Cornel West Waxes Poetic on “The Profound Desire for Justice”

“Tonight, at La Salle, we’re going to resist all forms of deodorized discourse. We want to keep it funky.”

With those words, Dr. Cornel West, Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary of Columbia University and an internationally acclaimed scholar, philosopher, and activist, inaugurated the La Salle Lectures on Religion and Culture. With more than 1,100 people in attendance in the Tom Gola Arena, the lecture felt more like a pep rally for social justice with an estimated 500 undergraduate and graduate students, 100 faculty and staff, 100 alumni, and about 400 neighbors and representatives from universities, non-profits, and faith-based organizations from all over the City of Philadelphia packed into arena’s bleachers.

West brought his signature rhetorical charisma to the topic of “The Profound Desire for Justice,” and repeatedly challenged the audience to ask themselves, in the words of R&B artist Roberta Flack, “How deep is your looove?”  In a 50-minute address frequently interrupted by applause and verbal affirmations, West offered suggestions for mustering the courage for a deeper love: a “deep education” in the humanities that examines conditions of human suffering, “learning how to die” by critically examining prejudices and presuppositions, and bearing the cross before waving the flag. He invited students in particular to not only think about what kind of job they might secure upon graduation, but more importantly to also give thought to what kind of person they want to become. In a critique of the privatization of American culture, in everything from public education to entertainment, both of which he identified as fundamental to the soul of the nation, he dared students to be eagles in flight able to see the bigger picture rather peacocks pruning themselves for self-display on the ground.

“Dr. West’s passion for enlightening those to look deep inside themselves and find their true calling in life was inspiring,” reflected Samantha Pinto `17. “West gave thorough examples as to how to try to be an honest human being. He also raised important questions such as can we be morally consistent? And what kind of human being are you going to choose to be?”

In his introduction of West, Jack Downey, Assistant Professor of Religion, noted West’s “natural affinity” for the university’s mission, in light of his status as perhaps the nation’s most eloquent and charismatic public spokesperson for social justice and collective liberation.

“His vocation as an itinerant evangelist for those who suffer the “night side” of the intersecting waves of cultural oppression challenges all people to critically examine their commitment to real justice,” explained Downey.  “Or as West says, ‘What love looks like in public.’”

West’s address was made possible through the generous support of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who this year established The La Salle Lectures on Religion & Culture. The annual two-part lecture series will deepen the University community’s interdisciplinary engagement with its LaSallian and Catholic heritage, as well as with the increasingly diverse religious traditions represented on campus and in the City of Philadelphia. Each year the Religion Department will host a nationally recognized speaker who will offer a critical and reflective approach to the study of religion and theology in light of a contemporary cultural, ethical or moral question or phenomenon. A regional speaker more familiar with the particularities of La Salle University’s context—as an institution of Catholic higher education animated by the charism of the Christian Brothers and living out its mission in one of the largest metropolitan areas of the U.S.—will take up an aspect of that presentation in a subsequent lecture as well as in informal colloquia with faculty and students.

Cornel West is possibly the most visible public intellectual on the contemporary American landscape.  He is currently Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary (NYC), affiliated with Columbia University.  West received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton, and has held previous faculty appointments (several of them endowed chairs) at Union Seminary, Yale University, the University of Paris, Harvard University, and Princeton University.  He is a prolific writer and authored nearly two dozen books including Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982), Race Matters (1994), Hope on a Tightrope: Words & Wisdom (2008), and Pro+Agonist: The Art of Opposition (2012). Along with Tavis Smiley, West has hosted a weekly radio program, Smiley and West, on Public Radio International.  Additionally, West has been a regular guest on CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC, and PBS, along with shows such as The Colbert Report, Real Time with Bill Maher, and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.  He also made cameo appearances on the blockbuster films The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. He is unparalleled in the U.S. in his fusion of social justice, academic prestige, and popular acclaim.