On Friday night, famed public intellectual Cornel West descended upon the stage of Pauley Ballroom with his halo of hair and a woman on each arm. He bellowed, whispered, rhymed and referred to himself as a “funky holy ghost baptist brother.” He was a preacher and a performer. With whirling hand gestures and stormy syntax, he bewitched the crowd. His words were like a heavy wind, first they jostled you, then they blew you away.
The event was publicized as a dialogue between Cornel West and Carl Dix, founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Yet the contrast between the two was present not only in their religious beliefs — West is a devout Christian, Dix is a devout atheist — but also in their manner of communication. If West is a speaker, then Dix is a lecturer.
West has a way with words. He cooks up sound bites that are so delicious, you have to eat them. They are quotable quotes like, “Justice is what love looks like in public,” and “Have a sense of history even as you make history in the present.” They are ideas like the dominant culture as a “weapon of mass distraction,” the notion that congress is a site of “legalized bribery and normalized corruption” and that everyone is concerned with the 11th commandment, “Thou shalt not get caught”.
West cited the great writers and philosopher in his speeches: Shelley, Shakespeare, Plato. He said, “To be a be a poet in the most profound sense is to have the courage to unleash your imagination and your empathy.” He spoke of the need to be familiar with the artists of the past and the present, with Nina Simone and Erykah Badu.
West is like the calm before the storm. First, he speaks gently and quietly. Then, slowly, he gets louder and louder, his rumbling, regal voice booms, his hands fly, the crowd cheers and amidst the roar of sound in the room, everyone is swept away — until silence again descends. When West opens his mouth to speak again, the ever-present gap between his two front teeth shines in delight.