Activist Cornel West To F&M: Get 'Unsettled,' Live, Love and Learn

  • Cornel West, the celebrated professor and prominent voice on issues relating to social and economic justice, race and black theology, delivered the remarks during a talk titled "The Struggle Continues," Feb. 21 as part of F&M's weekly Common Hour series and Civil Rights Week. (Photo by Tim Brixius)

Activist, author and scholar Cornel West leaned on the lectern, eyes wide, lips close to the microphone, poised to make a challenge.

"I want to say something that thoroughly unsettles you," West told the audience of 1,500 at Franklin & Marshall College Thursday. Building his voice like a drumroll, he drew on Socrates, Malcolm X and the Bible, as he proclaimed, "The unexamined life is not worth living. The examined life is painful. Examine yourself. Scrutinize yourself. Ask yourself, 'What does it mean to be a human being?'"

The celebrated professor and prominent voice on issues relating to social and economic justice, race and black theology delivered the remarks during a talk titled "The Struggle Continues," as part of F&M's weekly Common Hour series and Civil Rights Week. Chyann Starks '13, a Spanish major from Brooklyn and a member of F&M's Black Student Union, worked with faculty and staff to bring West to campus as a way to spark discussion about racial equality. Watch the Common Hour Video.

"I wanted to find a way to recognize the importance of civil rights," said Starks, who called the talk "remarkable." "His truth and honesty is going to serve our generation well."

West is the Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies Emeritus at Princeton University and professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He has authored 20 books, including "Race Matters" and "Democracy Matters," gained fame in popular culture through appearances on "The Matrix" movies and in spoken-word albums with various musical artists, and is a frequent guest on "Real Time with Bill Maher," "The Colbert Report" and CNN. He has participated in protests on issues ranging from apartheid in South Africa to the national Occupy movement confronting social and economic inequality. See Facebook Photo Gallery.

Annalisa Crannell, a professor of mathematics and chair of the Common Hour Committee, said the College was able to bring West to campus with the help of a one-time "Dream Speaker" fund.

"He was on the same stage as Martin Luther King Jr. and Leymah Gbomee, both of whom went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year after they spoke at (F&M's) Mayser Gymnasium," Crannell said. "We are glad we could continue the tradition of F&M bringing in people of this caliber."

West talked about how his own life was shaped by family, church and education, and he encouraged the audience to embrace the love that surrounds them, rather than hate, to bring about change in their own lives and in the world.

"When you begin to (break down) those kinds of perceptions and suppositions, this is when you begin to live," West said. "The black freedom struggle has never been conceived solely with black people. Don't be well-adjusted to injustice…We want freedom for everybody, but we want freedom for ourselves, too."

West offered the example of the mother of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after he was said to have flirted with a white woman. At Till's funeral, before an open casket, Till's mother spoke not of hate, but the pursuit of justice.

"She knew the difference between justice and revenge," West said, reciting the well-known passage in the Bible, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." He shared with the audience that Till's mother declared that she didn't have time to hate, because she had to dedicate her life to fighting injustice, and West encouraged those in attendance to heed her example.

His wide-ranging talk touched on the unrealized potential of the country's Blues and other musical traditions to fully inspire creativity in the pop music and hip-hop generations; the shared plight of urban, rural and impoverished peoples of every race and ethnicity; the "injustice" of women and children dying as "collateral damage" in wars; and what he described as the injustice of the divide between the top 1 percent in the country that possesses wealth equal to the bottom 150 million.

Later in his talk, West challenged the students "not to get through Franklin & Marshall, but to let Franklin & Marshall get through you."

"Get contested, unsettled, turned around," he said. "When you've emerged, you have to learn how to die. Learn how to think critically…Have you really given all you can…so when they put you in the tomb it's not just a matter of money and celebrity, but greatness? Were you able to serve with the gifts you had? Love is not a plaything, young people. Hold on to the courage to think for yourself and then hold onto your hope. And hope has nothing to do with optimism. Hope is staying in motion in the face of catastrophe."

View the Common Hour talk in its entirety. 

  • Cornel West responds to questions with Chyann Starks '13 during Common Hour at Franklin & Marshall. Starks and the Black Student Union invited West to campus for Civil Rights Week. (Photo by Tim Brixius)

West responded to questions gathered from students and posed by Starks about: gun control, which prompted West to speak of the country's history of violent conquest; the role of higher education, which led him to encourage reflection on the funding for public education; his criticism of President Barack Obama, which prompted West to encourage the audience to speak out always for their beliefs; and technology, which sparked him to joke that he himself was a "luddite," but he recognizes the powerful potential of technology to be used for good, but only if it is used responsibly.

Stephen Cooper, a professor of religious studies at F&M who studied with West 30 years ago at Union Theological Seminary where Cooper was pursuing his master's degree, said West's theme of "love, truth and justice" is theological in its root, but also embodies philosophy and scholarship.

"The title of his talk had to do with struggle, but it was very clear that this struggle is a human struggle that includes everybody," Cooper said. "Cornel West is one of the major public intellectuals in America who sees the academic vocation. He sees that it's all about drawing on great ideas of the world for the sake of life."   

After the talk, students, faculty, staff and community members gathered around West -- for hugs, encouraging words and photos.

Jessica Pignatelli '13, a government major, said West "made me think about the larger picture and the issues in the world around us that I usually don't think about."

"When he said that greatness was taking what we were given and sharing it with other people, that really struck me," she said. "We need to use all of our talents and gifts to make the world a more equal and better place."

L'Oreal Lampley '15, a creative writing major from Newark, N.J., said the talk "was really directed to our generation and the way we learn."

West's message seemed to resonate also with the older generation in the audience.

Sydney Bridgett '51, one of the first African-American students to graduate from F&M, said West "knows how to put into words what we are feeling."

"He doesn't pull any punches," Bridgett said. "He has a perfect take on what is happening and what is needed, and how we should go about dealing with the problems we face."

Danielle Weiner '13 contributed to this story.

  • Members of F&M's Black Student Union, who invited Cornel West to campus for their first Civil Rights Week, engaged the noted activist and scholar in a conversation about the College's changing demographics and multiculturalism with President Daniel R. Porterfield and a small group of faculty and administrators, before the Common Hour. (Photo by Tim Brixius)
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