Selling out in less than a week, Dr. Cornel West commanded the stage with emotion and power
Around 800 people formed a line wrapping around campus, anxiously awaiting Dr. Cornel West’s lecture. In high demand, tickets sold out in less than a week. Community members desperate for tickets resorted to bribery.
Brothers United took the John Van Duzer Theatre stage first with the introduction of Humboldt State University Vice President of Enrollment Management Jason Meriwether. After a quick selfie snap and a booming introduction, Meriwether invited West to the stage where a standing ovation followed.
West was the powerhouse speaker of Black Liberation Month and began his lecture with the recognition of the meaning of the month of February to reflect on the history of our ancestors and to recognize and pay respect to their sacrifices.
“When you’re talking black history, you’re talking the best of history,” West said. “February is for the brown, red, yellow and black peoples to dig deep into their r-o-o-t-s so their r-o-u-t-e-s can become international.”
The lecture surrounded West’s book, “Race Matters.” Originally published in 1993 during a time of tense racial turmoil following the trial of Rodney King—a survivor-turned-activist of Los Angeles Police Department police brutality—and the Los Angeles riots—which broke out in response to the trial and heightened racial tensions—the book brings morality into question when analyzing racial disputes. Resurfacing in the modern day, West believes the same issues that arose 27 years ago remain today.
“We live in a highly polarized society,” West said. “It’s polarized by race, it’s polarized by class, it’s polarized by preaching, it’s polarized by politics and I think I was trying to get at some of the ways in which we can understand the polarization and try to create a higher moral, spiritual ground to keep alight the best of our democracy. That’s what I was doing then and it becomes relevant now, all over again.”
Highlighting the best of our democracy and of any situation was a recurring message from West. When asked about polarized education systems, West attacked it with the same approach.
“All institutions are ambiguous and ambivalent in having the best and the worst,” West said. “It depends on the particular features being highlighted. Must be very candid about the ups and the downs, the bests and the worsts.”
A Q&A session followed his lecture where members of the audience had the opportunity to grab the mic and connect with West. As hands shot up, West emphasized the importance of selecting participants of diversity within the crowd and hearing those voices.
Crystal Pasztor is a sociology major at HSU. She asked West for a favor of recognition, rather than a question.
“My favor was to talk about disability and people as a group because you can’t ignore that every group has a disability,” Pasztor said. “Disabilities aren’t necessarily sad or scary, but just another way to live life.”
Pasztor brought HSU’s own lack of disability recognition into question, describing feeling abandoned by the school and its services.
West ordered the entire theatre to applaud Pasztor in recognition of her feeling of campus abandonment.
“I felt so much better,” Pasztor said. “I was very nervous to say anything because the president is here.”
After a standing ovation for West, the audience flooded to the stage for an opportunity to interact and shake West’s hand. One student handed West their cell phone with Charmaine Lawson on the line. An emotional conversation led to West commending Lawson’s love and fight for her son, Josiah Lawson.
“When you’re fighting for something as precious, you never give up because the love too deeply and the commitment too real,” West said. “So when I was talking to sister Lawson I could just see in her eyes and feel in her heart oh so much love for her precious son and she’ll never give up. That’s what love is—it’s never giving up.”
Justice remains lacking for the Josiah Lawson case. For community healing, West emphasized morality and spirituality as a light in the search for truth and justice.
“You got to re-energize people in a moral and spiritual way,” West said. “So that you can create the kind of awakening that brings people together. That want to fight for truth and justice. But, every generation is re-energized in some way.”
West placed extreme importance on the new generation and their ability to model, lead and revitalize the ongoing dispute over conflicting dialogues and conversations that divide our country. In an exclusive interview with The Lumberjack following West’s lecture, he commended HSU and its administration for their role in developing the new generation by leading by example.
“By example,” West said. “That’s why I salute what president here doing and dear brother Jason Meriwether. Leadership makes a difference in an institution of higher learning.”
West remained humble and credited much of his character and success to the leaders, activists and icons of the past. He spoke highly of notable black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, but more importantly, he credited an intangible spirit of truth and justice.
“I tell them don’t look up to me, look up to truth and justice,” West said. “Truth and justice bigger than all of us, bigger than all of us. We all want to try and be exemplars of living truly and fighting for justice in a moral and spiritual way.”