Although he said it had been a difficult day for him, in light of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Cornel West stayed true to the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Friday evening as he spoke at Penn State’s Schwab Auditorium.
“There’s no other place I’d rather be than Penn State on the day brother Donald makes access to the White House,” West said. “But I believe in charitable Christian hatred. I hate the sin and love the sinner.”
Known as a brazen orator and author, West has written multiple books on the subjects of race, class and politics and is an outspoken admirer of King. A professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Mount Union Theological Seminary, West previously taught at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy.
West’s keynote speech was part of a program that included guest speeches from faculty, as well as performances by student poets, essayists and singers. King’s life was one steeped in humility and tradition, West said, many of which Americans have strayed from.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was a petty, bourgeois Negro. He came from the middle class, educated, when only 4 percent of Negroes at that time had even gone to college,” he said. “The temptations and seductions of the middle class usually result, no matter what color you are, in people becoming well-adjusted to injustice.”
It was King’s family, education and background in the church that imbued him with a strong sense of empathy, West said. Despite King’s strong sense of tradition, West said he was a believer of “paideia, which is deep education, not cheap schooling.”
“It’s a meditation on a preparation for death. You have to learn how to die in order to learn how to live, and paideia is the process of learning how to die,” West said. “Because any time you critically examine an assumption or supposition and let it go, that’s a form of death.”
King underwent a transformation while studying at Crozer Theological Seminary, where he learned the nonviolent teaching methods of figures like Mahatma Gandhi. It was in emptying himself that King learned how to spread his message, which not all of his supporters agreed with at all times, West said.
Unabashed criticism of the Vietnam War alienated some of King’s supporters, but West said that King maintained his ideals by refusing to package his work in too digestible a form.
As successful as King was, though, West said his work is not yet over. Poverty, war and institutional injustice still affect Americans of all color. But West was not without hope for the future. An understanding of blues music and tradition, he said, is what helped King better understand his own sense of decency.
After all, blues is about learning from catastrophe.
“Let the phone be smart, we are to be wise, courageous and have compassion. That’s Martin Luther King Jr. Do we have what it takes? What I’ve seen tonight is good evidence, but it’s always an open question,” West said. “It depends on what we do. Brother Martin is looking with a smile, but with tears flowing from the grave.”
Matt Guerry is Penn State journalism student.