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Cornel West discussed Black culture, civil rights leaders for MSU lecture series

March 1, 2021

Cornel West was the third speaker in MSU’s 21st annual William G. Anderson lecture series for Black History Month, "Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey," hosted by the College of Osteopathic Medicine.

West is a professor of public philosophy at Harvard University and is a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He has written 20 books examining the intersections of race, gender, class and religion in American society, as well as making frequent appearances on CNN, C-Span and Democracy Now. In a variety of mediums, West continues to share the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., according to his website.

West talked with Marita Gilbert, associate dean of diversity and campus inclusion for the College of Osteopathic Medicine, about a wide range of topics focusing on the perseverance of Black culture and using love to fight systemic oppression. 

The 90-minute webinar was light-hearted, even if the topics that were discussed were not. The conversation between West and Gilbert felt like a conversation between two old friends meeting for the first time in a while talking about all aspects of Black culture and the impact of the civil rights movement's greatest leaders.

The wide range of topics included the Black activists that inspire them the most, the role their immediate families had in their lives, Black women in leadership, the cultural significance of the Black church in Black American history, and their favorite jazz and blues artists. 

West and Gilbert discussed all of these ideas in the framework of preserving Black history and helping the younger generation of Black Americans find inspiration themselves in Black culture and Black history.

“That's what we're here to acknowledge and to zero in and keep the focus on our precious younger generation of all colors,” West said. “But we're going to highlight those who come from the chocolate side of town, given that this is Black history, but Black history is always not just American history, not just modern history, it is human history.”

West and Gilbert’s conversation was based on the love and respect for their role models in every part of Black history and modern Black culture, rather than focusing on the negatives of the oppression that Black people face every day in this country, like the strong activists of the past. 

“They decide not to terrorize people back but to call for freedom for everybody, freedom fighters,” West said. “These are they who are traumatized, psychically, physically, but become wounded healers rather than wounded hurters. And when you look at that particular strain, that in the Black freedom tradition, of the great love warriors, the great freedom fighters, the great wounded healers, they love truth. They love beauty. They love goodness of mercy.”

West and Gilbert spoke about the ancestors that fought before them for equity but did not succumb to the same evil tendencies that were used to oppress Black people. They spoke about how they would continue to uphold their legacy and to maintain their level of excellence in the fight using love, honor and integrity rather than violence and anger. 

West was presented with two honors for his work during the webinar. The first was a plaque presented by Brandon Henry, a second-year medical student in the college of osteopathic medicine on behalf of the college. The second was a tribute signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the entire state legislature and presented by Rep. Julie Brixie on behalf of the Michigan state government. 

“In special recognition of Dr. Cornel West, let it be known that it is with the utmost respect and admiration that we honor you for your dedication and commitment to addressing racial discrimination and for your leadership in the civil rights movement,” Brixie said. “You are such an inspiring individual who has touched so many lives through the countless hours you've dedicated to civil rights advocacy through your teaching at all the different universities. You've been a force for the understanding of race, gender and religion in American society.” 

If you are interested in watching the webinar with West or any of the other speakers in the William G. Anderson lecture series, you can find the videos on the college of osteopathic medicine website, which are available to the public.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that Marita Gilbert is the College of Osteopathic Medicine's associate dean of diversity and campus inclusion, rather than holding the position for the university.

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