Charlotte, N.C./Nov. 10, 2023 – The rafters in Gambrell Auditorium at Johnson C. Smith University echoed with resounding wisdom on Thursday night as the professor, philosopher, author and presidential hopeful Dr. Cornel West took the stage for an evening of conversation.
West followed Dr. Valerie Kinloch, president of JCSU, as the second speaker in the Lyceum Engagement Series, which aims to engage our students, faculty, staff and community in critical and thoughtful dialogue.
This was the second time West had visited campus, the first being during the inauguration of Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy in 1994.
“Something great is happening at this institution,” said West. “This is a sacred, consecrated institution. Some people strut like peacocks, but I came from a people who fly like eagles, and I’ll tell you, this institution is producing eagles.”
Dr. Thierno Thiam, provost and chief academic officer at JCSU, made it a mission to reignite the Lyceum program at JCSU, but wanted to make sure he was bringing in speakers who were engaging.
“We didn’t just want someone to come to campus and lecture, but we wanted someone who would engage with our students, faculty, staff and community,” he said. “That is why we are the only college that has included the word ‘engagement’ in our Lyceum program.”
The conversation was titled “Let There be Light: A Community Renaissance” and was moderated by Kimberly Nelson ’24, an Interdisciplinary Studies student at JCSU.
Nelson asked thoughtful questions pertaining to justice, weaponized capitalism, racism and governance. The conversation started with a question about injustice.
“You can’t talk about evil and injustice without situating yourself amongst a group of people that has taught the world what love is,” he said. “There’s never been a people in the last 400 years so chronically hated as Black people. Despite the catastrophes that have occurred, we have not allowed the blow to have the last word.”
West referenced freedom fighters like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and W.E.B. Du Boise and discussed how they had remained morally and spiritually excellent while facing the ugliness of racism.
Nelson went on to discuss the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down Affirmative Action, effectively halting race-conscious admissions that were put in place to ensure equity in the college admissions process.
Nelson asked West his thoughts.
“Affirmative Action was already a weak policy because it was simply an attempt to get America to come to terms with its vicious past with slavery,” said West. “Finally, in the 1960s, they said ‘We have to address the race problem.’ There was never a race problem. What happened to Africans in America was a catastrophe. When you reduce a catastrophe to a problem, you’ve already desensitized the issue.”
West went on to applaud HBCUs like Johnson C. Smith University, which created a space for Black scholars when they weren’t accepted into other institutions.
The audience was given the opportunity to ask questions. One student asked how society can combat capitalism, sighting that even some Black artists like Jay-Z capitalize on communities that are facing poverty but feel the ties to the artist are culturally significant enough to invest in their products.
West replied that communities have begun to equate financial prosperity with success and glamour.
“What you have is the replacement of morally and spiritually excellent people with people who have market success,” he said. “When Dr. King was shot down like a dog, no one was looking for the wealthiest Black man in the room. When you think about artists like Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin, they produce music that pierced the soul. That whole culture has been pushed aside, and now it’s all about money, title and glitz. It’s a form of spiritual warfare.”
West’s conversation at JCSU is available to watch on YouTube.