“Justice is what love looks like in public.” “I ain’t got no brand, I got a cause.”
Just a few of the many rhetorical gems recently left by Dr. Cornel West to a rapt crowd of hundreds inside the MTSU’s James Union Building’s Tennessee Room as he dipped into his deep wells of Black wisdom to share his thoughts for the fourth “State of the African American Union” address.
The philosopher, activist and author has authored 20 books, perhaps most notably “Race Matters” and “Democracy Matters.” Middle Tennessee State University invited the Princeton University professor emeritus and former Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University to help close out its Black History Month celebration.
Master of ceremony Aaron Treadwell, an assistant professor in the Department of History, said the purpose of the event was to “talk about current events in an intellectual forum, but also in a space and language that is for everybody.” Treadwell said West emerged as the unanimous choice for this year’s speaker when he asked students in one of his upper level courses about speaker preferences more than a year ago.
“Dr. Cornel West needs no introduction,” Treadwell told the audience. “He is internationally known on the microphone. He’s known in ivory towers, and he’s known in Black beautician and barbershops. He is the pinnacle of scholarship, and he operates and functions in a way that all academics should seek. He’s a scholar for all people and his research reflects that.”
The Harvard graduate, who also earned his master’s and doctorate at Princeton, did not disappoint as he tapped his wealth of rhetorical skills for almost two hours in explaining how the foundation of his deep Christian faith challenges him to continue giving voice to the marginalized and oppressed both at home and abroad while simultaneously challenging those in attendance to question their own commitment to lending a helping hand to “the least of these.”
West was joined on stage for the Q&A-formatted lecture by a panel of student moderators that included senior biology major Tobias Gurley, president of the Black Student Union; senior biology major Paige Jackson, president of the MTSU NAACP student chapter; junior political science major Alandra McMillan from the Africana Studies program; and Shane Hinton from the 100 Collegiate Black Men at MTSU.
McMillan started the discussion by asking West about his observation in “Race Matters” about the crisis of Black leadership and the need for new leadership to emerge that originates from within the Black working class.
West said it was incumbent on today’s generations of youth and adults to build upon “the great tradition of those who came before” who sacrificed so much, and in some cases their very lives, to achieve equality and justice, not just for African Americans, but for all of those pushed to the margins of American society.
West pointed to Black historical luminaries such as W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Sojourner Truth as “waves in an ocean of a grand people. I’m talking about Black people at our best. Of course we got Black thugs and gangsters like everybody because we’re human like everybody else.”
In remarks that were part history lecture and part Baptist sermon, West noted the many contributions made by Black Americans — in the face of constant terror and discrimination — to achieve that more perfect union.
“The love, the courage, the vision in the face of all of that terror, but not terrorizing back, but calling for liberty and freedom for EH-VER-EE-BODY,” he continued. “Oh, what a people! More than spiritual greatness, hard to find in the modern world. I don’t know of too many people who have been lynched every two and a half days for 50 years and enslaved for 244 years where the average slave died at 27 years old and still produced ‘A Love Supreme’ by (legendary jazz saxophonist) John Coltrane.
“… What is it about these people that they choose not to form a Black version of the Ku Klux Klan?”
But West also expressed a righteous anger at the lack of public discourse on pressing issues such as poverty, mass incarceration, eroding school infrastructure, health care disparities, the proliferation of guns across the country and the ongoing drug addiction crisis.
“There’s a spiritual crisis,” he lamented.
West challenged the student moderators and the students in attendance to find their unique voice to make a positive difference in the world rather than being “an extension of an echo chamber” by copying the norms and values of those around them because it’s trendy or popular.
“You’ve got to find your voice, and you’ll only find your voice, just like your fingerprint, when you come to terms with your own hurts and pains and transfigure it into something grander that can empower somebody else. … Part of the problem these days is that too many of the processes in our society try to convince you all to be copies rather than originals.
“You can be highly successful being a copy. But if success means being well-adjusted to injustice; if success means being well-adapted to indifference; then you’re missing out on your greatness.”
West questioned the modern discourse surrounding “allies” within progressive circles that seems to be more about symbolism that substance. Being a true ally means “being part of the struggle” and the real sacrifices that come with it.
“I think that all students, staff and faculty at any university, including this grand institution, should be fundamentally committed to the quest for truth,” he said. “All we want is a full-fledged commitment to truth. And you cannot tell the truth of the history of the United States without wrestling with the doings and sufferings of Black people.
“The Black freedom struggle has always been the leaven in the American democratic loaf. So when Black people gained access to rights, other folk who were also vulnerable also gained access to rights too or were inspired by that movement in order to do so.”
You can watch a replay of West’s appearance at https://mtsu.edu/live.
Along with the MTSU History Department and Intercultural and Diversity Affairs, sponsors for West’s visit include the MTSU Distinguished Lecture Fund, the Africana Studies Program, Center for Historic Preservation, Albert Gore Research Center, College of Liberal Arts and the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.
— Jimmy Hart (Jimmy.Hart@mtsu.edu)