Smith Association of Class Activists Brings Cornel West to Smith

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 | Dr. Cornel West, esteemed scholar and civil rights activist, spoke at John M. Greene Hall on Feb. 11.  

Molly McGuire '18 Contributing Writer

Dr. Cornel West, civil rights activist and scholar, delivered a lecture to the Smith community on Feb. 11.  He covered topics such as racism, democracy and African-American history, while also reflecting on current issues such as the elections, police brutality and the prison-industrial complex.

The lecture was hosted by the Smith Association of Class Activists. The co-chairs of the organization, Jocelyn Proietti ’16 and Tiara Austin ’18, opened the event with an emotional introduction.

Austin explained, “This is a difficult task. One that has caused us to ask: how do students introduce a teacher? How do readers introduce an author? How do believers introduce a prophet? How do black people introduce each other? And how does one do all of this with love and reverence?”

As West began his lecture, he said, “I just hope that we can touch somebody today, intellectually, morally, spiritually.”

One of the biggest themes of his speech was how class inequality affects the United States.

“Young brothers and sisters, you are living in the most commodified, commercialized, marketized culture in the history of the world,” said West, adding that there is a “massive transfer of wealth from poor and working people to the top one percent.”

West spoke on the state of racism in America, commenting, “We’re still struggling under Jim Crow Junior.” He referenced issues of mass incarceration and police brutality throughout his speech.

West also touched on the state of the current U.S. political system, referencing activist John Dewey and describing U.S. democracy as being “so obsessed with privatizing that it’s sliding down the slippery slope to oligarchy and plutocracy with nothing but a surface-level democracy.”

West holds many accomplishments in civil rights activism and in academia, including being the first black man to receive a doctorate degree in philosophy from Princeton University, writing over 20 books and collaborating on several film and music projects pertaining to race.

West also shared his opinion on the Democratic primaries and his support for Senator Bernie Sanders. West explained that Sanders is a Democratic Socialist “like Martin Luther King Jr.”  He criticized those who are hesitant to support Sanders because of his ideology, arguing that “it’s not about the ideology; it’s about what kind of human being you’re going to be.”

West even had some remarks about Beyoncé, her new single, “Formation,” and her latest performance at the Super Bowl.

“I love Beyoncé. She’s the greatest entertainer of this generation, no doubt about that,” he said, “but she’s not Aretha [Franklin].”

West also explicitly addressed Smith students, particularly its students of color. “Smith’s got something to offer you, but you’ve got to be suspicious of it,” he said.

West’s lecture left an impression on Smith students. “His words were just so powerful and were needed at Smith,” said Sushmita Ram ’18. Ram felt that the lecture could “empower students.”

Elizabeth Lamar ’19 felt similarly, reflecting that “you could tell everyone was excited” at the lecture, adding that it was an “amazing time.”

In light of the recent protests against racism on college campuses nationwide, including at Smith, West’s lecture offered a space for students to reflect on how they can combat these issues.