drinking and taking drugs to be happy. The ideal of society is to be happy. They shouldn’t disconnect themselves from reality.”

KaShay Moring, a sophomore, was enlightened by the words of Dr. West.

“As an African American, I earned a deeper respect for black history,” said Moring. “I learned things that I should think about, and it helped affirm me more as an African American. It is the month to give to other people and share heritage.”

Kurt Mueller, the assistant director of major events and special projects, helped to bring West to the Assembly Series.

“The event went really well, and there was a great turnout. It was about what I expected, and I was really pleased,” he said.

For members of the Association of Black Students (ABS), West’s speech was particularly rewarding. The organization had hoped to bring him to campus last year and was pleased to co-sponsor his lecture as part of this semester’s Assembly Series.

“[The talk] was the end of a year and a half of efforts,” said Akbari, president of ABS. “The speech was phenomenal and it was everything I expected- – and more. The turnout was good, and there was great representation from Wash. U.”

When asked why he believes he has this effect upon people, West responded with modesty.

“There has to be a certain sort of Socratic commitment which includes humility, but also self-confidence.You want to be real and true to yourself,” he said.

With additional reporting by Caroline Wekselbaum, Kristin McGrath, and Elizabeth Lewis

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