Public rhetoric is thousands of years old, yet even in an era of high-res video and magnificent audio, to hear a great talk in person is special. That was absolutely the case on Friday night, October 3rd, at Santa Clara University when Dr. Cornel West, public intellectual and democratic leader, spoke extemporaneously and movingly for an hour and forty minutes and received two standing ovations.
Why was it so inspiring? West was not a pulpit speaker in the style of the Reverends Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesse Jackson, but was warm, charming, and often funny. He opened his speech with a point about rhetoric: paideia, frank speech, the kind that got Socrates killed. I was reminded again that truth heals. We need desperately to talk about the emperor’s new clothes or the elephant in the room, especially when the talk is critical, but not hateful, love but “tough love,” as West said with a smile.
There, in that packed room of mostly privileged, mostly white people, who, before the talk began, had been speaking about their horses and far-flung vacations, West made a connection. That was very important too.
Many times lately when I’ve read courageous voices online, whether speaking of the Israeli attack on Palestine or real action against poverty, an apparently organized force has commandeered the comments, seemingly to intimidate writers out of speaking certain truths, and to show readers that support could make them targets too. In such an atmosphere, West was unafraid to speak frankly and deviate far from the dominant political discourse. It was encouraging and healing to encounter fearlessness without bombast. It was important to hear a man of his age talk about meeting death and assert (how radically different from the language of the neo-reformers!) that the mission of education is to teach us how to die.
He quoted W.E.B. Du Bois’ great questions, ones that all spiritual progressives need to face: “What does integrity do in the face of oppression? What does decency do in the face of insult? What does virtue do in the face of brute force?” The speech was not polemical but full of wonder and seriousness and certainly whetted my appetite for his new book, Black Prophetic Fire which looks at the contributions of W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida Wells, and other black leaders who concerned themselves with the poorest and least powerful.
Here are some statements and quotations that remained with me:
Pleasure is different from joy. The first is an internal, limited experience, the second an embracing connection. Celebrity culture promotes the former.
“Justice is what love looks like in public.”
When the black prophetic tradition is weak and feeble, the progressive tradition is weak and feeble too.
The neoliberal mission: to financialize, privatize, and militarize.
While imprisoned before his execution, Thomas More wondered why Socrates never cried and Jesus never laughed.
At the time of Martin Luther King’s death, 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks did not approve of him.
Many deaths surround us today including the psychic death of self-rejection – a huge component of our culture – and the spiritual death of despair.
To deny people the right to bury their dead is a fundamental wrong.
Funerals are often sites for commitment, for action, even a kind of resurrection if we can keep rage from turning into revenge. He quoted Emmett Till’s mother at her son’s terrible funeral saying she had no time for hatred but would fight for justice for the rest of her life.
A revolt of six thousand slaves arose from the funeral of a black baby.
He commented sadly on middle class black churches with no prison ministry but an overflowing building fund, of black Congresspeople who align with the middle class, of a President who kept on people like Timothy Geithner, But West never seemed to set himself up as an icon. It was good to hear that one of our most famous black intellectuals gives some of his time to teach a class in prison.
As I left the building with my friend, we both felt we’d been in the presence of one who walks the walk, and I thought about the contagious power of truth, spreading courage through example, and hoped it would stay with me.