At Smith College, Cornel West urges unity, integrity in the face of racism

Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — Influential scholar and civil rights activist Cornel West spoke passionately to a crowd at Smith College Thursday night, urging them to come together and seek truth as the nation continues to reckon with police brutality and systemic racism.

Speaking, as always, in a fiery manner that defies synopsis, West told the around 2,000 people packed into John M. Greene Hall to strive for integrity above all else, and cut against the grain.

“Never confuse success with greatness,” he said, renouncing intelligence and money as shallow measurements of achievement.

The Smith Association of Class Activists, a campus group for low-income and first-generation students, organized the event.

With graceful staccato, channeling the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, West called on young people to remember yet question their roots, and denounce the atomization and commodification he described as monopolizing the modern world.

“It’s better to be a misfit than fit into a status quo that will demean you, devalue you, demoralize you,” West said to roaring applause.

West praised the “marvelous new militancy in the age of Ferguson,” but urged a broader coming together. Those who question the necessity of today’s Black Lives Matter movement, or respond by quipping “all lives matter,” fundamentally misunderstand the centuries of subjugation black Americans have faced, he said, pointing to the nation’s history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and what he called the modern “Jim Crow Jr.”

Throughout his talk, West returned again and again to questions posed by scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, primarily: “How shall integrity face oppression?” Today, he said, young people must search for truth in a society consumed by money and fame.

Though Beyoncé is one of the greatest entertainers of this generation, she in no way compares to Aretha Franklin, West said, questioning the “superficial spectacle” that he said has overwhelmed pop culture. While Beyoncé may have to dance or dress a certain way, he said, all Franklin had to do was grab the microphone.

“Oh, it would be nice if the younger generation could sing together,” he said.

As activists on campuses nationwide increasingly draw attention to microaggressions — subtle slights, often involving race or gender — West said students should realize that, while wrong, these actions are not catastrophic.

“You got to be ready to put on your armor,” he said, encouraging students to respond with dignity. In doing so, West evoked the poise of Mamie Till Mobley, whose 14-year-old son Emmett Till was murdered in 1955, his open coffin coming to symbolize the harsh racism plaguing the South.

Black students can learn from Smith, he said, but should be suspicious of what it has to offer, and acknowledge what they have to contribute in return.

“Smith College is a great institution but it has a history and it’s been tilted to the well-to-do,” said West, a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University.

Smith students Jocelyn Proietti, 21, and Tiara Austin, 19, both board members of Smith Association of Class Activists who introduced West, said they had asked him to speak in the hopes that his multidisciplinary approach would resonate with people of various identities, whether Smith students or people from around the region.

Racism is “alive and well” in the Pioneer Valley, Kathleen Anderson, 64, of Amherst said before the event, critiquing the false notion she said some might hold that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” ended racism in the U.S.

Standing in the back of the auditorium with Anderson, Jade Barker, 57, of Hadley said she is encouraged by what seems to be a growing attention on race and racism across the nation. “I think people talk about race in the Valley but often from a white perspective,” Barker said, explaining that she had been “hungering and thirsting” to hear from someone like West.

“We live these things that he’s speaking of, but I don’t think the masses understand,” said Denise Henderson, 50, of Windsor, Connecticut.

Smith Black Students’ Alliance chairwoman Alexys Butler, 21, and co-chairwoman N’dea Drayton, 22, both seniors, said they considered the chance to hear West speak a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After his talk, Drayton looked up at the stage where crowds rushed to shake West’s hand. “I can graduate now,” she said.

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

23 Service Center Road
Northampton, MA 01060


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy