In keynote address, Cornel West urges integrity, action, and ‘soulcraft’

Cornel West delivers a lecture at Battell Chapel at Yale University.
(Photo credit: Peter Cunningham)

I come from a people who have been institutionally, chronically, systemically, hated for 400 years, [and] taught the world so much about how to love,” said Cornel West to a packed house at Battell Chapel on Feb. 3. That theme — of grace, courage, integrity, and love in the face of calamity — was the core of West’s speech, and one which West said runs throughout black history.

African Americans share a “great tradition” of responding to oppression and hardship by deepening roots of community and fellowship, and embodying a legacy “that’s the best of not just American history, that’s the best of the human spirit,” said West.

West, the Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard Divinity School and an often-controversial public intellectual, gave the keynote lecture kicking off the university’s Black History Month celebrations. Speaking on a range of subjects from the history of the Civil Rights movement to Christianity, pop culture, and the juxtaposed presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, West asked his audience to reject superficiality and modern consumerist ideals of success in favor of what he called “soulcraft.”

Soulcraft,” said West, “has everything to do with what Yale University is about at its best. You see it in Plato’s ‘Republic.’ Soulcraft is the formation of attention that gets us to attend to the things that matter, not the things on the surface. It’s the cultivation of thinking critically for yourself so you’re willing to speak in such a way that you exercise what Socrates called parrhesia, which is clear speech, frank speech, fearless speech, unintimidated speech, speech that flows from your soul not to show that you’re clever and smart, but to show that you’re courageous and wise.”

There is a “qualitative distinction between success in the mainstream and greatness from the vantage point of a freedom movement,” said West. “And we have reduced all talk about greatness to just success in the mainstream.”

You’ve got to take a risk’

What the black struggle for freedom is about,” argued West, is: “What are you going to do in the short time between your momma’s womb and the tomb? How much integrity, how much decency, how much courage, how much honesty?”

But those characteristics, argues West, are about more than the cultivation of personal qualities and education. Citing W.E.B. Du Bois, West reminded the audience that confronting and speaking truth to power is rarely without consequences. 

An audience watching Cornel West deliver a lecture on the balcony at Battell Chapel.
A packed audience watches West’s lecture from the rear balcony of Battell Chapel. (Photo credit: Peter Cunningham)

Integrity always goes hand in hand with having to pay a price. You’ve got to take a risk,” emphasized West.

It is one thing to talk about Black History Month and trot out all the great figures of the pantheon, but we don't like to be truthful about what it was like when they were alive.”

By way of illustration and call to action, West invoked the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, despite his acclaim today, was a controversial figure during his own lifetime. 

When he died, 55% of black people disapproved of King; 72% of white people disapproved of King,” West pointed out, because the civil rights icon’s Poor People’s Campaign and outspoken objection to the Vietnam War put him at odds with enemies and friends alike.

You’ve got to take a risk — not because you’re sadomasochistic, but because integrity means something to you,” West asserted.

It’s a question, said West, of “what kind of human being” one is willing to be. “If you’re ready for that question, you’re ready for black history.”

Centering the past as present

The event — co-sponsored by the Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale, the African American Studies Department and the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration — also included a welcome address by Risë Nelson, the director of the Afro-American Cultural Center and assistant dean of Yale College.

Nelson began her address by honoring the past and those who contributed to the Yale’s African American community, from the founders of the Afro-American Cultural Center, “affectionately referred to as the House,” to the Quinnipiac nation “on whose land” Yale has been built.  

Calling Africa “the greatest ghostwriter of all time,” Nelson also highlighted the numerous technological and artistic innovations of the African diaspora, “that have become so every-day that we often times take them for granted,” including the air conditioner unit, the blood bank, traffic lights, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and hip-hop.

After Nelson’s welcome, singer Paul Bryant Hudson and pianist Jeremiah Fuller led the audience in a rendition of James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson’s song “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Following West’s keynote address, Law School student Dianne Lake ’16 B.A., moderated a short question-and-answer session. The event concluded as West was presented with an aldermanic citation from New Haven alder Richard Furlow — who praised West for “empowering us to think, and giving us the tools necessary to put thought to action” — and a copy of the civil rights history “Root and Branch” by CJ McCord ’20, a member of the Zeta Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. 

Cornel West and Dianne Lake participating in a question and answer session at Battell Chapel.
Dianne Lake ’16 B.A. moderates a question-and-answer session with West. (Photo credit: Peter Cunningham)

The Afro-American Cultural Center is co-sponsoring events and activities throughout Black History Month, including discussions, film screenings, dance parties, and lectures across campus. A full calendar of events can be found on the center’s website

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