Cornel West was “in no rush” as he spoke to a packed crowd in Memorial Hall Friday night about love, justice and Martin Luther King Jr.
The professor, author, spoken word poet and sometimes-movie star spent roughly two hours in front of students and community members, giving both a soulful history lesson and his take on justice in today’s society. He ended the event with more than an hour of questions from the audience.
“I want to say something that unsettles you, that unnerves you even for a moment, that un-houses you,” West said.
Brian Riefler, one of the Campus Y event organizers, said it was West’s ability to stir up dialogue that initially led the executive board to bring him to UNC. The total cost of the speech was about $23,000, said Monique Laborde, who was an organizer of the event with Campus Y.
Among many topics, West discussed King and his legacy as a way to bridge Black History Month and MLK Celebration Week.
“When you think about Martin Luther King Jr., you think about a love warrior,” he said. “Radical love – that’s what sits at the center of Brother Martin’s project.”
West said love is crucial in a culture that breeds fear – especially among black men.
“There’s a sense that to be black in America is to be on the run,” he said. “Then the question becomes, what are you running for and what you running from?”
For West, guidance on how to honor King’s legacy comes down to four main principles – honesty, integrity, decency and virtue. West said King was the walking answer to the four questions posed by civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois surrounding these four principles, which West emphasized throughout his lecture.
He recalled figures from the past often during his lecture, quoting everyone from the ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger, to the Wu-Tang Clan.
But West received the strongest reactions from the audience as he discussed his own take on the challenges facing the current generation.
“These days – young folk – not enough voices, too many echoes,” he said.
West discussed what he called the “Peacock Effect,” which leads younger generations to focus on personal gain over the common good. He said the tendency is to conform to societal expectations in the name of success.
“The question is not whether you’ll be successful, but if you’re successful, what will you be faithful to?” he said. “The worst thing that could ever happen is all the young folk here view being successful as getting on the inside and being silent.”
Because as West said, the strongest weapon against injustice is a voice.
“The crucial thing is raising your voice and telling the truth about it,” he said, “Letting the brothers know you – I – care.”
West said many of the concerns facing the country, such as racism and sexism, are more serious than many people would like to believe.
“That’s not a problem; that’s a catastrophe,” he said. “Don’t deny the catastrophe. You confront the catastrophe, and you decide to be a long-distance runner.”
Sophomore Jack Largess, who attended the event after his professor recommended the lecture, said he was particularly moved by the idea of dedicating yourself to a long fight.
“It’s something I lose sight of sometimes,” Largess said. “You want to do something now. There’s nothing wrong with learning and waiting.”
Largess said he was nervous coming into the lecture because of all the good things he had heard about West.
“He blew them all away,” he said. “He surpassed his image, which you don’t see a lot.”
Sophomore Alexandria Huber, an environmental science major, also attended the event and said she could feel through his speech that West lives by his own advice.
“I was trying to jot down notes,” she said. “But it was hard to capture it.”
West made a point during his lecture to say he does not preach — he speaks passionately.
“I’m going to still speak my mind, because that’s what I’m called to do … I’m just trying to be morally consistent; I’m trying to be constant.”
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