Cornel West challenges race, humanity in speech


Philosopher, professor, author and “radical libertarian” Cornel West engaged and challenged a nearly-packed house at Van Meter Hall Friday night.

West, a prolific author and professor emeritus at Princeton University, spoke to WKU students and the Bowling Green community, tasking them with “loving thy neighbor as thyself.”

“’What does it mean to be human?’ is the most terrifying question we ask ourselves in the black movement, and the most terrifying question any of us could ever ask,” he said.

West appeared as a part of Potter College of the Arts Cultural Enhancement Series, in addition to serving as the keynote speaker for the Black History Celebration. His lecture, entitled “Race and Democracy in the Age of Obama,” addressed continuing racial issues facing America despite the “symbolic breakthrough” of the country’s first black president.

“I told Barack when he won, I would cartwheel the night of the election,” he said of the President Obama, for whom he campaigned heavily for in the 2008 season. “But as soon as you step into that office, I’m going to become your biggest critic.”

He wove cultural icons from all backgrounds throughout his speech, referencing soulful musicians like BB King and Ella Fitzgerald, authors like Ralph Ellison and activists like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and countless others.

West’s rhythmic speaking style mirrored slam poetry, and indeed, West said he didn’t come to deliver an average message.

“I hope I say something tonight that unnerves you,” he said with a sly grin.

Unnerve the audience he did. West utilized WEB Dubois’s writing to frame his speech of black history as well as expand the issues of integrity, honesty, decency and virtue to all people. West rebuked the last three presidential administrations – Obama included – on restrictive policies and lack of action toward corporate and Wall Street corruption. He openly warned college students against becoming a culture of peacocks, and challenged them to be willing to fight for the freedoms they enjoy.

“Don’t tell us you’re successful,” West said. “What are you faithful to… Peacocks strut because they can’t fly.”

His hour-long speech was received with a standing ovation, followed by yielding another hour of questions and answers. Even after Potter College dean David Lee and Kenneth Johnson, assistant director of Student Activities, tried to end the late night and finalize the questions, guests lined the Van Meter stage looking to shake West’s hand and thank him for his time.

Junior Sydney Allen said she couldn’t get enough of West’s words.

“It was so good, I just didn’t want it to stop,” she said.

Allen appreciated West’s inclusion of his Baptist faith and said the lack of hypocrisy in his message was refreshing.

Ian Robinson, a sophomore philosophy and economics major, said West’s presentation was “probably the most powerful thing [he’d] ever seen.”

“I saw President Obama on the campaign trail in 2008, and this was even better than that,” he said.

Neither Allen nor Robinson could pinpoint exactly what stuck with them the most.

“It was all just so incredible,” Robinson said.