In a Sept. 3 speech at VCU’s Siegel Center, prominent black activist and scholar Dr. Cornel West discussed a slew of topics under the umbrella of the racial, economic, and political state of the country.
During the speech, titled “Invoking our collective memory,” West did not fail to address popular current events such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the upcoming 2016 elections and income inequality.
West began by highlighting Richmond’s history of racial segregation and said he believes that vestiges of the days of Jim Crow laws still exist in the city today.
“There’s special folk in Richmond, Virginia. But at the same time I also know parts of your dark history,” West said. “I also know the underground and the underworld of the vicious legacy of white supremacy that has shaped this place. And the magnificent resilience.”
Quoting the late musician Billie Holliday, West spoke of a time when “black bodies swam in the southern breeze” and alluded to the fact that white supremacy was not limited to the South.
“Jim Crow laws go all the way back up to the hills of Philadelphia, Chicago and New York,” West said. “So don’t think that you all have a monopoly on mistreating black people.”
West, who has been a professor at Yale, Harvard and Princeton, praised the African-American community in their collective response to years of slavery and racial discrimination.
“I pride myself on being part of a black tradition that has always been willing to look forms of death in the face and still not allow hatred to have the last word,” West said before a crowd of thousands. “The history of the American empire, they’re going to have to say something, they’re going to have to say a whole lot about a people who were hated for 400 years and still taught the world so much about love.”
West also peppered in his support for Black Lives Matter, an activist movement that has recently come under criticism by Fox News Channel commentators and prominent politicians such as presidential candidate Ted Cruz.
“When we say Black Lives Matter, that doesn’t exclude anybody,” West said. “That just means if you’re going to talk about all lives, then make sure you’re not excluding the chocolate ones.”
Regarding income inequality, West asserted that 1 percent of the nation owns 42 percent of the wealth, calling it “a moral disgrace and spiritually profane.”
In front of almost 2,000 spectators, West echoed the talking points and views of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whose bid West endorsed publicly for the first time a week prior on Fox News.
VCU’s Associate Vice Provost and Dean of Student Affairs, Dr. Reuben Rodriguez, was among the spectators of West’s speech at Siegel.
“I thought Dr. West spoke fantastically.” Rodriguez said, “It makes sense with our close proximity to Washington, D.C. to bring prominent scholars who also fit into our educational mission.”
West’s hour-long speech was the first in a series called “Race, Citizenship and Memory in the South,” organized by VCU’s Humanities Research Center.
The series continues with “‘You Can’t Run Away From Trouble’: Song and Story in Disney’s ‘Song of the South’” on Sept. 10 with Kathy Merlock Jackson, a professor and coordinator of communication at Virginia Wesleyan College, as the featured speaker.