We started and ended on our feet, elevating our bodies to correspond with our spiritual and mental elevation. It’s a Saturday morning, and we’ve all gone to church. Christ Our Redeemer (COR) African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, to be specific, the largest AME church in Orange County. About 300 of us total, filling the nave, in awe of the Keynote speaker of the Seventh Annual Interfaith Series. The incomparable Dr. Cornel West.
A beautiful gospel song, “Stand Up,” introduced Dr. West to the pulpit, carrying a message echoed throughout his social impact lecture that honored the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The bombastic professor had the audience clapping, yelling “yes” and, in some instances, wiping away tears, as his fiery speech highlighted pretty much every aspect of today’s social injustice. Racism, sexism, greed, fear, classism, superficiality, dishonesty — Dr. West spoke out against all, as someone finally cut through all of the haze of inequality and selfishness in mainstream media that constantly blinds us.
The event, hosted by University of La Verne, invited UC Irvine students to attend because, it turns out, Vice Chancellor Parham and Dr. West are friends. The two men embraced when Dr. West stepped onto the stage, and throughout his speech, Dr. Parham felt the spirit of change and activism, as visible in his continued cheering and high-fiving of COR Reverend Mark Whitlock, Jr. Everyone in the audience was eager to take in this surreal opportunity to feel Dr. West’s grace, eloquence and passion.
To structure the speech, Dr. West made reference to W.E.B DuBois, who he cited as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. DuBois asked four questions in “The Black Flame Trilogy”: how shall integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? And what shall virtue do to meet brute force? Dr. West boiled the themes of these questions to integrity, honesty, decency and courage — a platform for young activists to base their intentions and actions on as we continue to defeat the heavy weight of oppression.
To begin, Dr. West admitted that he spoke before us with a heavy heart, still lamenting the loss of Prince, one of Dr. West’s close friends and one of the few “originals” in pop culture. Championing originality — for the sake of maintaining artistic integrity — remained a powerful through line for Dr. West. He condemned “the products of a superficial spectacle,” particularly name-dropping Beyoncé, while praising artists like Kendrick Lamar, going so far as expertly spitting some Kendrick verses.
Honestly, I can’t select soundbites of Dr. West’s speech. It was ninety minutes of consistent enlightenment. Finally, here’s someone telling the truth about institutional racism. Finally, someone speaking out against Big Money and the often-ignored relationship between business and politics. Finally, someone who understands the significance of women and minorities in all liberation movements. Finally, someone considering faith and Christianity as a cause for spreading love for equality; for tolerance.
The segment that resonated most strongly for me involved Dr. West’s interpretation of the Christian concept of loving everyone and hating no one. He erupted into a list of what he does hate: white supremacy, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism — to name a few. Physically connecting to his zeal shocked me, and I found myself holding back tears, so overwhelmed to see that there’s a prominent figure in American culture that just gets it.
Last week, the Trump rally in Costa Mesa brought out the worst in our community. Only days later, the Interfaith Series brought out the best. Putting aside personal faiths or prejudices, everyone in the congregation that Saturday morning experienced a sort of psychological baptism. Dr. West’s words washed over all of us, and we left the church cleansed of any cynicism, hatred, or misgivings. To conclude the lecture, Dr. West addressed the young activists, emphasizing the four core values to promoting peace and change. He left us with a message of hope.
It seems like every day, I see some headline referencing despair amongst millennials. Want a job? Good luck. Want to be financially secure? Good luck. Want equality? Good luck.
Dr. West, however, argued that it’s in fact an exciting time to be young. To live in the age of Ferguson, to fight against “Jim Crow Jr.” and really promote significant growth in America. Yes, it’s scary. But it’s also so crucial to overcome that fear. Develop courage in order to fulfill our hopes.
So thank you, Dr. Cornel West, for spending a day in “blessed Orange County” to spread awareness, outrage, faith and most importantly, love.