Dr. Cornel West delivers humanities keynote speech

Emily Price

Dr. Cornel West (courtesy of Twitter)

The College community had the honor of welcoming prominent activist Dr. Cornel West to campus on Tuesday, April 3. West came to Colby to speak on behalf of the Center for Arts and Humanities. Each year, the Center for Arts and Humanities chooses a theme upon which to focus and organize events. The Center chose Origins as the theme for this academic year, which “encourages a detailed and critical reflection of the social, historical, political and cultural contexts that inform our understanding of who we are as humans, where we come from, and the trajectory we choose to follow in an increasingly interconnected global landscape.”

West graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, and after obtaining his M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University, went on to write 20 books and edit 13 others. West uses his powerful voice and role as a public figure to educate individuals about his democratic beliefs and the importance of striving for acceptance. West connected his philosophical beliefs to the Origins theme in a passionate speech in which he emphasized the importance of learning about our past for the sake of moving forward.

Associate Professor of French Audrey Brunetaux explained, “this year’s theme Origins has encouraged the Colby community to question, deconstruct, challenge and redefine the very notion of Origins. In his inspiring presentation, Dr. Cornel West illuminated the central role that the arts and humanities play in our understanding of what it means to be human in this time and age. In a society where success and the pursuit of happiness are narrowly defined and tied to money, fame and other superficialities, and where the so-called ‘American dream’ leaves many behind, we need to hear powerful voices that challenge simplistic discourses and advocate for love, compassion, empathy and equality.”

West began his speech by expressing his gratitude for the opportunity to come to Colby. After many rounds of applause for those responsible for bringing him to campus and the connections he shares with members of Colby faculty and staff, West dove into a series of anecdotes to teach the audience about how our origins have shaped present-day society. He connected the Center’s theme of Origins by explaining that everyone is born as an echo from the past: we must first critique ourselves before we can change our society. He suggests that in order for us to learn, we must give up parts of our past.

West used this ideology to connect individual behavior to the origins of America: “America isn’t beautiful. But it is great in many ways.” He examined the flaws in America’s system, touching upon race and the capitalist society. He also encouraged the audience to stop searching for their profession or career, and rather find their vocation. “Martin Luther King was true to his vocation. An unexamined life is not worth living,” West said. West exposed his hope for the future of America, but recognized that Americans must rally the courage to keep the activist spirit alive.

The presentation has sparked West’s discussion across campus. His critique of modern-day America made many in the audience take a step back and question what they had already accepted as history. West questioned the importance of intelligence and money in the greater picture of equality and change in America. “I thought the discussion was interesting and dynamic, presenting a conversation that adequately touched on the complexities of racial and social dynamics in relation to the origins of our nation,” attendee Sayer Harrison ’19 said.

Colby faculty were equally impressed by West’s presentation. Brunetaux enthused, “Dr. West’s talk is by far the most powerful and inspirational presentation I have ever attended at Colby. His presence on campus had a huge impact on the community because he touched on very important subjects that speak to each and every one of us. Bringing in distinguished speakers of this caliber to Colby is highly necessary, especially when chaos is shaking this country and the rest of the world. We need inspiration! We need to be reminded that we have to look deeper in ourselves to confront the ugly realities of this world and face the uncomfortable truth! We need to accept failure as part of being human! Dr. West instilled in us the will and energy to delve deeper into the origins of the catastrophe, the origins of love, the origins of the voices that shape us.”