Prof. Cornell West challenges audience to walk its talk

By Chris O’Connell, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday November 17, 2001

After making his way through a packed and sweltering Pauley Ballroom Thursday night to give the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture, Dr. Cornell West was concerned that police might shut the event down because it was too crowded. 

“We want the police to know there’s a sweet spirit in this place. They don’t need to worry about nothing.” 

Although the crowd of more than 1,500 people spilled out of the hall and filled the aisles with people eager to see him speak, there was indeed no need to worry: West held the audience enthralled for more than one and half hours. 

The annual lecture is to honor Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the late ‘60s.  

Currently a professor of both Divinity and African-American Studies at Harvard University, West is also the author of 13 books, the most popular and controversial of which, like “Race Matters,” deal with race relations in America.  

The lively crowd was particularly anxious to see West after sitting through a movie honoring Savio’s legacy, and a ceremony at which Jim Keady won the Young Activist Award for his work towards ending sweatshop labor in developing countries. 

After thanking a long list of friends and supporters in the audience, including his mother and several siblings, West then tore into his lecture: “Progressive Politics in These Times: From Vision to Action.” 

He started with a challenge. “I hope and I pray that I say something that thoroughly unsettles you. You can’t talk about being a progressive without being unsettled.” 

Then he got down to unsettling. 

Wearing a black suit with a black tie and gold cufflinks slipping out from under his suit coat as he constantly pointed and gestured for emphasis, West’s delivery borrowed from his Baptist roots. Speaking without notes, and almost without breathing it seemed, his delivery was one part politics, one part philosophy, and all parts electric, secular fire and brimstone.  

It was a call and response between West and the crowd, with people nodding and moaning in affirmation of his pronouncements. The speech was both a scathing indictment of the progressive movement in America for being all talk no walk, and a call to arms for those who count themselves among its number. 

He quoted Socrates’ maxim, “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and then countered it with Malcolm X’s, “an examined life is painful.” Then, he said, that before the left does anything else, it has to confront legacy of racism. 

“The dogma of American civilization begins with white supremacy. We need to question it on every level,” he shouted to cheers of the audience.  

Until that core problem is dealt with, West said all attempts to deal with other societal problems like poverty, sexism and homophobia are fraught with a falsity that can’t be ignored.  

He also told an anecdote of his experience in New York City on September 11. 

“I looked out my (hotel) window and saw a plane crash into the World trade Center. I said to myself, ‘I’m not on crack. What’s goin’ on?’”  

The crowd burst into laughter. 

“You all laugh, but I wasn’t laughing,” he said, citing the frantic search for shelter many went through in the moments after the attack that found strangers in close quarters all over the city.  

“You get three or four folk don’t know each other in a room – that happens in America and you know you got a problem.” 

September 11, West said, has brought about a national mood that is a chance for the progressive movement in America to win over new believers and bring back many who have left the fray over the years because of petty disputes. 

“We are at a moment where the American people are open to something beyond their egos.” West also said he took offense at the media’s casting of the day as a loss of innocence. 

“America’s never been innocent,” he said. If anything, the day was, “the end of American adolescence.” That comment received the largest applause of the evening. 

While some points garnered more enthusiasm from the crowd than others, almost no one left the speech without being moved. 

Lynne Hollander-Savio, wife of Mario Savio and a member of the organization that sponsored the event, said the speech was “beyond expectation,” though the huge turn out was a bit stressful.  

“I only wish we could have accommodated all the people.” 

Decarlo Wilson, a senior in Ethnic Studies said the speech reinforced his idea that West is an “intellectual leader of the new century.” 

Michael Rossman of Berkeley, and a member of the leadership of the free-speech movement with Savio in the 60’s, said he wasn’t particularly taken by West’s style. 

“I was more excited by the people here than by the speech itself,” he said. 

The president-elect of the American Library Association, Dr. Mitch Friedman, said he flew in from New York for the event and that he was impressed by West’s message. 

“The absolute integrity of his position is an idea we all can aspire to.” 

A veteran of the civil rights movement, Sandra Wilson said she was excited to see West at such a critical time, she also said he succeeded in unsettling her. 

“I think his speeches are always just in time.” 

He always, “leaves us uncomfortable,” she said, “That’s his job, he’s a philosopher.” 

West ended the evening on an upbeat note, encouraging people to “throw down for something bigger than you.” 

For his part, he said he was going to go out in style, “like Muhammad Ali, swinging strong and still with a smile on my face.” 

Instead of going out swinging, he was signing. After the speech dozens of fans crowded the stage to talk with him, get his autograph, and have a picture taken. He stayed for more than forty minutes, still there as the chairs were being folded up in the almost empty hall.