An hour well-spent with Cornel West

Monday, February 5, 2007

When a speech is scheduled to take place in Salomon 101, students know a famous person is speaking. Typically, the famous person is either receiving an award or getting paid thousands of dollars to impart words of wisdom to those students with the time to save seats. Like most famous people, the honored guest is accustomed to giving speeches and will most likely regurgitate his or her standard spiel, whether it’s a bad case of verbal diarrhea or two hours of unapologetic self-absorption.

But Cornel West’s appearance on Friday was different.

West’s poetic words and striking gestures likely feature in every speech he gives, and Friday’s Martin Luther King Jr. lecture was clearly not the first time West had discussed King’s legacy. Yet West’s words didn’t simply impart an academic perspective and the wisdom of a so-called public intellectual, they resonated with the audience in a moving and distinctive way.

As a college professor, West is accustomed to addressing large groups of 18 to 22 year olds. But when he bowed to a freshman Friday – thanking the student and his peers for injecting fresh questions into universities – West showed he wasn’t behind a podium to wow the audience. Rather, he was in Salomon 101 to connect with the students, encouraging them to engage in relentless self-examination and emulate the personal dignity and public service of leaders like King. And by directly confronting issues that are easily ignored, West demonstrated that tough questions about race require dialogue, not simply institutional reports.

Lectures from those outside the Brown bubble play a special role in expanding our thinking and infusing us with passion – about leadership, social justice, activism, equality. Though there is still value in hearing luminaries speak about their own work, the speakers who really get to us are those who remind us that we have decades ahead of us to make a mark in the world. Whether they remind us why we are so lucky or why our society is so flawed, they challenge us to think about how we will use the talents that got us here and the education we’re receiving.

So, thank you, Professor West.