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Speaker discusses black history

Feb. 13, 2001



'What does it mean to be human?' asked philosopher and Harvard professor Dr. Cornel West. 'Who are we, really?'

An audience of about 300 celebrated the 14th-annual Black Heritage Week banquet Friday. West entered to a standing ovation and gave a speech based on this year's theme, 'A Celebration of Excellence.'

West described Black Heritage Week as a small part of a great tradition of a struggle for dignity, excellence and equality.

'We've got some young folks who are trying to situate themselves in a story greater than them,' he said.

West discussed the history of blacks from slavery to the era of Jim Crow laws, describing many generations' fight for dignity. His voice rose and fell as he described problems regarding today's youth and the problems their forefathers faced.

Older and younger members of the audience echoed 'Amen,' 'That's right' and 'That's the truth' after many of West's statements. He asked young people to fight for their place in a tradition.

'We need a renaissance of self-respect among the younger generation because the biggest problem is that there is too little self-respect,' West said.

West encouraged critical thinking and self-reflection, citing Socrates and Jesus as examples of those who looked inside themselves and questioned every aspect of life. Each asked the important question: 'What does it mean to be human?'

The most important difference between the two, West noted, was that according to disciples' records, Socrates never shed a tear, while Jesus wept. According to West, this showed that Jesus had enough love and attachment, not only to the world but also to a greater being, to cry.

'Heart is heritage. Love means much for an unloved people,' West said.

West reminded the audience that America does not call for pure equality so much as the equal dignity and opportunity to pursue excellence.

'The Christian gospel is not about pity,' he said. 'It's about compassion.'

West talked about the importance of love and compassion as well as the importance of giving and serving. He asked everyone to remember the hard work of their forefathers, and to listen to the voices of those long gone.

'What kinds of persons are we really?' West asked. He said he believes America has spent centuries trying to answer that haunting question.

West said that the United States suffers from 'immature romanticism,' a belief that people are born innocent. He warned the audience that innocence disappears as soon as children learn to choose.

'We are blind to [America's] dark side,' West said.

'You don't grow up in a civilization of white supremacy without having some in you,' West said. 'There will always be extraordinary ones of every color who will succeed. The fight is for the ordinary.'

West also noted that America's 'fight against the grain' that has elevated the United States to such heights looks ironic in comparison to its fight for universal dignity. He quoted Malcolm X by saying, 'Progress is not stabbing someone 9 inches in the back and pulling out 6 inches. Pull it all the way out.'

He warned the audience to be wary of not only the outside world but also the discrimination within themselves.

West encouraged each person to practice critical self-examination and to think about his two questions.

Students responded enthusiastically to West's speech.

'He's a captivating speaker,' said Ava Clay, a Chesterfield, Mo., sophomore. 'He didn't offend anyone, and he brought up issues that affected all people, not just blacks and whites.'

'It was very inspirational,' said Charlotte Johnson, a Marrero, La., freshman.

'It has really touched my heart.'

West closed his speech by asking Baylor students to make the best of their education.

'[Baylor] has something to contribute, you have something to contribute. Take it to a higher level.'