West challenges NU to understand MLK

Shruti Kumar

Joyous singing, a dramatic orchestra, heart-felt poetry and the eloquent words of keynote speaker Cornel West, who promised to “unsettle and unnerve” the audience, marked Northwestern’s celebration Monday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Addressing a crowd that filled Pick-Staiger Concert Hall to capacity, West, a professor at Princeton University, said society has not yet taken King’s message of racial acceptance to heart.

“I am thoroughly convinced that America has yet to muster the capacity to truly hear the words of MLK,” West said. “We don’t want to domesticate, we don’t want to tame him. We don’t want to leave here in any way feeling comfortable.”

West is a renowned philosopher, theologian, social activist and author of the 1993 best seller “Race Matters.” During his 35-minute address, West talked about “parrhesia,” the free and open speech that caused trouble for great thinkers like Socrates — and King. Recognizing that “to philosophize is to die,” West nevertheless encouraged audience members to think for themselves.

West urged NU students to use their education to move beyond “vanilla suburbs” and “living large.”

“You came here in order to be shaped in a Socratic way so that your souls and conscience will be able to reflect your thinking over who you are in relationship to the society of the world,” he said.

More than 1,000 NU students and faculty and Evanston and Chicago residents responded to West’s fiery rhetoric with frequent clapping, cheers and laughter. The overflow crowd contrasted with last year’s MLK Day celebration, during which only 450 people came to hear the Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles speak.

About 235 students watched live simulcasts of the speech at Coon Forum and Ryan Family Auditorium.

Associated Student Government Academic Vice President Tamara Kagel, who helped organize the event, said she couldn’t have asked for more.

“I was awestruck the entire time,” said Kagel, a Communication junior. “I thought that (West) put on issues that are not only appropriate to the day in general, but very appropriate to NU in particular.”

West harped on the “colorblind strategies” used by people who are afraid to make race distinctions.

“They say they are colorblind, and they don’t see white or black or red, they just see human beings. I appreciate the effort,” West said with sarcasm. “This shows how limited our imaginations are in thinking that we are actually giving black people a gift by eliminating their bodies.”

West touched on King’s Christian roots and his ability to love everyone, which he said often led people to “misuse” King’s rhetoric.

“MLK would say, ‘I am called to love my way through the darkness of history, and I am going to love and be faithful until death,'” West said. “That kind of language makes white brothers and sisters say ‘It’s nice to have Negroes who love us no matter what we do.'”

The Evanston Campus’s morning celebration also included performances by the NU Community Ensemble and the NU Symphony Orchestra. While the former invited audience participation with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the latter presented a dramatic depiction of MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech that combined music and narration.

The winner of the Written Expression competition, Medill freshman Shayla Reaves, recited a poem entitled “Do You Hear the Echo in the Distance?” in which she spoke of viewing diverse individuals as people and not as “color-coded crimes.”

West, who embraced Reaves after her performance, also encouraged the audience to learn to love by considering King’s example.

“If you succumb to hatred and bigotry, it’s because you are cowardly and don’t have enough courage,” West said. “Don’t allow our suffering to be invisible, give voice to it.”