Harvard Professor Addresses Black Heritage Banquet

March 9, 2001

by Erika Williams, student newswriter

A new dimension of philosophical thought was brought to Baylor University when Harvard professor Cornel West visited the campus in February to speak at the 14th Annual Black Heritage Banquet sponsored by the Association of Black Students (ABS).

An awed audience listened as the writer, activist and renowned intellectual addressed the plight of black youth in today's society, the sacrifices made by previous generations who endured the indignity of slavery and the lack of rights and respect, and the kinds of qualities Baylor undergraduates should find in their lives that will affect their university, their families, their communities and their religious traditions.

"When I come here, on the 14th anniversary of the Black Heritage week, I say to myself, 'We've got some young folk who are trying to situate themselves in a story bigger than them. [They are trying] to locate themselves in a narrative grander than them, to be part of this tradition of struggle in always acknowledging tradition is not something you inherit,'" West said. "You don't gain access to it by means of osmosis. If you want it you got to fight for it. You've got to engage in combat for it."

With this idea in mind, West posed to the audience what he believes to be the fundamental question facing young people today ¡ do they have the vision, courage, sacrifice and critical thinking skills that elder generations had in the face of their trials and circumstances.

Voices from the Past

"You can't talk about the black heritage without bringing back the voices of those who came before, foremothers and forefathers, who enact so much of the best of critical thinking about themselves and America," said West. "Without critical reflection, 'Lord, how come me here?' You might not agree with the grammar but wrestle with the question.

"How come me here? How come I was brought here on one of the 52,400 voyages from Africa to the New Worldèbeginning in 1619? How come me here? How do I make sense of this? How do I deal with these forces coming at me, teaching me to hate myself and trying to convince me that I have the wrong hips, and lips, and noses, and hair texture and skin pigmentation? How come me here, Lord? How am I going to make it? How can I do it after 244 years of slavery when I'm sold like a commodity at the slave auction? How come me here, Lord?'"

But even in the midst of trials, deceit and deception, the voices of those that were traded, and shuffled and bought and sold on the slave trade, are still heard today, West said.

"The echoes of those voices [are still heard], voices that were first fused on the slave ships. Africans from various parts of the continent, not speaking the same language, all they could do was moan together. All they could do was groan together. All they could do was shed silent tears together. Wrestled in the wary lament but never allowed misery to have the last word."

However, West pointed out what he called a "great paradox."

"How [could] people of African descent could go through all of this dehumanization, oppression, degradation [by Americans] and still want to make America better? That's a deep question."

Self¡respect and Younger Generations

Self¡respect is another topic that West stressed as fundamental in recognizing black heritage.

"Look back at the history of black neighborhoods, black churches, black families ¡ how do you fuse them in such a way that you can transmit and bequeath to the younger generations self respect?" West asked.

He also stressed the difference between material possessions and self respect.

"You can have self¡respect and have material possessions and you can have material possessions and still not respect yourself. You can lack material possessions and have self¡respect or you can lack material possessions and have no self¡respect. Part of the problem for younger generations today is we need a renaissance of self¡respect upon young folk because the level of self¡disrespect, of self¡violation, of self¡destruction is raging."

Further illustrating the idea of struggle and responsibility dealing with self, West described some threats blacks have had to deal with and the maturity that comes in dealing with them.

"The black folk have had to deal with the threat of slavery, which is social death. No legal status. Marriages have no status and have had to deal with no social standing. No public status, only a commodity, like property. The threat of social death. Slavery. Jim Crow, civic death. The Supreme Court made it very clear, black people have no rights and white folk need respect. You're civically dead. You can't vote. You can't be part of the jury. Part of the history of black heritage are on intimate terms with death. Spiritual death. Self¡hatred. Self¡loathing. Self¡doubting. Psychic death. And yet somehow, foremothers and forefathers were able to forge a tradition of struggle in the face of death. That cuts against the grain. But that's a sign of maturity for any human being in any of their individual, social and political situations. You can't run. You have to face it."

The question is, said West, is how you gain the strength, the vision and the endurance to face continuing struggles.

"We've made significant progress, we must not downplay the breakthrough. The very presence of this wonderful group of all colors, all cultures is significant progress. And the older folk know what I'm talking about even more so than I do. But Malcolm X said that you don't stab a man in the back nine inches and pull it out six inches and talk about the progress that you're making."

Lift Every Voice

West said the use of arbitrary power ¡ that each person find his voice ¡ is important in the continuing struggle for equality.

"What does it mean to be human on the one hand and what does it mean to take seriously democratic sensibilities, ideals and practices? Black folk have been obsessed with this question," he said. "The only way that you can tell arbitrary power is to make sure that everybody has a say in the decision¡making processes in those institutions that guide and regulate their lives. That's the democratic ideal.

"The Negro National Anthem is 'Lift every voice.' The sign of democracy is hearing all the voices. Every voice must be heard. Very few people would choose to be poor. Very few people would choose to have no health care insurance. Very few people would choose to have a job that does not produce a living wage."

West further illustrated his point by referencing jazz, the "great art form of the 20th century of black people," he said, which is fundamentally about everybody finding their voice.

"It's got to be your voice. Coltrane, don't imitate Johnny Hodges. Find your voice. Young gospel sister, don't imitate Aretha Franklin. Find your voice, because in the choir, or in the quartet, or in the orchestra, if you haven't found your voice then you are not contributing to the high quality of the collective performance. And the only way to find your own voice is to dig deep into the depths of your own soul because everybody is distinctive, and different, and unique and irreproducible."

The American Dream

The American dream was one of the last topics touched on by West. He described one of the hindrances of his position as a well¡known intellectual and what he feels should be pivotal in the search of the true American dream.

"I don't know about you but I looked at my first grade picture. Fourteen black brothers and 13 black sisters, and I'm the only living black male in that picture. People run up to me and say, 'Cornel, you're on television, you embody the American dream.' I say don't give me such a tainted, impoverished conception of the American dream. Because my friends and my partnersèwon't come back, in part because [they were] overwhelmed by too many adverse circumstances," he said.

"There will always be extraordinary individuals of all colors who can succeed.

That's not the point. The point is to ensure that those who are ordinate, those who are everyday, with lives with the same value as anybody else, can live life with decency and dignity. We're not talking about absolute equality ever. But we're talking about being able to live life with decency and dignity in light of the inescapable hierarchy, given the different capacities and talents that people have. That's the tradition of black heritage that fuses with the best tradition of brothers and sisters of all colors and all cultures and all heritages."

In closing, West told Baylor undergraduates the qualities they should find in their lives and marks that should be left behind.

"I want to salute the students here at Baylor University who are part of a rich tradition. And as you matriculate, you want to want to leave this place a little different and better than when you entered. But also as you leave you ought to be a little different and better. You want to shape this place in the best of your image just as you will be shaped in part by the best of its image. It has something to contribute. You have something to contribute. Take it to a higher level. Pound it in your own family, community, religious traditions."

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1953, West attended public school in Sacramento and graduated magna cum laude in only three years from Harvard University. He then went on to Princeton University where he received his master's and doctorate degrees. He returned to Princeton in 1987 as professor of religion and director of the Afro¡American studies department. After helping build that department, West moved to Harvard where he now serves as professor of Afro¡American studies and philosophy of religion.

Recently promoted to university professor, a title held by only 14 of Harvard's 2,200 faculty members, he is one of the first black scholars to be appointed to the university's highest faculty post.

West has written numerous articles and fifteen books, including The American Evasion of Philosophy, Jews and Blacks, The Future of the Race and Restoring Hope. His book, Race Matters, quickly achieved best¡seller status in both editions and gained the attention of TIME magazine and Newsweek, which led both publications to run extensive profile articles on him.

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