Speaker, author and activist Cornel West challenged William & Mary’s students, faculty and staff to consider what it means to be human during the College’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration on Jan. 19.
Standing before a completely full Commonwealth Auditorium, West said that Martin Luther King Jr. was heir to a long humanist tradition that wrestled with that question within the context of institutions of paedeia, or deep learning.
“You come to William & Mary not be schooled but to be educated,” said West. “You don’t come here to just gain access to a skill, you come here to gain access to a skill but wrestle with these deeper questions of what kind of person you’re going to choose to be, what kind of legacy are you going to leave, what kind of stories are you going to situate yourself in, what kind of traditions will you align yourself in.”
West’s visit to the College was organized by the Center for Student Diversity. In addition to his public address on Thursday night, West also visited a group of approximately 30 students from the Preparing for Life as a University Student (PLUS) program and the Kappa Pi chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity to which both King and West belong. Earlier on Thursday, the fraternity and the William & Mary NAACP hosted a candlelight vigil at the Wren Building in honor of King.
Fraternity member Jarrett Walker ’13 was among the students who was able to meet West before his public appearance. Walker said that his uncle – Brown University Professor and William & Mary alumnus Corey D.B. Walker Ph.D. ‘01 – is friends with West because they studied together at Harvard.
But the family connection wasn’t the only reason that Walker was delighted to meet West, who hugged and posed for photos with all of the students at the meet-and-greet.
“It’s definitely inspiring to really know that you can set your dreams high. You can aim for them,” said Walker. “Cornel West has done the same thing. He’s put all of his will into education, and these, as you can see, are the benefits you reap from all your hard work.”
Freshman Chelsea White, who participated in the PLUS program last July, was also excited to have the chance to meet West.
“I actually didn’t realize that we were going to have the chance to meet him,” she said. “I was just excited about getting to hear him speak.”
White said she couldn’t wait to hear his speech because “I know how deep he can be.”
“When I mentioned it to my mom, she was like, ‘Chelsea, that’s going to be an amazing thing,’” said White. “Just getting to witness these things in person, not just through books or on TV, is an amazing opportunity.”
Vernon Hurte, director of the Center for Student Diversity, addressed the Commonwealth Auditorium crowd – and another crowd that was viewing the event from an overflow room – before West took the stage Thursday evening, noting that the theme for this year’s event was “realizing the beloved community.”
“Dr. King talked a great deal about the solidarity of the human family and the fact that, at the end of the day – no matter where we come from or what our backgrounds are – we’re all family,” said Hurte. “I cannot think of a greater voice to come and share with us on this day than that of Dr. Cornel West. His work, his life have been very much committed to celebrating and helping us be challenged individually and collectively, to realize this dream of the beloved community.”
West began his remarks by saying that King was a complex person, but “first and foremost Socratic,” he said.
King took the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living but added that the examined life is painful, said West.
“It takes courage to examine who you are, be honest with yourself, to find your voice rather than just be an echo of others, to be an original rather than just a copy, to be an ongoing invention and creation rather than just an imitation,” said West.
King always kept focused on the question of what it means to be human, a question which is unnerving and unsettling, said West.
“To talk about what it means to be human is to learn how to die in order to learn how to live,” said West, adding that learning to die involves critically examining one’s beliefs and presuppositions.
“Students here -- at this grand, historic college -- in those classes, your assumptions and presuppositions will be severely contested and called into question. Will you let go of your presuppositions?” asked West.
West said that no one person has all of the answers.
“It’s a matter of lifting our voices and engaging in conversation, very much like the best of what happens here at the College of William and Mary,” he said.
King was an “extremist of love; he was a militant for tenderness. He was a radical for sweetness,” said West. “He was willing to talk publicly, openly, explicitly, unapologetically about love and love defined as steadfast commitment to well-being of others.”
Because of that commitment, King was faced with “unbelievable hurt” and “unbelievable sorrow,” said West.
“But (he) never allowed that sorrow to have the last word,” he said. “We look back, in all of his rich humanity, and say, we miss you. We love you. We need you.”