Applause erupted from the crowd in B.N. Duke Auditorium on Feb. 10, just before Dr. Cornel West took to the podium.
West, a Democratic Socialist, stood before the audience to talk about 21st century social issues concerning millennials. From the start, West made it clear that molding the younger generation into something great was his primary focus.
“My priority—before the worms get my body—is to make sure I can touch as many young folks and let them see that they are going to have to build on this great tradition; because if we lose this tradition, it’s like slapping grandma across the face.”
West was the fifth guest speaker in the 2016-17 Rock the Mic Lecture Series hosted by N.C. Central University’s Department of Student Engagement and Leadership. The lecture series, in its second year, is designed to engage students in topics of politics, education, and social justice.
West is well known by his books Race Matters (1994) and Democracy Matters (2004). Appearances on “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Colbert Report,” as well as his criticisms of former President Barack Obama, have given him a controversial but respected reputation as an intellectual.
He didn’t shy away from criticizing the audience, either, claiming that the younger generation has become “a bunch of followers” instead of leaders. He said young people have become more selfish and even labeled them “a bunch of peacocks.”
“I’m successful. I’m so smart. I’m so rich. Here’s my trophy box. Look at me. I’m somebody,” West said, mimicking today’s generation. “But what about your cousin still locked in the basement? What about the people on the other side of town still dealing with social misery?”
West reminded students how their black ancestors overcame the “post traumatic slave syndrome” and said that today’s generation is lacking some important qualities.
“Even given all of that material poverty; we have been a people who still had spiritual strength; but now we live in an age of increasingly cowardliness,” he said. “Spiritual strength is steadily on a decline. But it’s a thing that will be much needed for the next three years under the Trump administration.”
He called the election of President Donald Trump a “very dangerous moment.”
“Now Trump has Wall Street in the front, back, sides, and Goldman Sachs everywhere,” he said. “I think that Trump is not brilliant, he’s not charismatic, and I do not discern a lot of decency there at all.”
West stressed to audience members that integrity, self-determination, and dignity were traits students would need to develop in order to unify and create positive change.
“All of the hardships that black ancestors went through to give future generations an opportunity was not accomplished by one person. Instead, it was earned by all people coming together as one,” he said. “I could hear Harriett Tubman say from the grave, peacocks strut because they can’t fly.”`
Toward the end of his time, West left students with some life advice.
“You want to work hard, play hard, and love hard. That is, the willingness to put your heart, mind, soul, and body on the line in the form of sacrifice for those who are catching hell.”
The next Rock the Mic lecture is set for March 1 featuring social activist and Ilyasah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X.
Story by Imani Taylor and Autavius Smith
Video reporting by Autavius Smith