ST. PETERSBURG — Dr. Cornel West took to the pulpit at the Greater Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wed., Jan. 14 as the keynote speaker in the second annual Heritage Lecture Series, made possible by St. Petersburg College and Pastor Clarence A. Williams of Greater Mt. Zion.
“It’s hard to write about what you don’t know about,” said Dr. William Leon in his introductory remarks for West, “and our speaker this evening has written about ‘black prophetic fire,’ because he truly, truly possesses it.”
The charismatic West was indeed full of fire, putting on a dynamic, spirited performance for the packed house. With his theological background, he seemed right at home at the pulpit: “What a pleasure to be here in this consecrated space, you can just feel the Spirit!” he boomed.
“I wouldn’t want to speak in any other space but this one tonight in St. Petersburg!”
Delivering his words with an often poetic cadence, the erstwhile spoken-word recording artist touched upon a plethora of subjects including integrity in the face of oppression, what it means to be human, the state of young people’s culture today, poverty in this country and his stance against the “idolatry of moneymaking.”
He chided the Wall Street types in their obsession to make the most money and possess the biggest mansions, saying they’re “suffering from spiritual malnutrition and moral constipation,” to which they need a “little spiritual laxative to get things flowing again,” and added that young people today lack good examples to follow.
He stressed the need to keep discussions honest and real, and not devolve into “deodorized discourse.” Never one to shy away from speaking his mind directly, West, referring to the racial disparity in schools, unemployment and decent housing, said: “Jim Crow didn’t go away, you have Jim Crow, Jr.”
“One of the great achievements of black people historically is what,” he asked rhetorically. “In the face of oppression, we try to keep the focus on integrity!”
Elaborating on the concept of integrity, he stated that he came from a place where everyone aspired to be original, yet among the young people today he sees too many “copies.” West said his generation has been partly to blame since for the last 40 years it has instilled in young people that the most important thing is to be successful.
“We have to remind them that they also have to be faithful to something bigger than their success,” he affirmed. West added later: “I have nothing against business; I have so much against the idolatry of moneymaking.”
West said one of the saddest features of young people’s culture these days is that they don’t have groups that sing in harmony like the Delfonics, Temptations or the Marvelettes. He went on to chastise the select “money-making oligarchs” at the top who control radio, video, recordings and live performances today.
“They don’t want that slow, rich, deep, soul-stirring music that can allow folks to straighten their backs up and reflect on who they are,” West practically growled. He contended that if people are kept “stimulated and titillated,” then there’s no need for the Socratic reflection of dealing with what it means to be human.
He warned that a deeply materialistic, hedonistic and narcissistic culture can make some so obsessed with pleasure that they don’t even have access to real joy. The capitalist market wants, he averred, to keep people consuming, insatiable and never satisfied so they are unable to think and “take time enough to tell the truth!”
“The condition of truth for human beings is always to allow suffering to speak,” he pointed out. “If the suffering is not speaking you can rest assure that there is a large dose of mendacity operating.”
By way of example, he noted the paradox of the institution of slavery not being referenced in the U.S. Constitution, when slavery was a precondition of the Constitution. He admonished the “profound hypocrisy and mendacity that allows people to think that somehow they can live in a state of denial forever,” and went on to paraphrase Malcolm X by stating, “I don’t care who tells the truth, I’m just for it!”
West is not only a man of letters but a man of action. The 61 year old, who has taught at Ivy League colleges and is the author and co-author of several books (“Black Prophetic Fire” is his latest offering), was arrested for protesting in Ferguson, Mo., last October.
“What we’re seeing in Ferguson is the emergence of a grand awakening of young folk in the face of oppression of arbitrary police power, of school systems that too often produce soul-murder in our young people, of massive unemployment that is Depression-like,” he seethed.
West also took aim at the socioeconomic imbalance in this country, attesting that the number of people still living in poverty is a crime against humanity. He stated it is a “moral abomination” that in this country, “the richest nation in the history of the world,” 22 percent of all children—no matter what color—live in poverty.
“How can we live in a society where one percent of the nation owns 99 percent of the wealth?” he said, in obvious disbelief.
Known for criticizing President Obama for a number of reasons, West believes are legitimate—among them the Wall Street bailout, Obama’s apparent reluctance to take action concerning the country’s poor and the president’s “war crimes” in places like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan—the author-activist said that it is important to give such criticism a voice, no matter who is president.
“That next president might do exactly the same thing, and we want to bring critique to bear,” West said, adding that if he and other African Americans “didn’t bring that critique to bear when it was against a black president, they’ll say, ‘You have no integrity.’”
Often pointing and gesturing to drive home his points, West elicited energetic cheers, applause and even laughter from the capacity crowd. Following the lecture he fielded questions, such as what single law or institution would he change in America that would provide more of a balance toward justice.
He fired off his answer without hesitation: “Eliminate poverty,” he said, adding that historically African Americans suffer from too much poverty and not enough self-love.
“Self-respect, self-love, self-confidence—that’s spiritual, that’s intangible, that’s what we try to pass onto our kids,” West proclaimed. “This is something no one can take away! Respect yourself!”
This is the first of three articles in the Heritage Lecture Series.