West’s fiery speech closes out Black Leadership Conference

Ideas of leadership, diversity and self were highlighted and debated at the sixth annual Black Leadership Conference (BLC), a three-day event held last weekend on Tech’s campus. The theme for this year’s conference was “Take Back Your Existence.”

Held last Friday and Saturday, the conference featured numerous speeches, workshops and forums aimed at helping attendees discover and reach their individual goals. Sunday was capped off by a keynote address delivered by Cornel West, class of 1943 professor at Princeton University.

The event was organized by the African American Student Union (AASU). “AASU has been very instrumental in bringing many great events to campus, and we are particularly proud of this year’s [BLC],” said Tina Payne, assistant director of the Cooperative Education Program and one of AASU’s advisors.

Funding for the BLC was provided by the Student Life Activities Board, OMED, Student Affairs and several corporate sponsors.

Of this funding, $22,000 was spent to pay for West’s speaking fees. AASU also requested over $5,000 from RHA for food catering, but the bill did not pass.

“We are very excited to have Dr. West, who is a high-profile civil rights activist and community leader, speak here today,” said Candace Mitchell, third-year CS major and president of AASU. “We thought it was only proper that he give the final address to conclude the entire conference, which is aimed at fostering leadership in all areas of life—politically, academically, socially.”

West has written numerous books and spoken all over the world on the role of African-Americans in society and such core issues as democracy, equality and religion.

Praised by the New York Times as having “ferocious moral vision,” West lived up to his reputation on Sunday in his speech to the audience gathered in the Ferst Center for the Arts.

Going back to the roots of American democracy, he first referred to the U.S. Constitution, which contained “no reference to the catastrophic conditions of enslaved Africans, no reference to slavery whatsoever.”

He then spoke about how Jim Crow laws are “a form of American terrorism against black people, to keep black people so scared and intimidated and convinced that black people were less beautiful, less moral, less intelligent and therefore less worthy.”

America has changed from those times, but West said that there was still room for improvement.

“Even as brother Barack broke that highest glass ceiling at the top of political life, there are still a lot of folk in the basement… and the basement is filling up. America is not post-racial. When the white brothers and sisters in Iowa voted for qualification rather than pigmentation, it was not post-racial. It was less racist,” West said.

Focusing on the new generation, he claimed that part of its problem was the breakup of families and the loss of parental attention to the children, who then look for guidance in such venues as hip hop culture.

He then explored the issue of taking control of one’s own life and what it means to “take back your existence.”

“What does it mean to be human? This is the important question for black leaders because when we first came over from Africa, we were told that we were less than human, weren’t human at all. What does it mean to be human?” West said.

Drawing examples from the civil rights movement and American history, West illustrated the meaning of leadership and black leadership in particular, depicting it as a dedicated struggle for a just cause. The challenge today for young people, he continued, lay in how they could stay connected to that tradition.

“Young people should… love themselves and love others, to speak out for suffering everywhere… success is not a conclusion. It is a launching pad for more greatness,” West said.