Cornel West Delivers 'Prophetic' Speech

Cornel WestNoted author and activist Dr. Cornel West delivered the keynote address (watch here) at Saint Mary's Leadership & Social Justice Conference on Saturday, Oct. 11 to an overwhelmingly appreciative audience of nearly 600 students, professors and community members.

A Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University, Cornel West taught at Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. West is the author of 20 books and widely known for Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and the memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. His latest work Black Prophetic Fire was released this month.

Introduced by Saint Mary's President James Donahue, who admitted to being a longtime admirer of his writings, West was welcomed to the podium with enthusiastic applause from the crowded center. Before beginning his speech, West first acknowledged Saint Mary's Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) and its leadership for the gracious invitation to speak at the College. He also noted longtime Bay Area friends in the audience and a large group of family members, who had traveled from his hometown of Sacramento, for the occasion.

West's address, "Prophetic Imagination: Confronting The New Jim Crow and Income Inequality in America," was steeped in a Southern Black Christian oratorical style and delivered provocative religious, philosophical and political insights, occasionally challenging the largely white audience intentionally, with keen observations about racial bias in America, white supremacy represented by the continued legacy of racial injustice in America, wealth disparities, the poverty rates of children of color, mass incarceration of young men and the killing of young African American men by white police officers, as in the case of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

West also took middle-class African Americans to task in his speech, in particular African American political leaders, from Congressional Black Caucus members to President Barack Obama; criticizing them as individuals he says are complicit with the status quo, more concerned with professional and electoral gains than in addressing the systemic problems confronting the African American community.

West addressed this lack of leadership as a failing to follow in the Black prophetic traditions of iconic Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker and Malcolm X. West's new book Black Prophetic Fire celebrates the contributions and uncompromising commitment of those six leaders to better the lives of African Americans and poor people during the 19th and 20th centuries and bemoans the loss of similar commitments by contemporary African American leaders.

The address was followed by a 30-minute question-and-answer session with students and conference attendees and a book signing—where he accommodated every person with one of his books with a personal note, a hug and a selfie.

Sophomore Aubrey Williams, a member of Saint Mary's Black Student Union, said she was impressed by his address and that his observation, “Justice is what love looks like in public,” profoundly resonated with her. “There are so many issues in America, specifically surrounding ethnic groups and how they are perceived negatively in this country. Working to address those misperceptions is an act of love.”

President Donahue also was impressed by West's address. "The opportunity to have one of the country's most significant public intellectuals on our campus was a remarkable experience. His ability to integrate issues of the intellect with the spirit, with society, with politics and music and culture is extraordinary. So much of what he spoke about, education and civic engagement for the common good, is what we focus on here at Saint Mary's," said Donahue. He also expressed appreciation for the CILSA team that brought West to the campus, citing director Marshall Welch, co-director Jennifer Pigza and Ryan Lamberton for their leadership. "As a result of their good work, our students were able to engage with Dr. West and that interaction is what we value in Collegiate Seminar and throughout the College—conversations about things that matter, great conversations."

Before leaving the College, West said he hoped his message, in some way, will inspire Saint Mary's students to make a difference in society, and, like the leaders he writes of in Black Prophetic Fire, not be afraid of speaking truth to power.

"I would like to see the precious students of Saint Mary's College commit themselves to lives of integrity, honesty and decency, where they are vigilant against all forms of evil—white supremacists, male supremacists, anti-Jewish, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and homophobia," said West. “Live lives where you never lose sight of the humanity of other people. Be true to the Lasallian ideal that says each one of us is made in the image and likeness of God. We need to love that image in each and every one of us human beings, wherever and whoever we are."

Read more Arcade stories »
Read more Saint Mary's Magazine stories »