Mandel Hall was nearly bursting at 6:40 p.m. on Thursday. As the crowd inside chattered excitedly, members of the Organization of Black Students (OBS) urged audience members to make room for the nearly 250 additional people looking for an open seat. Some 40 minutes later, Cornel West appeared before an overflowing Mandel Hall, with every one of its 980 seats filled.
West, a professor of religion at Princeton University, was brought for the George L. Kent Lecture Series, an annual event organized by OBS and held in memory of the first black professor to receive tenure at the University of Chicago.
Though West is a notable figure in academiahe has held professorships at Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Paris, and Princeton Universityhis work also extends beyond the borders of academia. He has produced a hip-hop album, involves himself actively in American politics, and through his writings has played a role in The Matrix movies in which he also appeared onscreen as Counselor West.
West has garnered some notoriety as well. Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, accused West of neglecting his teaching duties as a professor of African-American studies at Harvard. A dispute followed, which ended with West leaving Harvard University for a position at rival Princeton University.
Third year in the College Aron Cobbs, the political chair of OBS and the events organizer, introduced West with a disclaimer.
Tonight we have Dr. Cornel West, who Im sure many of you already know so although he needs no introduction, Im going to read it, he said.
West received a standing ovation as he took the stage and hugged Cobbs, an action he repeated throughout the evening.
His speech, bearing the same name as his book, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, was punctuated with applause and laughter throughout. Much of Wests arguement focused on what Americans can learn from black responses to terrorism throughout historyslavery, Jim Crowlaws, and racism today.
He linked the climate of fear in America after September 11 to a situation that blacks know intimately.
The nation after September 11 has the blues for all Americans feeling unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, hated for who they arethe niggerization of the nation, West said.
He stressed that the black responses to terrorism have, through their nonviolence, preserved democracy.
Somehow we have to muster the courage to fight this terror with love and justice, West said. If black folk had fought terror terroristically, there would be no American democracy.
He emphasized that in all projects, Americans must remain self-critical in the spirit of Socratic questioningto examine faults rather than remaining Peter Pan like in immature ignorance of them.
Although battling a cold, he remained vibrant throughout the speech, moving about the podium as he oscillated between the serious and the humorous.
Cobbs, referring to Wests energy, described the event as a show before correcting himself.
I keep calling it a showit was a lecturebut Dr. West is so entertaining and charismatic that I forget, he said.
While Wests energy extended through the lecture and question-and-answer session, it did not last for the scheduled book signing afterwards, which had to be cancelled due to his exhaustion. Still, organizers viewed the evening as a success.
Cobbs cited in particular the large number of non-black students in attendance as a hopeful sign that OBS events would continue to draw more diverse crowds than they had in the past.
The volume of attendees was also a surprise, as previous years events drew comparably modest crowds, generally between 150 and 200 people, according to OBS.