Cornel West Speaks on Integrity to Millennials

  • 11/11/2016
  • Reporters Desk

By Melina Paris, Contributing Writer

Anyone who has heard of Cornel West understands that he is a powerful orator. The prominent democratic intellectual and Princeton doctoral graduate in philosophy brought his brand of verbal might, Oct. 21, to Long Beach City College as part of its Student Equity Speaker Series.

West’s 2014 book, Black Prophetic Fire was at the core of his lecture. In it, he dialogues with scholar Christa Buschendorf about Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X and Ida B. Wells.

West opened by letting the audience in on his foundation.

“The reason I’m here now, able to do this work is because someone looked after me and cared for me,” West said. “I was already spiritually fortified to get the tools necessary to be a force of love.”

West describes the philosophy and meaning of his book’s title:

“The Black prophetic tradition is fundamentally committed to the priority of poor and working people, thus pitting it against the neoliberal regime, capitalist system, and imperial policies of the U.S. government. The Black prophetic tradition has never been confined to the interests and situations of Black people. It is rooted in principles and visions that embrace these interests and confront the situations, but its message is for the country and world. The Black prophetic tradition has been the leaven in the American democratic loaf.”

West states when this tradition is strong, all poor and working people benefit. When it’s weak, those same people are overlooked. On a global level, when the tradition is vital, the plight of the wretched is elevated.

West’s motivation is to resurrect black prophetic fire, especially among millennials. To become a leader you must have integrity and lift others up as you climb.

A huge part of that “fire” comes from the oral tradition of music which is integral to West. He regularly invoked songs and artists, both past and present in his discussion. From Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and Wu Tang Clan as sonic inspiration.

He focused on four questions raised by W.E.B. Du Bois which he said are about education and the distinction between education and schooling.

“The two are not the same in this American culture of weapons of mass distraction,” West added

Schooling is about enforcing an idea of smartness, the pursuit of money and materialism. Wisdom is gained through an education enforced by integrity.

Du Bois’ Questions

These questions examine how one reacts when faced with dire circumstances. As if grasping that torch from Du Bois and handing it to millennials, West explained the better choices these leaders in his book acted upon when faced with such circumstances. He illustrated how people have the same choices and the necessity of a leader to have both wisdom and integrity.

How Shall Integrity Face Oppression?

What Does Honesty Do in the Face of Deception?

What Does Decency Do in the Face of Insult?

How Does Virtue Meet Brute Force?

In today’s political and sociological climate, people of color and the poor deal with oppression, deception, insult and brute force almost daily. So as these conditions are well understood, the answers West described lie in an intimate understanding of these leaders actions and of ourselves.

“Each student has to decide, what is your calling, not your job?” West said. “(We have to) creatively and critically examine the self for a new self to emerge. There is no rebirth with[out] learning how to die and (then) to live well. This is something American culture won’t learn.”

The contrast between the black prophetic tradition of lifting others as you climb and the fact that the most vulnerable are targets of those in power means that moral consistency is absent and the law is tilted.

“Where do you find courage to tell the truth?” West asked. “Where do you find courage and willingness to bear witness to injustice?”

One opening lies within the movements that have sprung up in recent years.

“Silence in the face of evil is the face of evil,” West said. “But now young people have experienced a spiritual awakening in the form of Black Lives Matter, whistleblowers and the occupy movement.”

“We used to see it in our music but that’s a whole separate lecture. Aretha Franklin can walk on stage and her voice immediately touches your soul. These musicians set us up to be better people. There is a service through performance, you offer an alternative reality and empower folks. This is what we must not lose.”

From his book, West put forward his own questions concluding thoughts on this tradition

“What does it profit a people for a symbolic figure to gain presidential power if we turn our backs from the suffering of poor and working people, and thereby lose our souls?” he asked, rhetorically. “The Black prophetic tradition has tried to redeem the soul of our fragile democratic experiment. Is it redeemable?”

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