"The condition of truth is to allow the voice of the suffering to speak."-Cornel West, Inaugural Martin Luther King Keynote Address, University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Cornel West invoked a long history of activists in a stirring speech Friday in Kansas City. West, whose engaging speaking style is a smash-up of Frederick Douglas, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rev. King AND Rev. Wright, with liberal doses of Spike Lee, Sarah Vaugh, Curtis Mayfield, Chris Rock, Socrates and Shakespeare thrown in, enthralled, embraced, and threatened the assembled crowd to remember that our legacy is rooted TOGETHER, that we are joined by a common love, and that we should "never confuse charity with justice". It was, as someone near remarked, a giving speech. To say that the brother got soul is to underestimate the man, to minimize his influence and the power of eloquent discourse. Oh, the brother got soul alright. He got soul. But his message was a rap to all God's children.
Echoing the cries that the enslaved have forever shouted, "What does it mean to be human?" West reminded everyone that those who have lived through catastrophic times as a people have done so with dignity rather than terrorism. They never gave up. They never lost their humanity. And the best amongst them, of which their are legions, never looked back on the racists, but instead turned their mirror to the martyrs who fought against them, looked ahead to those who worked to ennoble human dignity, spirit, and who shout the blues to the rooftop guards and to ever hill and dale.
Professor West tore at the corporate, sanitized version of King soundbites that are thrown around on King day. Aphorisms that quickly recede in the shadows of young men and women whose living-wage job prospects are primarily to serve an imperialistic army. No. Rise up! cast off the chains of indignity and injustice and embrace humanity rather than run a sword through it.
Kings message against the war was recently brought home to me on a flyer tacked on the door a service station in Jefferson City, MO. The sign read "Do you want $50,000 to go to college?" It then went on in great detail about a job that would pay:
*your college tuition
*give you $50,000 for college living expenses
*provide free health care benefits
*pay raises if married (and for each child born)
The catch, of course, is that you have to join the Army. This is where the money for student loans and heath-care programs for children has gone in the era of Reaganomics. It's getting to the point where the only way one can afford to go to college is to join the military and keep fighting imperialistic wars of oppression. Wars for the few, the mighty, and the entitled. Until we remove our jingoist intentions we can never bring peace and justice to the world.
Electing a black man to be President will not end racism in America. It's a step that may help America finally confront its long legacy of racial injustice but it won't end it. There is optimism to be found in the notion that Obama entered the office on a carpet of praise from all legions of the globe while Cheney slowly wheeled himself into hellish obscurity and Bush helicoptered off to a bramble thicket.
If King were alive today, he would most assuredly be moved by Obama's election. A victory has surely been gained. It's also just as likely that after praising Obama, King would be quick to remind us that we have much work to do. Millions of children are still in poverty. Millions still have no jobs, no place to live, no health care, and little hope for a future. King would remind Obama when the phone rings at 3 am in the White House it is likely to be a plea from the poor asking, "when will the sun rise on all of America?"