Cornel West opened his keynote address at the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy at the Rochester Institute of Technology Monday afternoon by lamenting the image of his “brother Martin,” a figure “trotted out every year,” having been “sanitized, sterilized and deodorized.”
The process of defanging King, which West dubbed “Santa Clausification,” obscures the man’s deliberate choices, West told an audience of roughly 2,000 seated in the Gordon Field House, RIT’s cavernous gymnasium and event space.
Much of the speech was not new territory for West, who has built a celebrated career as an Ivy League philosophy professor and as a provocative speaker and author agitating for racial equality. He teaches at Princeton University and has authored 19 books, according to an official biography.
The speech echoed themes that West has promoted for years, but weaved in the issue of economic inequality made fresh by the 2008 collapse and Occupy Wall Street.
Protesters from the local Occupy movement were apparently in attendance, as a group near the front of the audience briefly raised a banner whose message wasn’t clearly visible from a seat farther back.
“I love you right back, Occupy Rochester,” West said, incorporating them into his introductory remarks with a smile.
West reminded the audience that King was unpopular near the end of his life, as he turned his attention to protesting the Vietnam War and other inequities.
In a rolling oratorical style, divorced from the black pulpit only by physical separation, West enunciates like he’s spitting, changing rhythm and pitch for special emphasis.
The King people should pay attention to was a revolutionary Christian who is “disturbing to each and every one of us,” he bites out.
“When you really, really love poor people,” he says. “When you really love folk, who at the moment are weak and vulnerable, and you can’t stand the fact they’re being treated unjustly, and you loathe the fact that they’re being treated unfairly, and if you don’t do something and say something the rocks are going to cry out, that’s the kind of Martin Luther King Jr. that we’re talking about!”
West rolled into praise of the Occupy movement for not having an exact plan, but for nonetheless protesting a situation characterized by injustice. He questioned why the federal government spends money on war, while spending what he says is too little on ordinary people. Meanwhile, the wealthy profit – “oligarchs and plutocrats,” West calls them.
Some of West’s remarks veered toward controversy, which is also well-worn territory for him. In his introductory remarks, he thanked the RIT Public Safety officer appointed to keep the event secure, and said that the many death threats he receives made him feel like somebody.
Among other things, West said that 9/11 made the rest of America experience the kind of insecurity that blacks face constantly, that King was assassinated for pointing out oligarchy, that the election of Obama wasn’t a sign of a post-racial America but a less racist one and he appeared to say that black Americans should receive a standing ovation for not joining a “black Al-Qaeda.”
The tenor of the speech wasn’t ultimately divisive, however, coming back to love in the face of hate as the central theme.
Most of West’s remarks seemed to find resonance with members of the audience, many of whom punctuated his speech with applause.
Robert Brown, a 51-year-old Rochester native and nurse at Strong Memorial Hospital, came to hear West and says he was inspired by the speech. He agreed with the economic message, saying ordinary people “shouldn’t have to make a choice between groceries and medicine, dog food and their food.”
As for the more controversial elements, Brown said he liked West because he was trying to keep a civil rights message, passed on from “foot soldiers for equality” like King and Malcolm X, from being “lost in the dust.”
Sam Crystal, a 19-year-old Applied Statistics major from Bliss, NY, in his second year of study at RIT, also liked the speech, though he preferred the earlier performance of the precociously-young poet Joshua Bennett, whose poetry mostly dealt with his feminism-tinged love for women, and for his deaf sister.
“We spend our whole lives listening to people talk about what they want us to hear,” said Crystal, referring to what Bennett didn’t do. “To hear someone get up on stage and say such heartfelt things was very refreshing.”
Though Crystal liked some of the simple political messages West offered, he said the performance wandered somewhat: with West casting himself variously as political pundit, Southern black preacher and academic philosopher.
“Sometimes it seemed like he was talking just for the reaction,” said Crystal.