Numerous times during a rousing speech, Cornel West talked about straightening backs, lifting voices and finding courage. Those actions are necessary in order to deliver social justice to those who are suffering and need a hand, he said.
More than 1,000 people filled two rooms — the Tivoli Turnhalle and an overflow crowd in the Tivoli Student Union food court — to hear the provocative West speak Thursday evening as part of “The Art of Social Justice” conference on the Auraria Campus. West’s keynote address was co-sponsored by the University of Colorado Denver Office of Student Life, Metro State Student Activities and the Community College of Denver.
West, a professor at Princeton University and bestselling author of books including “Race Matters” and “Democracy Matters,” quickly got into the heart of what he says ails America — the current reign of oligarchs and plutocrats. He railed on the “gangsta activity on Wall Street” for creating the 2008 financial disaster and how just 1 percent of the U.S. population owns 42 percent of the nation’s wealth. We are the richest nation on earth, he said, yet 22 percent of our children live in poverty.
“If we’re concerned about truth, the condition of truth, it’s truth that allows suffering to speak,” West said. “We have to be sensitive to those who are suffering — I don’t care who they are.”
West praised the organizers of the three-day conference for the wisdom of looking at social justice through the prism of art. He quoted poet Percy Shelley, who said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
“He’s not talking about versifyers, he’s talking about each and every one of us who must have the courage to use our imagination, to use our empathy, to conceive of an alternative world … using bits of reality like language or our bodies or raw material to provide inspiration and instruction so people can straighten their backs up … and make the world a better place,” West said.
West frequently drew standing ovations from parts of the audience, as well as people who shouted back in agreement after he made a point. He drew laughs and loud applause when he lambasted, like a fiery preacher, the “world of superficial spectacle. Shift from the frivolous to the serious. Shift from the bling-bling and the G-string to let freedom ring!”
He touched on controversial topics, including racism and the recent fatal shooting of an unarmed Florida teenager. West said that while the Trayvon Martin case is tragic, the behavior of his parents, who are calling for justice rather than revenge, is transcendent.
Brooke Shannon, who graduated from CU Denver a year ago with a double major in political science and Spanish, said she finds West “hugely inspirational.” After seeing him speak for the first time five years ago, she was inspired to become an organizer for the Young Democratic Socialists.
“I think what strikes my heart the most is his message about loving the people, loving the working people and loving your enemy — just loving the people,” Shannon said.
Madalia Maaliki, a CU Denver senior in philosophy, said West has an ideological view that can permeate every generation. “I really liked how he said you have to know the difference between deep education and cheap schooling,” she said. “I also liked how he said, ‘You have to learn how to die to learn how to live.’ That was really strong as well.”
West took questions from the audience as well. One student asked the professor, author and actor (he made his film debut in “The Matrix”) if he had a motto.
“The spirit has no motto, brother,” West responded. “You can’t catch it just in a paraphrase. Because this love, it spill over in all its different forms. I try to love my enemies. It’s fundamentally about this love and kindness that spills over different cultures and civilizations.”