Cornel West, a prominent civil rights activist, professor and author, spoke about racism, spirituality, democracy and intersectional feminism at the John M. Greene Hall of Smith College on Thursday.
In a lively speech, which was free and open to the public, West addressed what he believes to be the most important characteristics of an independent, free-thinking individual.
“I have never been impressed by smartness,” West told the roughly 200 people in attendance. “People like Adolf Hitler and white supremacists were smart. No, wisdom is more important.”
In addition, West said that many heroes of today’s culture are highly successful but only “in the context of a culture of superficial spectacle,” where celebrities and performers do not instill in us the values and morals we require.
Rarely referring to notes, West spoke passionately about the suffering of all people, from the children in Syria to the homeless and elderly in New York, and how unfairly they have been treated by other individuals.
“Innocent children are being bombed by drones in Afghanistan and nothing happens, but when one American is captured, the president has a press conference that afternoon,” West said. “Why do the children of Somalia not have as much value as those young girls and boys in Newtown?”
Throughout his speech, West referenced many famous figures in history who fought for civil rights and equality, like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
West said people should seek to emulate these individuals, as they possessed qualities worth imitation.
“You should not seek to win the prizes of the mainstream,” said West, who added that people should instead seek to better themselves as a community by connecting integrity in the face of oppression and dignity in the face of exploitation.
In his closing statements, West said people have been living in a “neo-liberal ice age” that can only be escaped if they come together as a community and resist the unethical and unjust forces within their society.
“It is better to be temporarily defeated with integrity and decency than to win as those who have oppressed and exploited you in the past,” West said.
“We are all part of one grand network of opportunity and possibility, and if we come together as one to take a stand against oppression, exploitation, and segregation, we may just succeed.”
West, whose first book was published in 1982, became a prominent scholar on racial issues after the success of his 1993 book, Race Matters.
Since then, West has worked as a professor at Harvard University, Princeton University and the Union Theological Seminary of New York City, teaching primarily about African-American studies and religious matters.
West’s professional career has often been marked by controversy as well as acclaim. In 2001, a dispute between West, then teaching at Harvard, and the University president Larry Summers over a hip hop CD recorded by West, which led to West leaving Harvard for Princeton.
West has also been criticized for making racial comments directed at President Barack Obama, calling him a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface” in 2012, which New Republic writer Michael Eric Dyson described as evoking a “kind of venom.”
Thursday’s event at Smith College was hosted by the Smith Association of Class Activists.
Victoria Toner can be reached at [email protected]