At the inaugural President’s Forum lecture of the 2009 academic year, Dr. Cornel West began on “a Socratic note.”
“Everywhere I go I try to say something that unnerves people,” he told the audience that filled the Smith Opera House to capacity, because, as Socrates said, “an unexamined life is not worth living.”
Throughout the speech, the controversial author, civil rights activist and the Class of 1943 Professor at Princeton University urged students, faculty, staff and members of the Geneva community to have the “courage to think for yourself” through “deep forms of education.”
“Giving up certain assumptions, reexamining dogmas you brought from home–it’s a form of death to live more abundantly, more deeply. Courage is the enabling virtue,” said West, who will be followed in the President’s Forum Series by former lieutenant governor of Maryland Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on Thursday, Nov. 12, and political consultant, commentator and former advisor to President Bill Clinton, Paul Begala, on Wednesday, Dec. 2.
West had the crowd captivated with an animated, associative and highly alliterative oration that combined topics as diverse as Jim Crow laws, William Butler Yeats, 9/11, jazz, Abraham Lincoln and Hannah Montana.
But keeping it all in the context of self-examination and justice, West returned to the same fundamental issues: “the courage to think critically, the commitment to love and service to others.” After all, he said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
He advised that in this “celebrity centered, success obsessed” culture, “There are too many copies, not enough originals. As long as we’re human beings, we’re going to fall short,” West conceded. “But fail, try again and fail better. Fall down, try again. Do your best to be the best Socratic-prophetic-tragicomic ‘you’ you can be.”
After the lecture, West responded to questions on topics ranging from segregation to a Hobart student’s inquiry about the pros and cons of cultural and societal labels.
When a Geneva man recalled his lifelong encounters with racism and ardently shared his pacifistic rejection of it, West applauded him and said it would be fitting “to end on a note of passionate resistance to injustice.”
Hannah Sprague ’10, an Africana studies major also minoring in child advocacy and anthropology, said: “I found Dr. West’s speech to be extremely inspiring. What I focus on at HWS encompasses a lot of what Dr. West talked about in terms of race relations and social justice. I feel that I’ll be able to apply his message to whatever I do in the future.”
West first gained widespread attention with the 1993 publication of his bestselling book, “Race Matters,” an analysis of racism in American democracy. He earned two bachelor’s degrees from Harvard in three years, magna cum laude. After receiving his Ph.D. at Princeton, he became a professor of religion and director of the Afro-American Studies program there. West has also taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris.
He is the author of many groundbreaking books, including “Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin” and his recent publications “Democracy Matters,” an analysis of the arrested development of democracy in America and the Middle East, and “Restoring Hope,” a compilation of interviews with African-American luminaries discussing hope and despair in Black America.
West has also produced three albums, including “Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations,” a collection of socially conscience music featuring collaborations with Prince, Outkast, Jill Scott, Talib Kweli and KRS-ONE. He was an influential force in developing the storyline for the popular “Matrix” movie trilogy and has served as its official spokesperson, as well as playing a recurring role in the final two films.
In 2000, during his tenure as professor of religion and African-American studies at Harvard University, West visited HWS for the “Genocide in the 20th Century” lecture series, delivering a talk titled “Restoring Hope: Beyond Humanity’s Dark Side.”
The President’s Forum Series, established in the winter of 2000 by President Mark D. Gearan, is designed to bring a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty, staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members.