ST. PETERSBURG — Nationally recognized intellectual and activist Dr. Cornel West was in town last week for the 2016 Heritage Lecture Series sponsored by Pastor Clarence William from Greater Mt. Zion AME Church and Cross & Anvil Human Services.
St. Petersburg College Allstate Center was packed with people coming to hear the Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees and the author of several books including the best-selling “Race Matters” and “Democracy Matters.”
“What a blessing it is to be back in St. Petersburg. I’m glad to be back!” said West, who spoke last year as part of the 2015 Heritage Series at the Greater Mt. Zion AME Church.
“How do we pass on the great tradition that we received to our priceless young people who are catching hell these days,” West asked as way of explanation of what this year’s gathering is fundamentally about.
A crucial thing, he said, is it has to do with love of the truth and the condition of truth is to always allow suffering to speak, and there is no truth until all the voices are heard.
He lamented that we find ourselves living in an age of cupidity, where people are overly concerned about attracting money. “Curtis Mayfield would sound like Pat Boone if he was only concerned about money!” he said.
Young folks, he said addressing the youth in the audience, we want you to learn how to be free in order to be part of the “grand tradition,” which is the black freedom struggle. He went on to say that we are living in the age of Ferguson, where young black people have reached the conclusion that they’re sick and tired of being profiled and sick and tired of being abused.
He paraphrased Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he urged young African Americans to “straighten their backs up” because other folks can’t ride their backs unless they’re bent.
How do we get our young people to “straighten their backs up,” he asked rhetorically, and stand and think critically about themselves, community and the world and open their souls up in such a way that they allow love and compassion and empathy to flow so that they will have some hope and they can find something relevant to do rather than be caught in a culture that dishes out massive of “weapons of distraction?”
He blames this culture with keeping young people and their bodies so “stimulated and titillated” that their minds do not get a chance to be cultivated.
We can tell our young people, he said, that they have the capacity to cultivate a love of truth, a love of beauty, a love of justice, a love of neighbor. You don’t love what your enemies are doing? Just love your enemies, as they might change their minds and they can become allies further on “down the road.”
Today’s families are weak, the communities are shattered, the drugs and guns have come in, he said, and in the school systems too many young people have very little access to what cultivates critical intelligence.
“Schools themselves have been militarized,” he said. “That’s what neo-liberal ideology in our capitalist age is all about. You financialize, you privatize and you militarize. That’s what they try to do to public institutions like public schools.”
He bemoaned the elimination of arts programs in schools, adding that there will never be a black freedom movement that doesn’t put music at its center, for that has been a fundamental way in which African Americans have preserved their dignity. He cited the “Delfonics,” the “Temptations” and the “Miracles” as important musical groups in his life.
He also complained about the lack of such bands for young people today to grow up with. He called the legendary Lou Rawls a “soul-stirrer,” and wondered where the today’s soul-stirrers are for the younger generation.
“I’m not saying it’s not there,” he averred, “I’m saying it’s getting weaker.”
He renounced the “powers that be” that want it that way, as the recording industry, the radio industry, the film industry, the live performance industry, is run by “big money” and the same oligarchs.
“You notice a song has a story and narrative that touch you at a deeper level,” he said, “that connected your mind and your heart and your soul, it wasn’t just stimulation of body. The difference between Beyoncé and Aretha.”
He pointed out that young people today find themselves in a paradoxical situation, as on the one hand they face physical death, psychic death, civic death and spiritual death every day of their lives, and yet on the other hand they also find it difficult to be able to stand up, come together, organize, mobilize and sustain a movement for freedom in the age of Ferguson.
It’s a challenge for those of the “old school”—everyone over 35—to show the love for young people and let them know that they come from a tradition with the highest standards of excellence when it comes to achievements such as scholarships, reading, writing and other forms of accomplishments that help and serve those “catching hell,” he attested.
Like the writings of many African-American authors such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Richard Wright, it’s about “looking at the world from below.”
Appreciation of ancestors and keeping the traditions alive are important, he stressed.
“Are you willing to deal with truth and bear witness and go down swinging like Ella Fitzgerald or Muhammad Ali,” he asked. “That’s the tradition we’re talking about. And it’s getting weaker and weaker.”
America’s culture of being obsessed with profits and money serves to produce a “spiritual malnutrition,” West observed, which in turn makes people callous to the sufferings of others.
“Four hundred billionaires in America and over 40 million people living in poverty! One percent of the population owning 40 percent of the wealth!” he said incredulously, calling the disproportionate amount of black children living at or below the poverty level a “moral disgrace.”
Where is the outrage and righteous indignation, he wanted to know. What does it take? Do we need 80 percent of black children to live in poverty before we become outraged?
Going back centuries, he said, there have been many moments in human history in which structures of domination have reigned, and therefore, how can we create some interruption of this structure?
“The only thing that does is a love of truth and justice and beauty and neighbor,” West said.
He told the young people on hand that love is going to break all this hatred, manipulation and bullying, and encouraged them to show the depths of their love by being willing to exemplify it in themselves and even be scarred by it.
Part of our problem is, he said, is that just 50 years ago we had black leaders who never aspired to leadership, they aspired to loving black people and were elevated to leadership because of the depths of their love. The last thing you ever want to do is be a leader of people who’ve been taught to hate themselves, he warned.
“When you reach that point of righteous indignation,” he said, “will it be channeled for love and justice, or will it be channeled for hatred and revenge? If it’s the latter, no matter how militant you think you are you’re just reproducing the same cycle of hatred and revenge that was coming at you.”
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