By Katie Zeck
Author, professor and civil rights activist Dr. Cornel West helped close out Rider’s Black History Month celebration this week, leaving most with a message that resonated well beyond the cultural celebration itself.
West spoke Monday night in the Cavalla Room of the BLC on the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa to a packed audience of faculty and students from all departments and majors.
From a young age, West was deeply involved in the movement for equal rights. As a high school student in Sacramento, Calif., West marched in civil rights demonstrations, led protests and demanded that the school board at his high school establish black studies courses. He then went on to study at Harvard University and graduated magna cum laude in Eastern Languages and Civilization.
Monday night’s event began with a prayer and the singing of the Negro National Anthem. West then led into his speech by naming some of the greatest and most influential figures in black history. Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas, Sojourner Truth and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were just a few of the idolized figures listed.
The topics West covered went well beyond the basic Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. He tied the themes of unity, self-determination, responsibility, economics, purpose, creativity and faith to modern-day issues and brought awareness to the importance of personal fulfillment.
“Kwanzaa is about freedom, self-determination and education in the deepest sense,” West said. “It’s about mustering the courage to examine life.”
As the speaker for the closing ceremony of Black History Month, West commented on the significance of reflecting on the message the month conveys.
“Black history month causes us to raise the question: What type of human are you going to be?” he said. “It teaches us how to die in order to live. We must critically examine the way in which we live our lives.”
According to West, Black History Month affords the opportunity to do just that.
He then began to focus in on the question, “What kind of human are you going to be from your mother’s womb to the tomb?”
Audience members were left contemplating their own personal goals and what they hope to achieve in life compared to what they have already accomplished. West stressed the idea of making the short time you are here on Earth as meaningful as possible.
“Greatness in life is defined as the quality of your service to others,” he said. The professor said the desire for material possessions has overshadowed the respect, courtesy and help given to fellow human beings.
Attendee and Residence Director of Conover Hall Jaffir Rice believed West’s message and style of speaking left an impact, specifically on the younger demographic.
“I think his style of speaking really resonates with college students,” he said. “West focuses on Black History Month in terms of the human race and how to improve our society as a whole.”
The topics of future goals and discovering each individual’s purpose in life also were addressed by West.
“You must find your calling, which is different than your career, and find your vocation, which is different than your profession,” stated West.
He added that success is a beautiful thing “if used as a weapon in the struggle for justice.”
Upon graduating from Harvard, West went on to recieve his Ph.D. from Princeton University and began to teach as a professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University. His introductory course on African-American Studies was one of the most popular classes in Harvard at the time. Today, the much-requested professor teaches at Princeton in the Center for African American Studies and in the Department of Religion.
West has been the recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees, has written 19 books, edited 13 texts, appeared in 25 different documentaries and can be seen making appearances on multiple television and radio programs. He publicly supported Barack Obama’s campaign for presidency in 2008 and has politically advised many other Democratic candidates, such as Al Sharpton during his 2004 presidential campaign.
West speaks on various topics across the country, and has been involved with such projects as the Million Man March and Russell Simmons’s Hip-Hop Summit. He continues to be an active member of groups and organizations that promote social acceptance and justice.
West is also currently on the Board of Directors of the International Bridges to Justice and has been repeatedly cited in popular magazines and news articles on African-American studies and studies of black theology.
Through the spirit of Kwanzaa and the messages evoked from Black History Month, West hoped that students would be able to experience personal achievement and find the courage to examine themselves and their futures.