On January 23rd, 2019, I had the honor of hearing Dr. Cornel West speak at RISD’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day event. Dr. West is an author, activist, and philosopher. In his speech, he talked about the importance of preserving our love of life, beauty, and what we create. The point that stuck most with me was how important love, and sending it out into the world, is. What we need most, in our current world and political climate, is to realize how necessary this is and live our lives with love.
Dr. West spoke about how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exemplified the necessity and importance of love in everything he did. No matter what happened or how he was treated, Dr. King was able to create change because he saw the love in life, and in other people. Dr. West spoke about how Dr. King is part of a long history of black people that have been oppressed that did not do the same thing as their oppressors and instead treated them with love. Because although black people and communities have been stigmatized, oppressed, and systemically hated for hundreds of years, the ability of people like Dr. King to not resort to the same actions teaches us a lot about what love truly is. In fact, Dr. King talked about keeping alive the “caravan of love.” I think these points are still very relevant, as we need to continue treating each other with love. Hating those who are different or have differing views is not productive and will result in more hate.
Another point Dr. West made that stuck with me was the importance of diversity and individuality. He stated that there is no such thing as a homogenous society, because there will always be diversity. I found this interesting because even in communities that we think of as homogeneous in terms of race or class or culture, there will always be differences of opinion, thought, gender, sexuality, and identity. These differences are important and need to be acknowledged. Dr. West spoke about how we need to speak “fearlessly, boldly, and self-critically.” Our individual voices and identities matter. Furthermore, he talked about how important it is to care and be involved, claiming that “indifference makes the angels weep.” Dr. King embodied this, because he had to break out of conformity. He didn’t want to be recognized, or famous, he wanted to “unsettle.”
Dr. West also talked about resilience. He claimed that the word “resistance” has been overused and now everything has become an act of resistance. However, the act of resilience is long term. He likened it to a marathon, not a sprint. Additionally, resilience is rooted in “remembrance.” Remembering the fight and struggles of the past is key to moving forward resiliently. This is interesting because sometimes we get caught up in the singular moments of the present. However, it is paramount to remember how these actions tie into the past but also into the greater movement and the future.
One striking point that Dr. West made was that America is undergoing decline and decay. We talked about this in our Democratic Erosion class, and how many people agree with this sentiment. However, in my experience, many people agree but are quick to blame this on Trump. Dr. West claims that this isn’t new, and it isn’t one person’s fault. I agree with this, because there are many people that support our president and voted for him. Therefore, the problem lies more in the views of the American people and the culture that lead to this presidency. This ties into Dr. West’s larger point about love, in the sense that if we treat this issue with hatred and resentment, it will not change and just further divide our country. Looking forward, and at the big picture, we need to move forward with love.
Another fascinating topic that Dr. West covered was the sheer urgency and gravity of some of our current “problems.” In fact, Dr. West claimed that they are not even problems, but catastrophes. For instance, some see colonization as a problem, but to indigenous people it is a catastrophe. Some might see patriarchy as a problem, but to women it is a catastrophe. To them, the oppression of LGBTQ+ people is a catastrophe. These catastrophes cannot be reduced down to problems, which implies that they can be easily solved. It is interesting to think about how these issues are seen as problems or catastrophes (or possibly neither) based on who is affected. It is also important to note that none of these catastrophes would be relevant if everyone treated each other with love, as Dr. West encourages. In fact, he says to use catastrophe as love and justice, not revenge. However this does not come without risks. You may be abused, attacked, imprisoned, or forgotten. But it is important to remember that this isn’t for you, and you are not doing it for recognition, but for love. Thank you Dr. Cornel West for an empowering and inspiring speech.