February 2, 2015

Cornel West gives rousing talk on race in Rockefeller

This past Sunday, students and members of the South Side community braved the snow to hear Cornel West discuss his new book The Radical King”at Rockefeller Chapel. Notwithstanding the talk’s title, West laid criticism for issues ranging from to Hollywood to Wu-Tang Clan to President Barack Obama.

Cornel West is a writer and professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He has published books on Marxism and the African American fight for equality, and also acted in the 2003 films Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions.

He spoke with an intensity and fervor that elicited cries of assent from the audience. Whenever West listed issues that minorities face or said something in a rhyme scheme reminiscent of the King James edition, a woman in the audience would shout, “Go ahead.” “He really puts on a performance,” Finn Jubak, a first-year in the College, said.

When discussing Martin Luther King, West described him as a “blues man” who “ha[d] a militant tenderness” and contended that this is the way in which minorities should go about reforming race relations in America. When speaking about “militant tenderness,” he spoke with such enthusiasm that it appeared he almost blew out the aging Rockefeller’s sound system.

He then went on to lament American society’s modern “market culture” and cited an NHL trope that “Hollywood is more like the NHL than any other institution,” meaning that the subjugation of African American media in Hollywood is akin to a group of white men hitting around a black puck. West said they do less than they should to comment on the plight of the underprivileged minority, citing budget figures for movies like Selma ($20 million) versus American Sniper ($58.8 million) as evidence.

To end this practice West contended that young people should start listening to the great African American musicians of the past 20th century. He said the moniker coined by Wu-Tang Clan “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” and the gang violence implied by it only holds African Americans back. When citing examples that the youth should look towards, West pointed to another King, the musician B.B. King: “[Modern day African Americans] need to be on intimate terms with catastrophe, but like B.B. King’s face when he sings… [they] got to smile.”

West extended his criticism to President Obama, saying, “I couldn’t tell [the South Side] was his neighborhood based on his priorities.” In response to this comment, Gloria Washington, a teacher and resident of the South Side said that “it wasn’t a big shock the [President Obama] saw his global responsibility as his global responsibility” as opposed to his responsibility to the south side of Chicago.   

Other audience members also responded in defense of the President.

Sam Saka, a real estate broker from Hyde Park, contended that West was “courageous” and that “he was channeling some of the energy that he got from researching the book [about King].” But as for the President, “you can’t take the position as leader of the free world and take a racially based position,” Saka said.

Aside from West’s sentiments regarding the President, Jim Lofton, a resident of the South Shore neighborhood who spent two hours taking two buses to get to the event, said that West was “definitely inspirational… if you can take some positivity away from these events, then that is a good thing.”