The auditorium of North Miami Senior High could have easily been mistaken for a Baptist church Friday afternoon as Cornel West addressed a crowd of hundreds of shouting and clapping students and community members.
West was brought in to lecture on the “Crisis in Black Education,” a theme for the city’s Black History Month events, but it didn’t take long for the provocative professor, writer and activist to venture away from the theme and on to President Donald Trump.
He mentioned the recent raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL and the executive order temporarily banning travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries. He told the crowd that finding common ground, regardless of political views, race or gender, would be necessary during “the Trump years.”
“These years in which those at the top are indifferent to working and poor people, callous to working and poor people, we’ve got something to say and we’ve got something to do and it begins with ourselves,” West said. “This is not a time for sunshine soldiers. We need all-season warriors.”
West did move from his commentary on today’s politics back to the students. He encouraged them to pursue education in a way that goes beyond academic lessons and focuses on social activism and community building. West centered his lecture on four pillars: integrity, honesty, decency and courage.
“The worst thing that could ever happen in the educational system is you just end up producing some smart folks who are well adjusted to injustice,” West said. “Let the phones be smart. You’ve got to be courageous and wise.”
The talk was the result of a collaboration between North Miami leaders and District 1 school board member Steve Gallon. The leaders said they were grateful to have West in the city given his reputation and his decades of academic and social work.
“We are kicking off the celebration of black history and, in addition to that, we are doing it with an icon,” Mayor Smith Joseph said.
These years in which those at the top are indifferent to working and poor people, callous to working and poor people, we’ve got something to say and we’ve got something to do and it begins with ourselves.
West, 63, is a scholar in several subjects, including race, African-American and civil rights history, politics, philosophy and theology. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in three years and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton. He was also a professor at Union Theological Seminary and Princeton. He returned to teaching at Harvard this year, according to the New York Times. West has also written more than 20 books, including his most recent, “Black Prophetic Fire.”
Another common thread for West was music, as he wove in references to musicians like Curtis Mayfield and James Brown and noted how their music included broader social messages. He encouraged the students to listen to artists like Nina Simone, particularly her song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
Black history is not something in a museum. It’s in your heart, it’s in your soul.
He closed with a message that the students should consider all of black history and not just the individual accomplishments of iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman.
“Black history is not something in a museum. It’s in your heart, it’s in your soul,” West said.
Among the crowd were Maxwell Collie and her mother, Terri Orane, who said they came because they wanted to hear from West and to get more involved in the community.
“Seeing a speaker like him is a great way to motivate us on that journey. It was very inspiring,” Collie said.