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Activist Cornel West meets students, gives lecture

By Katie McDonagh
On April 16, 2013


Only a few empty seats remained in Weill Hall prior to social justice activist Cornel West's lecture last Thursday night. Fitting for a sold out show, excitement and anticipation were clearly visible as students, faculty, community members and others - including a man who drove all the way from Southern California just to hear him - waited for one of the most high-profile philosophers to take center stage.

"I'm going to tell you a little bit about him," said Dean of Social Sciences Elaine Leeder as she introduced West. "But he will speak for himself because he is more than brilliant. He's charismatic, he's intelligent, he's attractive," she added as the audience laughed.

Leeder, who serves on the Social Justice Lecture Series committee with founders H. Andrea Neves and Barton Evans, said she got to choose West as this year's lecturer because she will be retiring at the end of the semester. She introduced West by talking about his accomplished career.

An active member of the Black Baptist Church, West is known for his progressive, honest and sometimes provocative ideologies about race in America. His inspiration is derived from different philosophers, jazz music and his own experiences. He has written 19 books, works with musical artists such as Lupe Fiasco, Andre 3000 and Prince, and appears somewhat regularly on shows such as The Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher.

But Leeder was right - West's smile, familiarity and enticing nature did all the speaking as he finally entered the stage amidst roaring applause and a standing ovation.

"What can I say about my dear, dear sister Leeder," said West after hugging her. "Elaine Leeder, I love you, I love you, I love you." He personally thanked many attendees, including "captain of the ship" President Ruben Arminaña, Provost Andrew Rogerson, HUB director Andre Bailey, and guest of honor and Black Scholars United President Justin Bell ("He's still young and got a 'fro far better than mine!").

Prior to the lecture, these guests joined West for a pre-show dinner backstage.

"It was surreal to meet him," said Bell. "Before I met him I asked people, 'What is he like?' And everyone said he's the most down-to-earth, lovable guy."

Though Bell was anxious to meet him, West greeted Bell with a handshake and immediately began discussing his philosophy, work with BSU and graphic design.

"I did not expect a shout out during the lecture," said Bell, "but that is just evidence of how much of a personal connection that man has with people. We talked less than 10 minutes, and for him to acknowledge me like that was awesome."

Gallino, who met West at a faculty strike at CSU Hayward in 2011, said he considers West to be a hero of his and has been following him since his freshman year.

"I was telling [West] at the dinner that I really enjoyed hearing him on the Tavis Smiley show discussing courage, in this one particular episode," said Gallino. He repeated some quotes from the episode to West, such as: "Courage is the great  enabling virtue that allows one to realize other virtues like love, and hope, and faith," and "The opposite of courage is not simply cowardice, but it's even worse than that, it is indifference. And indifference to evil is more invidious than evil itself precisely because indifference to evil is contagious."

"I repeated these quotes to him because they are meaningful to me, and are the reason I am able to speak  up in some of my meetings regarding AS student government issues," said Gallino. "He said in response something like, 'Well, you're making me sound pretty smart . . .' I responded with something like, 'Hell, you're making me sound really smart when I repeat all these quotes to my friends!'"

West shared more words of wisdom in his GMC lecture about love, togetherness and action, with his words regularly complemented by agreeing mutters from the audience.

He challenged young students in the audience to live the examined life - to confront, interrogate and scrutinize oneself to discover what it means to be human. West consistently referred to the Greek idea of "paideia," an embodied and moral approach to education that encompasses liberal arts, science and views and theories about society.

"That's what goes on at Sonoma State, is that right?" said West. "That deep education, not that cheap schooling. Willingness to be challenged, and willing to be unsettled . . . if only for a moment, to be shaken. Existential dizziness, intellectual vertigo - that's paideia."

 Human suffering within one's life, West said, is merely paideia working on its deepest level to broaden one's critical thinking and awareness of the suffering of others. A true fight for social justice by a person is evident not by the things he says, said West, but by a certain type of life he leads - which begins with Socratic thinking. 

Throughout the night, West highlighted love as one of the most effective and important ways one can abandon injustice and ethnic stereotypes. White supremacy still pulses through America's veins, West said, despite those who believe racism is over because the President of the United States is black. Recurring racism, disregard and alienation of minorities are evidenced by the overwhelming amount of poverty, incarcerations and prejudices in one of the richest nations in the world.

"Five million young people [have been] stopped and frisked by the New York Police Department since 2002," said West. "Eighty-seven percent are black and brown, but only three percent are tied to criminal activity. And yet, where is the moral outcry?"

West admonished the country's disinvestment of education in poverty, citing Chicago's notoriously lacking public school system.

"It's a crime against humanity," said West. "What will people say about us 50 years from now, given that kind of spiritual and cultural marginalization? . . . Rich kids get educated, poor kids get tested to prove they've been educated. That's not education, that's narrow training. I'm talking about paideia, the deepest level."

Developing one's consciousness, West said, is the best way to improve not only one's community, but also one's self. He urged his listeners to denounce narcissism, hedonism and the superficial culture of material goods so often celebrated in America.

"There can be no serious talk about social justice and all these various things," said West, "without centrality and memory, without regard for something bigger than you, and without resistance. Learning how to shatter conformity. Learning how to shatter complacency. Learning how to shatter complicity."

West's lecture concluded with a lengthy question and answer session. One student brought up recent discriminatory events that have occurred on campus - namely, the poster that was vandalized with a racial slur at a BSU event; and, more recently, an LGBT poster that was intentionally torn down in a hallway. Her question was how to handle these "acts of intolerance" knowing what they really are: hate crimes.

"You want more than just tolerance, you want respect," West said deeply and slowly. "It takes courage to respect those who have been cast by others as 'different.'

"But keep in mind that different people wake up at different times. We've had people who were in the Klu Klux Klan and ended up fighting in the Black Freedom Movement. People do change . . . What you don't want to do is go into a panic. This is a poster. This is one piece of paper. And you got a whole school full of people of all colors who are going to come together. They're not gonna leave the gay brothers and sisters to fend for themselves, the straights are gonna be there supporting them."

West left the stage with an uproarious standing ovation, leaving the audience with a mutual sense of inspiration and challenged perspectives as they left the Green Music Center.

After the lecture, West's special guests reflected on their experiences with him. 

"I think it is so important to have Dr. West come to SSU," said Gallino, "particularly in the face of the recent biased incidents we've had. I think it's important for our under-represented students at SSU have an iconic hero such as Dr. West come speak at our school . . . his additions to the co-curricular experience at SSU is invaluable, in my opinion."

Gallino said he would like to thank Leeder, Neves and Director of AS Erik Dickson.

"I am blessed and honored to witness such a great human being such as Dr. West," said Bell. "I would like to thank anyone and everyone who contributed to that experience."

Leeder said in an email interview that West's lecture was a highpoint in her career. She had required her students to attend the event, and said that many of them told her after the show that they deeply understood his message.

"Everyone on campus should have heard his speech," said Leeder. "He is inspirational and gives students direction for his concern. He says that all of us can make a difference in the world, and his message of inclusiveness is one we all need to use daily."

"Dr. West is a light in the darkness, and we were all incredibly blessed to have spent some time in his company," said Leeder. "We can become better people if we just take one of his thoughts and implement it."

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