It was standing room only at Mission College where civil rights activist Dr. Cornel West was going to speak on April 29, shortly before the noted scholar and activist’s scheduled appearance. Late attendees drifted into the overflow room elsewhere on the campus’s Gillmor Center. When West emerged in his trademark black suit and tie, fans eagerly greeted him.
“Cornel West is a prominent and provocative Democratic intellectual,” says Mission College president Daniel Peck during his speaker introduction. “He is a professor of Philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University. He has also taught at Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris.”
At the beginning of his talk, West shared his philosophy that education is about transformation and that people should consider what it means to be human. With humor, West stressed the importance of being wise and compassionate and warned about the perils of arrogance.
“The worst thing to happen to young people is thinking you’re the smartest person in the room; Hitler was smart, he was a gangster,” West says. “Now I’m not arguing for stupidity. Don’t take this too far.”
Referencing musical artists, West spoke of his affection for the late Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross, among a few others. When discussing Prince, found dead in his elevator back in late April, West’s voice softened as he recalled the times he visited Paisley Park, Prince’s Minnesota compound that was both Prince’s recording studio and home.
“Brother Prince was my very very dear brother,” West says. “We traveled the world together to a bunch of jazz festivals. Spent much time in Paisley Park. In fact, I can envision time spent in that very elevator where he spent his last hours on this earth.”
Audience members asked West a number of questions, including whether his public criticism of President Obama was too harsh and what he defined as white supremacy.
“In America, especially in the last 40 years we’ve confined that term [white supremacy] to the far right-wing xenophobes so that those who are involved in institutional and structural racism somehow can resist the term. Why? Because they’re not members of the Ku Klux Klan. They’re not members of some white supremacist militia group and so forth,” West says. “[There are] those who implicitly or explicitly promote or are complicitous with claims about people of color having less beauty, less intelligence, less moral sensibility. [And there are those] who would benefit from the system without wanting to critically examine the way that system operates so that they are beneficiaries, whether they acknowledge it or not. So it’s both conscious and unconscious.”
When West’s talk ended, he hugged and shook hands with audience members. Dr. John Mosby, Mission College’s vice president of student services, presented West with Mission College themed swag, including a t-shirt and a water bottle.