Cornel West, regarded by many as the leading African-American intellectual of our day, urged the Oberlin community to be bold in its thinking and action at a packed lecture in Finney Chapel during Oberlin College's new-student orientation in early September.
West, who is professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy of religion at Harvard University, gave the first in a series of lectures that President Nancy S. Dye intends to be all-campus convocations during the 1996-97 academic year.
West related his topic to this year's orientation theme, "Learning and Labor: Building Community through Service." New students were especially prepared for the lecture, because the Orientation Committee sent each a copy of West's latest book, Race Matters, before the semester began.
West began by introducing the theme of a grand tradition of struggle in the United States for "decency, dignity, freedom, and democracy." This struggle is particularly significant to the Oberlin community because of the historical role it has played in the black freedom struggle. West mentioned such people as Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman as part of the best of the past, and referred to them as "humbled people willing to make certain moral choices and take political action."
The tradition of struggle is waning, he said, because we are living with a "market morality" in a hotel civilization, an allusion to a quote by author Henry James. The hotel civilization refers to the American desire to be constantly mobile, which leaves the tradition of struggle aimless. West spoke of "the vicious legacy of white supremacy in America" which degrades the African body, fosters racial separation, and perpetuates racial subjugation.
"It is impossible to be an American and not racialize how you feel," he asserted. "Race is the most difficult and delicate problem because it makes us question aspects of the hotel civilization."
West assessed the state of our society economically, politically, and culturally, and then asked, "Can we survive with substance in a moment of economic decline, undeniable cultural decay, and political lethargy with no external enemy to unite against?"
Characterizing the American population as lacking love, care, concern, community, fidelity, tenderness, and gentleness, West offered solutions in the preservation of empathy and the broadening and deepening of the self through education.
"Conceive of what it is like to be in the shoes of someone else. Organize and mobilize to become a part of the public conversation. Keep alive the tradition of struggle, keep your eyes on something bigger than you. Keep working, caring, loving, sacrificing, shaping, and remaking yourself to the best that you can be."
Throughout his speech, West quoted such authors as T.S. Eliot, W.E.B. DuBois, and Henry James. "Push yourselves to be educated, plunge into the abyss of self--the texts urge you to do it."
He encouraged the audience of students, administrators, and faculty to think critically, to challenge social structures and ideas which may have been silently accepted, and never to relinquish the power of thought and change. "With the disproportion of wealth and power, who will have the courage to look upward?"
Oberlin President Nancy Dye, who along with senior-class president Sergio Acevedo introduced West, said that the lecture marked the beginning of a "year-long campus conversation about the Oberlin community." Both Dye and Acevedo raised the issue of campus diversity, framing their thoughts with such questions as: How do we create a truly diverse academic community? Are we celebrating diversity as we should be at Oberlin?
West, who grew up in California, graduated from Harvard University in 1973 and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in religion from Princeton University. His other books include Keeping Faith, Prophetic Fragments, and Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism. He coauthored Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life with bell hooks, the former Oberlin professor of women's studies also known as Gloria Watkins.
--Amy Beth Schneider '97
Return to the ATS-January 1997 Table of Contents