Scholar of hope spreads the word

February 16, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

Philosopher Cornel West brought an expansive message of moral outrage, black pride and "radical democracy" to the Maryland Penitentiary yesterday.

But more than anything else, Dr. West was trying to sow a little hope.

Even in the bowels of the Pen, each life should be lived with a sense of "dignity and decency," Dr. West told a group of 50 inmates.

"No matter how much misery, heartache or heartbreak they cause," he said, "they will not have the last word," he said, referring to oppressive authorities. "Each and every person's life has epic significance. That may not sound radical, but it is."

Weaving Christian ethics with anti-elitism, Dr. West has emerged in recent years as one of the nation's prominent black philosophers.

The Princeton University professor received strong reviews for his recent book, "Race Matters," with its stark portrait of black despair. Dr. West, who teaches religion and Afro-American studies, has become a spokesman on black-Jewish relations.

Dr. West was in town to speak at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, where a standing-room-only crowd of more than 300 gathered last night at Westminster Hall.

He described a pervasive "feeling of hopelessness and impotence" at the bottom of society. "This is one of the most frightening moments in this experiment" known as American democracy, he said.

Earlier, in the more informal setting at the Pen, Dr. West spoke at the invitation of Loyola College Professor Drew Leder, who teaches philosophy to inmates.

He greeted nearly everyone, black or white, as "brother" or "sister," and several inmates and staff members asked for autographs.

Dr. West said he often speaks at prisons. "I just want to be in dialogue with folk, especially young brothers," he said. "There's some amazing talent here, some amazing intelligence."

Speaking for 40 minutes without notes, Dr. West seemed to mesmerize the group of maximum-security prisoners, many of whom appeared to be familiar with his writings.

He delivered his assessment of race relations -- bad -- and the plight of the common man -- worse -- in America.

Dr. West was harshly critical of white supremacy, but he avoided vilifying whites. He was critical of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and some of his lieutenants for their anti-Jewish "obsession."

"I know bigotry when I see it," he said.

Disadvantaged blacks, he said, must take charge of their plight by organizing politically. It's equally important, he said, that they nurture "black love, black concern and black community."

Dr. West dropped affectionate references to James Baldwin, Plato and Toni Morrison, recalling his tears during her Nobel Prize acceptance speech and his disappointment at the sparse attention her remarks received in the U.S. media.

He imitated a stately W. E. B. DuBois and a frantic Lena Horne trying to pass for white to avoid being sent to the "Jim Crow" car. He lavished praise on jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and criticized some young rappers' abusive depictions of women even as he praised their "spirit of resistance."

He drew knowing laughs from the men as he told about being pulled over by a suspicious police officer during a regular commute from New Jersey to Massachusetts.

"I told him I was going up to teach philosophy at Williams College," Dr. West recalled.

"Yeah, and I'm the Flying Nun," the officer responded.

Overall, the inmates seemed to appreciate the scholar's remarks.

"For me being a Christian, I really think it's important that he keeps a moral tenor," said Wayne Brown, a 36-year-old inmate. "He doesn't go for a get-even thing."

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