Dr. Cornel West has held many roles throughout his career: Harvard professor, political commentator, social justice advocate, author, musician, two-time actor in The Matrix series, among many others. On Feb. 25, West spoke as part of Michigan State University’s annual lecture series through the College of Osteopathic Medicine, while professors and student organizers alike praised his knowledge on social and historical topics.
The yearly tradition, titled the “Dr. William G. Anderson Lecture Series, Slavery to Freedom,” took place for the 21st time this year with three virtual speakers and around 800 attendees per event.
The first speaker was Dr. Monique Morris, executive producer and co-writer for “PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” a 2019 documentary that discusses the way in which Black girls are more harshly disciplined in schools than their peers.
The second speaker, Patrisse Cullors, is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a political advocate from Los Angeles.
The final speaker in the series was Cornel West, Harvard professor and prolific social justice advocate. During the event, West spoke about everything from Black Lives Matter, to religion, to social media, to music and to his personal life.
Dr. Marita Gilbert, COM’s associate dean of diversity and campus inclusion, spoke directly with West for a majority of the event, touching on student-suggested topics and asking for his thoughts on various subjects.
“I think he is one of the most profound scholars, thought leaders, of our time. I think what I appreciated was that it was kind of an intergenerational dialogue. The two of us had more of a dialogue than a lecture,” Gilbert said. “I think it was important, certainly as we have experienced the moments of this past year, to hear someone who writes prolifically about both race and democracy in particular and how Black people and Black culture have been integral into our understanding of both in this country.”
Anh-Dao Thi Tran, a second-year graduate student in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, was most struck by West’s discussion of his personal life.
“What I would like to highlight is just his incredible humanity. During his talk, Dr. Gilbert asked what his favorite thing to do is and it was talking to his mother! That just spoke to me,” she said. “I have a really close relationship to my mom as well. I just adored the way that he was able to be so humble and just stated that his favorite thing was to talk to someone close to him.”
Dea Taipi, a freshman at the James Madison College who attended West’s event, also spoke to the personal aspect of the discussion.
“It was nice to see a more conversational aspect of him, and he talked a bit about his family and what he thought Black joy was like, and things like that were really nice because I think it brings humanity back into discussions about race and politics,” she said.
Taipi also added that when dealing with larger-than-life political and cultural figures like West, it’s refreshing to see them in casual settings, often made possible by the virtual Zoom format.
Brandon W. Henry, president of COM’s Student National Medical Association chapter, got to speak with West directly during the event.
“He was perfect for this spot for the series just off of his resume alone, in terms of the different things that he’s been a part of, and that’s not even getting to the fact of how brilliant his thought process and his ideas can be,” he said.
Henry also singled out an area of West’s work which is often overshadowed by his more popular contributions: his music.
“I think some of his greatest accomplishments actually came surrounding music. Just because I think if you really didn’t know that about him, you wouldn’t expect it,” he said. “His involvement within music is honestly a testament toward his brilliance. Because maybe if you had just seen him from CNN or the other different interviews or political commentary, you may not know that about him.”
West has over 30 tracks on Spotify which often consist of collaborations with famous rappers and singers with interjections from West addressing the social and political topics explored in the lyrics.
Gilbert also discussed West’s event in the context of the lecture series as a whole.
“I think it also kind of served as an arc of all of the conversation we were having around freedom movements, but also this arc in history as we think about what has come before us, the struggle, the resilience, and then what it is we’re actually building for the future,” Gilbert said. “I feel like we had extraordinary dialogue happening in extraordinary times.”